My best friend in town, whose name is also Sarah, has an 18 month old daughter named Anna. For the first 17 months of her daughter’s life, Sarah lived next door to me. Now, as you all know, I am crazy about babies, but the truth is that I don’t know much about raising them! My expertise in babies is more in cooing and cuddling than anything practical. Professionally, Sarah is a supervisor of Head Start preschool teachers, so she knows a thing or two about raising young children. Well, I was shocked when my neighbor Sarah began teaching Anna boundaries before Anna could even crawl! As soon as Anna began reaching for outlets and power cords from her stroller, Sarah would tell her, “No touch!” After a couple weeks of this kind of instruction, this tiny baby, who could neither talk nor walk, would withdraw her hand if you told her, “No touch!” And now that Anna is 18 months old, and is an incredibly fast runner and inexhaustibly curious, when Anna starts running into the street or towards something dangerous, all Sarah has to do is shout “STOP!” and Anna stops. Watching this is like watching a miracle. Sure, Anna tests Sarah’s boundaries, but because she has those very clear limits given to her by parents that love her, she is a happy, well mannered toddler. In fact, Anna is already learning how to say please and thank you. I’m telling you-miracle.
In a lot of ways, at this point in Exodus, Israel is like a big baby. Israel was born into a nation when it crossed the Red Sea. The last couple of weeks we have seen how soon after that, just like a baby, Israel began whining, “Are we there yet? I’m hungry! I wanna go home! This trip is stupid!” Well, like a big whiny baby, Israel also needed boundaries. They knew God had saved them and they knew they were now a nation, but they had no idea what any of that meant!
God gives the Israelites the Decalogue-another word for the Ten Commandments–as a set of boundaries for how they should live their lives together. He covenants with them by giving them the gift of rules. I’m sure they were thrilled. (Yay! . . .rules?)
The first four commandments are specifically about how to be in relationship with God.
First, God helps the Israelites by explaining who is giving these commandments. He tells them that “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. Remember, that in these days there was the belief that many gods ruled the heavens. Here, God is telling them that the God who is speaking, is the same God who freed them from Egypt. He goes on to tell the Israelites that they should worship only Him. For this new nation, there will be only one, all-powerful God, not the many small gods that made up other religions. In our imperfect analogy, God is the parent, the only parent and God knows what is best for Israel.
The next commandment is about the danger of setting limits on the Israelites’ understanding of God. Immediately after identifying himself, God instructs the Israelites not to make any idols of his image. God knows that the Israelites will be uncomfortable with worshiping such an abstract God, but he doesn’t want them to be limited in their idea of who He is and what He can do.
Next, God tells them not to use his name in vain. While we think of this in terms of curse words, what it actually means is not to make a vow or promise using God’s name that you do not intend to keep. Do not use God’s name lightly.
Finally, God commands the Israelites to take one day of the week, to rest from all labor, and worship God. Part of being a nation governed by God, is reflecting God’s own pattern of work and rest that has been passed down in the Creation story.
Once these four boundaries are set, defining what it means to be a people of God, and how that people should relate to God, God then goes on to give Israel boundaries for how to live with each other. Honor your parents, don’t murder, don’t commit adultery, don’t steal, don’t lie about your neighbor, don’t covet.
They are pretty basic rules, right? These rules give a framework of safety to Israel’s society. If everyone follows the rules, then members of society can trust each other and a society can progress rather than falling into chaos.
I’ve got to say, preparing a sermon about the Ten Commandment in light of the Presidential Race and financial bailout arguments has felt very ironic.
If I understand the news about the financial crisis correctly, we are in this financial pinch precisely because there were not boundaries, or lenders ignored the boundaries that were there. We are here because lenders lent money to people who could not pay them back. We are here because people lied about the amount of money they made or lenders just did not check. We are here because people want to live in a bigger house, a house more like their neighbor’s. We are here because we, like the Israelites are still people who need boundaries.
While we are made in God’s image, we can also be greedy and covetous. And, of course, it is not just “them”-those Wall Street brokers, bankers and Congressmen who are the problem. We all suffer from the same set of problems. The problems of our government reflect the problems of our culture, and vice versa.
As for the rest of us, perhaps we could also reflect on our need for repentance.
For being seduced into lifestyles beyond our means and contrary to our religious traditions of simplicity and stewardship.
For living on far too much credit, rather than living within our limits.
For sometimes putting economic values ahead of family values.
For letting the relentless assault of advertising and a culture of consumption to seed in us the sin of covetousness.
For valuing our lives too much by the cultural values of worth, instead of by the values of the kingdom of God.
And maybe this financial crisis is a gift. Maybe it is God’s way of yelling “Stop!” while his people run enthusiastically towards a street of oncoming traffic. Maybe this crisis will remind us that the Ten Commandments were given to us for our own good. They may feel old and dusty, but because they address the human condition, they are as relevant for America today as they were for Israel thousands of years ago.
The Ten Commandments are boundaries that orient us to what is good and healthful and holy. They rein us in from our worst impulses and give us a framework to live together in a constructive and productive way. They remind us that we are not alone, but that God created us and guides us.
The allure of making a quick buck, or having a nicer house than we can really afford, can seem really exciting and fun at the time. Ultimately, however, what gives us deep satisfaction is not what we own, but how we live our lives. Are we persons of integrity, and kindness and wisdom? Do we reach out to those in need? Are we honest with ourselves and others even when it is difficult? Our dignity as human beings comes from these kind of questions, not how much money we have or whether our house is as nice as our friend’s house.
God wanted the Israelites to grow up and be a dignified, holy, mature people. He wants that for us, too. And we are in a better position even than the Israelites. We have not only the Ten Commandments, but also infinite chances to ask forgiveness and start over through Christ’s death and resurrection. We also have the gift of the Holy Spirit, who will help give us the strength and discipline to actually follow the Ten Commandments, rather than just feeling oppressed by them.
As dour and somber as the phrase “Ten Commandments” can sound, these boundaries are actually a great gift to us. A gift that helps us to know how to be together as God’s people and helps make our life together full of integrity.