The 10 commandments are, for some, the benchmark of Christian behaviour. If I were to ask the average person outside the life of the Church, perhaps even some inside the church, what it meant to be a Christian, I suspect that the answer would be, ‘someone who obeys the 10 commandments’. There was a sub-story in one of the episodes of, The West Wing, a television series about life in the White House of the President of the United States of America, where one of the states of the USA wanted to abolish all the laws of their state and replace them with the 10 commandments. It is clear that there are some who believe that the 10 commandments are the base laws for the Christian. Although, I think, in Australia, we can clearly see the origins of our state laws in the 10 commandments.
But there are others, at least I hope there are others and I am not alone in this, who believe that the 10 commandments are something that just proves our sinful brokenness. We cannot, nor are we expected to be able to fulfil them, they are evidence that we cannot save ourselves and we are dependent upon God for our salvation.
Paul says to the church in Rome, in the reading today, ‘Sin was indeed in the world before the law, but sin is not reckoned when there is no law. (Rom 5:13; NRSV) By this, I think, he means we are not declared sinners because we break the commandments. It is not our breaking of the law that is our sin. Sin, Paul says, existed before the law.
We only need to re-read the story of the fall in Genesis to know that it was not the breaking of the 10 commandments that caused sin to come into the world. In the chronology of the biblical story, law had not been given. But even so, humans sin, they break their relationship with God. But this does not mean that there is no need for law, because he goes on to say, that it is because of the law that we reckon, perhaps better translated, understand or comprehend, that we have sinned. Another way of looking at this is, we are not sinners because we break the law, we need laws because we are sinners. The law is the tool of God and humans to protect us from our sinfulness.
One of the things I have the greatest trouble explaining to the students at the school is that something is illegal not because there is a law against it, but because it is bad for us and we need laws to stop us from doing it. We have rules that force us to put our seatbelts on in the car, because if we don’t we are more likely to be killed, even in a low speed accident.
This is an assumption with which I start this endeavour of reflecting on the 10 Commandments for Today. The first 5 commandments, I think, are concerned with our relationship with God and the second 5 are concerned about our relationship with one another. Today, the first 2 commandments are concerned with, as Jesus summarises it, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’” (Mark 12:29-30; NRSV)
Our prayer book summarises the first two commandments as:
- I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of slavery; you shall have no other gods but me.
- You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them.
The complete text of them, however, can be found in the Exodus 20 and again in Numbers 5. Exodus 20 reads:
I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments. (Exodus 20:2-6; NRSV)
As you can see there is a lot of the consequences of the failure to keep this command which is not recited, therefore, not remembered.
The first thing we need to say about these two commandments it that they are intimately connected. It is God’s intention that we are to put him first in our lives. This is not for God’s benefit. God does not need us. We need him. You have heard me argue it before; without God we are denying our humanity. To deny God and to deny God’s rightful place in our lives is to be less than fully human.
Without wanting to enter into any depth regarding discussion of the 3rd and 4th commandments, even if we believe in God, we are inclined create God in our own image, our wonders to perform. This is the idolatry of which we need protection.
Note that in the first commandment, the call to have no other gods before the Lord our God, is because it was God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. Our need to be people of the Lord God is because, unlike any other god, Yahweh desires our freedom. The command to love God alone is not meant to be a burden under which we struggle to survive – it is intended to bring freedom from oppression, to be free of all things that would hold us back from being fully human and having life to the full.
This does not mean that there are not going to be other things that are important to us, such as spouse, family, career, travel, even the study of other religions, but it is God who must be first, because, in doing so, we are protected from all that may lead us into endangerment.
‘You shall have no other gods before me,’ says the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, ‘because I want you to be free of oppression and slavery, but that can only happen if your loyalty is first to me.’
The second commandment, in supporting the first, adds some consequences of the failure to keep God in his rightful place in our lives, ‘for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.’ This does sound like a God who punishes us for breaking the law.
I want to argue, however, that this is not so much God’s punishment of those who do not put him first, but the consequences of our failure to do so.
I have argued, time and time again, that the best teachers of our children are our parents. If we simply send our children to Sunday School, Christian Religious Education in School, Kids Club, Youth Group, and Confirmation Classes, without participating in nurturing our own relationship with God, we should not be surprised that our children, as soon as they are confirmed, do not continue to participate in the things of faith. The growing number of children in our society that have no idea what so ever of the things of Christian faith is clear evidence that iniquity of parents is visited on the children to the third and fourth generation.
But, on the other hand, those who are loyal to God will experience the benefits in their lives to the thousandth generation. God wants us to put our trust in him because it will have profound and deeper implications for the present and the future of humanity. God is much more a God of mercy than he is a God of punishment.
When Jesus comes to the end of his time in the wilderness sorting out how he understands God and what that might mean for his life, in the end, he says to the Tempter, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” (Matthew 4:10; NRSV) At the base of all things is a faithful relationship to God.
The commandments are not laws to fulfil in order that we are acceptable to God; they are commandments, to protect us from ourselves, beginning with a relationship with the God who saves us from ourselves.
 A Prayer Book for Australia, © 1995, The Australian Church of Australia Trust, Broughton Books.