10am St Luke’s – Exodus 20:1-17 and Mark 12:28-34
Beginning the 10 Commandments series – Jesus’ Summary of the Law
Henry, who was rather elderly, and liable to forget things was unhappy because he had lost his favourite hat. Instead of searching for a new one in a similar style, he decided he would go to church and steal one out of the entrance porch when the worshippers were busy praying – he knew some of the men who went there wore hats like that. But when Henry arrived at the church a sidesman intercepted him at the door and showed him to a pew where he had to sit and listen to the entire sermon on ‘The Ten Commandments.’
After the service, Henry met the vicar at the doorway, shook his hand vigorously, and told him, ‘I want to thank you Father for saving my soul today. I came to church to steal a hat and after hearing your sermon on the 10 Commandments, I decided against it.’ The vicar answered, ‘You mean the commandment ‘Thou shall not steal’ changed your mind?’
‘No!’ retorted Henry, ‘Sorry I’d better go quick! The one about adultery did it. As soon as you said that, I remembered where I’d left my old hat!’
The Ten Commandments used to be prominent in every church in England, on a big board somewhere in plain view. I’m not sure why they were so prominent as I’m not sure they were particularly big in the thinking of the early church or even in the Bible. They were certainly there, in the Bible, and taken seriously, but I don’t think you’d have found them on the wall of a synagogue or an early church meeting place. They don’t have a central place in the Old Testament and are not mentioned in the New Testament. Occasionally one or other of the Ten Commandments gets a mention, but they’re never referred to collectively as if they were a key moral code or a particularly important part of the Christian life.
I suspect the prominence in our country is to do with some hangover from 17th Century Puritanism – a sort of Christianity that rather liked to say, “Thou shalt not!” about anything that might conceivably be fun or pleasurable. But it has got into the psyche of Christianity in our nation – years spent by generations of churchgoers looking up at all those, ‘Thou shalt nots’ and ‘Thou shalts.’ I’m not sure, either when the boards started to come down or weren’t included in many new churches, but the damage has been done. The perception in the minds of many is that God is sat on a cloud frowning and occasionally bellowing, ‘Thou shalt not!’ at us if we get close to enjoying ourselves.
Many think that the Ten Commandments are all there is to being a Christian. I’ve been told many a time, ‘I don’t go to church, but I’m still a Christian. I keep the 10 Commandments!’ And I’ve also heard many, mostly, but not entirely, older folk, saying everything would be OK if only people would keep the 10 Commandments.
That’s perhaps not far off true. I don’t for a moment think that they are a bad thing! If the Vladimir Putin’s of this world took them more seriously it would be a far better world – indeed if everybody did it would, but the trouble is people perceive the commandments as coming from outside themselves. Let me explain what I mean. The commandments are perceived to stand over and against us, judging us, rather than as part of a relationship with God. If you don’t have a relationship with God, you may agree the commandments are a good thing, but when they conflict with what you want to do, you’ll try to find some way around them, some excuse not to keep them, or simply ignore them.
I came across this quote from some one called H.L. Mencken: ‘Say what you will about the Ten Commandments, you must always come back to the pleasant fact that there are only ten of them.’ Of course there are many more commandments and laws in the Old Testament, but on the whole people think, ‘The fewer the better!’ They see commandments as limitations to their freedom – things they would rather do without, but their purpose is to give life a decent shape. If there are no rules you can’t play a game. If you can do whatever you like with chess pieces there is no chess. If you can just hit the golf ball wherever and with whatever you please there is no golf. If you just do whatever you like in life without regard for God or neighbour, there is no life. It’s a meaningless chaos of every man and woman for themselves.
The commandments were given to give shape to what it meant to be God’s people as opposed to a people living for themselves. They are part of the Covenant – the relationship based on a promise between God and his people. Actually the Bible doesn’t call them ‘commandments’, which gives this impression that they stand threateningly over us, but it calls them ‘words’. “God spake these words and said…” It’s more like advice for a good life – strong and serious advice, certainly, but the Hebrew doesn’t carry the bossy sounding force of the English word ‘Commandments’. But whatever we call them, before Moses even came down the mountain they had broken the commandments and he broke the tablets they were written on. The first two ‘words’ were ‘Have no gods before or besides me, and don’t make a graven image to represent me or any other god.’ And the Israelites had already decided it was a golden calf deity (probably an Egyptian deity) that had brought them out of Egypt and made an idol to worship.
The commands, by themselves, don’t help us to do any better. By themselves they simply show up how much we fail. St Paul in his second letter to the Corinthians (3:6) wrote, “The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” The letter – that is the written commandment – says, ‘This is the way of life for God’s people,’ but without the Spirit you won’t be able to keep this way of life, so the commandment that promises life (that’s why it was given) proves to be death in you.
As I said, the Law stands outside us. Even in the Old Testament the prophets foretold that it needs in the end to be written on our hearts, not on tablets of stone. Ezekiel 36:26 says one day God will take away his people’s hearts of stone and give them hearts of flesh; and Jeremiah 31:33 foretold that one day God would make a new Covenant with his people when his law would be written on their hearts. If Law is outside us we won’t obey it if we think we can get away with it. Think about the inclination to drive over the speed limit until you see a camera. That’s probably because we don’t particularly agree with the law, or we think something else (our own wishes perhaps?) is more important, or something else (our own ability to control our vehicle) somehow trumps the law, so we don’t keep the law unless we have to.
The Commandments are a bit different, in that if you believe in God, you believe he sees you breaking them, but the point remains, if the Law remains outside us, it is only ever kept reluctantly, and as our belief waxes and wanes we tend to ignore the law. But if we see the point of a law and agree with it and accept it – for example if we become aware of the possibility of an accident happening suddenly and unexpectedly, or a child running out and finding ourselves unable to stop in time – then we’ll be more inclined to keep the law, cameras or not. The law of God needs to be written on our hearts in this way. It becomes internal to us – part of who we are. That doesn’t just mean it’s been learned by heart – it means we see the point of it and because we want to live in love for God and love for neighbour we want to keep it.
We sadly are not very likely to achieve anything, I don’t think, by standing over Vladimir Putin, or anyone else for that matter, saying. ‘Thou shalt not!’ We only really change the world by changing the human heart. I know that’s not exactly the answer to the Ukraine crisis right now, but it’s the only real hope for the world in the long term. That’s how the Kingdom of God comes and that is how the world is saved. Not by shouting ever louder, ‘Thou shalt!’ and ‘Thou shalt not!’ but by loving God and loving neighbour and spreading that love so the commandments become written on our hearts.
Jesus shows us the point of the law – love God and love neighbour – it’s all about love. Not about whether or not we cross boundaries – it’s all about relationship. Crossing boundaries can certainly damage relationships, but it is the relationship that is the point of having the boundaries in the first place. We’ll come onto this in the next few weeks as we consider the commandments throughout Lent in a series of sermons, but Jesus widens the commands to show people the point of them. He says it’s no good just not killing people. If you treat them like dirt, insult, hate, burn with anger against them, you haven’t written the commandment on your heart. If you don’t actually love your partner, always lust after others, fantasize that the grass would be greener in another relationship, then it matters not if you don’t actually commit adultery, you’re not keeping the commandment.
It’s a good discipline in Lent to spend a bit of time meditating on the 10 Commandments, because we can tend to think we do OK by them if we haven’t murdered anyone or shoplifted lately, but if we take each one, in order to see the point of it, it can quickly become apparent how far short we fall. How do we measure up to the command to have no gods but me? What other things in our lives take up more time and energy, or are more important to us than our relationship with God? Do we love God with all our heart? I may not steal, but is my money invested in companies that don’t pay a fair wage or a fair price to their suppliers? We may be gaining from somebody else’s violation of the commandment. There’s plenty of self-examination for us all to do, I’m sure, with these and the rest of the 10 commandments. But it’s not about beating ourselves up. It’s about trying to do ourselves good. We examine ourselves in much the way that we might examine parts of our bodies for lumps. If we find any we go to the doctor. If we examine ourselves and find we don’t live up to the commandments we turn to Jesus. How do we get the commandments written on our hearts? We can’t write them there ourselves – the Spirit writes them there – but we have to want that and receive it.
It is through Jesus that the law is written on our hearts – he is the mediator of a new relationship with God – a new covenant – the New Testament. He lived a life of perfect relationship with God. When we ask him into our lives, we become what St Paul called ‘In Christ’. We share in his relationship with God and his Spirit lives in us and starts to make us want to keep the commandments – not for their own sake, but for the sake of the love he gives us for God and the love he gives us for our neighbour. Those, Jesus said, are the greatest commandments.
It puzzles me that those two commandments aren’t written on boards in prominent positions in our churches. Let’s ask Jesus to write them in prominent places in our hearts.