the 10 Commandments Again for the First Time
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon
So we're in the midst of a sermon mini-series.
What's the series about? Covenants! Good, good, just checking that folks
are paying attention :) What's the big idea bout covenants?
Relationships! Yes, yes, good -- people are paying attention, there's
I've tried to provide an image for each of these covenants, and the
first covenant is the covenant with Noah, that's the easy one -- the
rainbow covenant, and I used my mother's watercolor of the rainbow as
the image for that sermon. Concluded with Somewhere Over the Rainbow.
then that leads to the next covenant is the covenant with Abraham. It's
a little tougher to find an image for that covenant, but I suggested not
the scalpel, but rather, the magic slippers of Dorothy. Because at the
heart of that covenant is the idea that God says to Abraham and all of
his descendents "I will be their God, they will be my people" -- that
that's our home. God is always seeking to bring us home, with God, to
live in the community of God.
so now we come to the third covenant, the covenant with Moses, or the
Mosaic covenant. And so the image for this sermon, to keep the theme
going -- the Wizard of Oz! Well, you may think I'm stretching things
here, but listen to this: when Moses goes up to receive the 10
Commandments, goes up the mountain, chapter 19, verse 16 in Exodus, we
"On the morning of the third day, there was thunder and lighting as well
as a thick cloud on the mountain and a blast of a trumpet so loud that
all the people who were in the camp trembled. Moses brought the people
out of the camp to meet God. They took their stand at the foot of the
mountain. Now, Mt. Sinai was wrapped in smoke because the Lord had
descended upon it in fire, the smoke went up like the smoke of a kiln,
while the whole mountain shook violently. As the blast of the trumpet
grew louder and louder, Moses would speak and God would answer him in
mean, it totally fits, right? But it's such a terrifying image, who
wants that for God? So maybe the man behind the Wizard, friendly Frank
Morgan, would be a better image. Maybe not :) But you know, the Wizard
who helps the poor, particularly Dorothy, find their way, is perhaps not
a bad image. Better than flying monkeys :) So, hold onto that image.
Of course, the heart of the covenant with Moses is what? It's the 10
Commandments, right. It's printed for you in your bulletin insert, so
pull that out. I'm going to read it for you, and your task, your
assignment (should you accept it :), this is really tough, is to number
them. Think you can handle that? My staff wanted me to mix them up, and
see if you could put them in the right order, and I said no, no, no, I
know the congregation, let's not challenge them too much :) All you have
to do is number them 1 through 10, let's see how you do:
spoke all these words:
2 I am
the Lord your God, who brought you out
of the land of Egypt, out of the house
of slavery; 3you shall have no other
gods before me.
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. 5You 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, 6but
showing steadfast love to the thousandth
generation of those who love me and keep
shall not make wrongful use of the name
of the Lord your God, for the Lord will
not acquit anyone who misuses his name.
8 Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it
holy. 9For six days you shall labor and
do all your work. 10But the seventh day
is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you
shall not do any work—you, your son or
your daughter, your male or female
slave, your livestock, or the alien
resident in your towns. 11For in six
days the Lord made heaven and earth, the
sea, and all that is in them, but rested
the seventh day; therefore
the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and
your father and your mother, so that
your days may be long in the land that
the Lord your God is giving you.
shall not murder.
shall not commit adultery.
shall not steal.
shall not bear false witness against
shall not covet your neighbor's house;
you shall not covet your neighbor's
wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or
donkey, or anything that belongs to your
So how'd you do? Any problems?
Surprise! It turns out that in the major traditions -- Jewish, Catholic,
and Protestant, that use the 10 Commandments -- all of those twelve
statements printed on your insert appear as one commandment by them
self. Ah, didn't know that, did you?
So if you were a little confused, you know, you skip the first one
(that's the prologue), then you start with #1, and then you get down to
the end, and. . . . what did you do? Well, I first discovered this when
I went to Germany, and working in a local congregation, a Protestant
church in Germany, and my job was to help with the Confirmation class.
One hundred and twenty kids, six classes. We had a test, the 10
Commandments, they had to write them all out. I'll be darned if all
those kids didn't get it wrong -- every single one of them. And, they
all got it wrong the same way. Six different classes -- how did they do
So, being the smart American kid, a college graduate, I corrected it for
them. I numbered them the way they were supposed to be numbered, right?
Number one: "I am the Lord your God, you shall have no other Gods before
me", we all know that, right? Number two, and so forth, and you get down
to the end -- you combine those last 2 statements on your insert, that's
Well, after I had corrected them all,
I learned from the Pastor, guess what? They learned the 10 Commandments
the same way Martin Luther did. Martin Luther learned them in his
catechism school in the Catholic tradition, and the Catholic tradition
is different from the Protestant tradition.
In the Catholic tradition, number one, "I am the Lord your God, you
shall have no other Gods, you shall not make yourself an idol", they
combine those first three statements on your insert into 1 commandment.
So for us, the first and the second are combined into one.
And then when they get down to the end, they separate 'covet' into two
separate ones. Any other Catholics here with us, does this sound
familiar at all? But yeah, they separate the last one into two separate
And all this is wonderfully illustrated in this marble copy of the 10
Commandments I'm using here:
This is found in the courthouse lawn in Austin, Texas. That's the
capitol, state capital. There was actually a big Supreme Court case
fought over this particular monument, and the 10 Commandments in the
courtroom in Kentucky, in Curry County. The Supreme Court said the one
in Kentucky has to go, but this one can stay. Why? Because the one in
Kentucky was put up for religious reasons, the judge was promoting his
faith. This one was put up to do what? To promote the movie with
Charlton Heston. Yeah, they made a bunch of these, sent them around to
various locations. So yeah, it was done for secular purposes. You can
have your crèche, as long as Santa Claus is in it, right? :)
Alright, so let's look at these a little bit closer. Count them off:
Number 1: Thou shalt have no other Gods before me.
Number 2: Thou shalt not make thyself any graven image (this is
the King James version).
Number 3: Thou shalt not use the name of the Lord they God in
Number 4: Remember the Sabbath day, keep it holy.
Number 5: Honor they father and thy mother.
Number 6: Thou shalt not kill.
Number 7: Thou shalt not commit adultery.
Number 8: Thou shalt not steal.
Number 9: Thou shalt not bear false witness.
Number 10: Thou shalt not covet thy neighbors house. . . .
You see the problem? How did they come up with 10? Well, look closer at
the top -- they invented #2, to make it part of #1, just like they do in
the Catholic tradition, and then separate the bottom two. I wonder if
all those Baptists in Texas know they have a Catholic version of the 10
Commandments at the Statehouse :)
And to further complicate matters, in the Jewish tradition it's
completely different! I even checked this out with one of our members
this morning who comes out of the Jewish tradition, and sure enough --
in the Jewish tradition, that first statement that is in your insert,
that we consider a prologue, that is the first commandment -- "I am the
Lord your God". And then, they combine the next two as they do in the
Catholic tradition, and then combine the last two as we do in the
Protestant tradition. And that's how they come up with 10.
So here's the point: everyone knows there are 10, right? Everyone knows
there are 10 commandments. But to try and figure out which of those 12
statements fits into 10, how you combine them to come up with 10, well,
you have to be a wizard! No, that's not the point at all :)
The point is, it's not about the numbers. Or, how you divide them. Nor
is it really about the specifics or the content of those 10 or 12
commandments, although certainly that's a big part of it.
So before we get to what it's really about, I have to point out one more
little-known oddity about the 10 Commandments. Little-known among most
Christians, because we don't read the Bible as seriously as we should.
But well-known among biblical scholars and those who seriously read
their bible. What's the reason for the Sabbath? To rest. Why? God rested
on the 7th day. We all know that. Everybody knows that. Everybody,
except for Moses! Yeah, turn to Deuteronomy 5 -- we don't put those
bibles in the pew for decoration :), turn to Deuteronomy 5! You will
find there, a second version of the 10 Commandments. Did you know that,
we have two versions of the 10 Commandments? Second version is in
Now, the situation is, Moses is at the end of his life, he knows it. His
days are numbered. They are about to enter the Promised Land, but he
ain't going there. He gets up to the mountaintop, he gets to see it,
that's as far as he goes. So he's giving his farewell speech --
Deuteronomy is in essence Moses' farewell speech to the people, in which
he sums it all up -- this is what it's all about, this is where we've
been, this is what we've done. And he includes the 10 Commandments,
these are the commandments, you know, God gave them to me, I've got them
written in stone, right? And he says, in verse 6:
"I am the Lord your God, I brought you out of the land of Egypt". . . .
yeah, that sounds familiar, we've heard that. Verse 8:
"You shall not make for yourself an idol". . . .right, yep, we've heard
that. Verse 11:
"You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God", yep,
we've heard that too. Verse 12:
"Observe the Sabbath day, keep it holy", it's all sounding very
familiar, right? Six days, do you work, seventh day is the Sabbath,
yeah, yeah. Verse 15:
"Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your
God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched
arm, and therefore the Lord your God commands you to keep the Sabbath
What? Where's the creation story? Where's the 7th day of creation? Read
it closely, point it out to me. It's not there!
Can he do that?! He's changing the word of God. He's got it in stone.
How can he change it, right? And did you know, that when Moses speaks
those words in Exodus 20, it's the only time scripture, the only time,
where God speaks to the whole assembly. Everywhere else, God is speaking
through somebody, Moses or a prophet, someone who is relaying the word
of God. But in Exodus 20, God speaks directly to the people. They are so
terrified, they tell Moses 'we can't take it, you've got to do it from
now own, because it's too much for us'.
He's changing the words of God! How does he do that? What's going on
Last week, remember, I talked about the different sources that make up
the first 5 books of our Bible. They have names for them, we don't need
to go into that today. The point is, here's another example of that.
Evidence of a different tradition in which the reason for the Sabbath is
not the 7th day of creation when God rested, the reason for the Sabbath
is that story of liberation when the people could not rest when they
were in slavery. We rest, you see, not because God rested, but because
we were once slaves. We were permitted no rest. In other words, the
Sabbath itself is a declaration of a freedom from bondage. I rest
because God has freed me from the slavery of this world.
Now that's a different
message, isn't it? You think that'll preach? That taking time off for
ourselves, to recharge and to reconnect with God, that that is an act of
defiance against the ways of this world. You know, 24x7, you always have
to have your game on, constantly. Just as it is an act of defiance
against the oppressors who measure the value of human beings only in
terms of units-of-production. I think that'll preach :) But that's not
this sermon, so that's just a freebie.
Now that I have you completely confused about the number and the content
of the 10 Commandments, I want to get to the heart of the matter and
suggest a whole different way of viewing them from that more typical
viewpoint that these are 10 absolute rules that serve as the basis for
modern law, and all of that.
So the big idea that I've been trying to make is that faith is not about
rules, it's not about doctrine, it's not about a list of do's and
don'ts, it's about the relationship. And we see it here.
The first half of the 10 Commandments, is all about our relationship
with whom? With God, right? And the second half is all about our
relationship with our neighbors, with others. And that pretty much sums
it up. I would suggest to you that if you get the first half right, the
second half will come, it will follow.
Now, here's the most important aspect of that relationship with God that
most people miss when they emphasize the importance of keeping the 10
Commandments (as if life with God is a matter of obeying a list of
rules, most of which are things you should not do, rather than
things that you should): it's what's captured in that first commandment
in the Jewish tradition, which I would point out to you is not even on
this tablet. Well, they got the first statement - "I am the Lord they
God". They leave out the rest of it -- 'who brought you up out of the
land of Egypt and out of the house of slavery'.
That is the first commandment in the Jewish tradition. Now wait a
second, huh, how's that a commandment? I mean, I don't have to do
anything, right? It's about what God is doing. Yeah. Precisely. The
first commandment is about what God is doing.
To put it differently, our covenant
relationship with God is rooted in God's Emancipation Proclamation.
Before God asked anything of us, God sets us free. God liberates us from
bondage. Or, as the Apostle Paul puts it, while we were still sinners,
Christ died for us.
Now folks, if you ask me, who's got it right, the Jews, the Catholics,
the Protestants, etc, I would say that's not the point. But, if you
really pushed me on it, I would say I think our Jewish brothers and
sisters are onto something here. They have been living with this for
1,000 years more than we have, at least, right? I think they're onto
You see, the 10 Commandments are not a list of things we must do to be
right with God, rather they are the faithful response of a grateful
people who desire to continue what God has begun -- to live as a
liberated community free from the tyranny of this world.
And when we get our relationship with
that God right, who liberates people from destructive relationships, we
will get it right with our neighbor in healthy relationships.
By the way, another freebie, I've
just got to point this out, this whole business about using the name of
God in vain, we've got that all wrong. It's not about cussing. I mean,
cussing is a bad thing, but that is not what using God's name in vain is
about. It's about using the name of God in ways that are harmful to
A husband who demands submission of their wife and children as God's
plan, because, right, that's God's plan for the family, uses the name of
God in vain because that's not the way of God.
Politicians who appeal for votes in the name of God to impose their
religious ideologies of exclusion and superiority on others use the name
of God in van, because that's not the way of God.
Military leaders who justify killing their enemies as the will of God
use the name of God in vain because that's not the way of God.
When we use the name of God to oppress others, you see, that's when we
are using the name of God in vain. If we get our relationship with God
right, we will stop using the name of God to do that which is against
the nature of God.
But if we have a relationship with a God who seeks the liberation of
oppressed people, then we will seek their liberation.
If we have a relationship with a God who proclaims good news to the
poor, then we will proclaim that good news to the poor.
If we have a relationship with a God who is love, then we will seek to
make love the guide of all of our relationships.
And all of that is made abundantly clear in the second half of the
commandments -- that we should not lie, steal, murder, covet from those
we love, goes without saying. If we have a healthy relationship with God
and our neighbors, then that's all natural.
But these are not simply the norms of healthy relationships with
neighbors. The whole point of the Mosaic covenant is the creation of a
people, is the foundation of a nation. A great nation, a shining light
for the world to see. This is God's model community for how we are to
live in peace and wholeness in the world.
And when things did not work out as planned, as is always the case (just
like in the days of Noah), this time God sends not a flood, but
prophets. To issue what we would call a covenantal lawsuit against the
nation, against the leaders for their failure to adhere to the covenant.
And the classic expression of this is in Micah 6, where it says "I plead
the case of God, and call the mountains to witness, to be the jury".
It's a lawsuit, based on the covenant. The prophet sums up the covenant
with three simple statements: "What does the Lord require of you, but to
do justice, to love kindness, and walk humbly with God".
It's not about the list of do's and
don'ts, it's about living in that relationship where justice and love,
that humble walk with God, is evident in all our actions. Or, another
way to put it: the 10 Commandments are like training wheels. You start
with the basics, putting God first, taking that Sabbath time to renew
yourself, to recharge your spirit, treating others as you wish to be
treated. And once you have mastered the basics, you don't ignore them,
but now they come naturally. You don't need to concentrate on them any
You don't need the Wizard's diploma, or the ticking heart, or the badge
of courage. Because you've got the brains, you've go the courage, you've
got the heart. God has given that to you.
It's all there in that relationship, when we join together as people of
faith, following the Lord our God, who leads us home to the land of love
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