How many of you had to memorize the Ten Commandments as children? I remember it being a challenge for me as an eight-year-old to memorize these verses. It was also challenging for my prim and proper Sunday School teacher Miss Beebe to explain. Some commandments were straightforward. Sabbath keeping and honoring our parents was self-evident. In 1960, stores were closed on Sunday mornings, there were no Sunday sports to compete with church, the restaurants opened at noon to serve the church crowd, and the movie theatre didn’t open till 3:00 p.m. Honoring your parents came easy – sassing mom or dad meant being grounded or getting a spanking. We knew what it meant not to lie or steal, though we occasionally succumbed to these temptations, and more often than not were caught in a fib or petty shoplifting.
I remember my Sunday School teacher Miss Beebe turning red and stammering when one of my class companions asked, “What does it mean to commit adultery?” And, we all got a good chuckle, much to her chagrin, when the class wise acre asked, “what does it mean to covet your neighbor’s ass?”
Now, the language of the commandments is a bit off putting, but if we look deeper, these ancient words can provide a guidepost for living.
First of all, the commandments are all about relationships. They begin with the most important relationship of all, our relationship with God: everything begins with what God has done for the Hebrew people. God guided, protected, and liberated them and God created a nation where there had been no nation, and made a way where there was no way. Seen from this perspective, we follow the commandments, not to earn God’s love, but to respond gratefully to what God has done for us, and because frankly following the commandments is good for us and our relationships. Just think of a close friend or life partner, or parent or grandparent. If our relationship is healthy, we respond to them not because we have to but because we want to and because it deepens the love we have for each other.
According to the Commandments, everything hinges on a good beginning: put God first in your life. This isn’t as easy as we think. God is abstract, but money, power, prestige, security, and sexuality are concrete. None of these is bad, but when any of these is exalted or becomes our primary focus, we find ourselves alienated from others, anxious about losing what we prize, and often neglecting our relationships to get what we want. We don’t have to choose between loving God and the world; when we love each other in light of God’s gracious and sacrificial love, we love well and we are willing to sacrifice our largesse and self-interest for a greater good.
Second, take time for rest, worship, study, and family. Consider the lilies, as Jesus says. We don’t have to do everything; we can, after doing our work, let others take over and trust that God will provide. Sabbath keeping liberates us from the tyranny of the urgent and from the stress that comes from over-filling our schedules. Sabbath keeping is the ultimate form of spiritual decluttering. It challenges us to discern between the essential and optional, explore our values, and discard whatever stands in the way of our relationship with God, our overall health, and the health of our relationships.
Sabbath keeping is at the heart of the commandments. If we get our relationship to time and things right, the rest will fall in place.
The final commandments are about healthy relationships. They tell us to be honest with God, our neighbors and ourselves. They challenge us to live peaceably in thought, word, and deed. They counsel us to be content with what we have even as we seek excellence in our lives and professions. They invite us to be faithful, that is, transparent, honest, committed, and compassionate, even when it appears to be our disadvantage. Living faithfully, honestly, and peaceably liberates us from the anxiety of duplicity and the fear of being found out. What a joy it is to have a clear conscience, to have done your best, accepted your imperfections, and tried your hardest to bring joy to others’ lives. What a joy it is to be trusted and be part of trustworthy communities.
Don’t worry about legalism. The commandments are all about relationships, not rules. A good life comes from loving the right things, serving the right causes, and being willing to look beyond our self-interest, to move from “I” to “you,” and from self-concern to world loyalty as we lean on God’s ever-active and never-ending love for us.