I argued in my blog post last week that the giving of the Law at Mt. Sinai should not be seen as something separate from God's work of liberation. God has delivered these oppressed people from their slavery in Egypt and now God is continuing that work of deliverance by the gift of God's law. This law is not a burden. It is not something to be followed purely in exchange for God's deliverance. It is itself a part of the deliverance as God teaches his people how to live not as slaves but as a free people serving a holy God.
If this is true then it applies not only to last week's passage in Exodus 19 but even more so our passage for this week, Exodus 20. The ten commandments make up the core of Israel's Law. Although many other laws will be given, these are at the center of God's vision for Israel's life as a holy people. As such, we would expect them to be crucial in re-writing Israel's identity, in accomplishing that liberating work of moving Israel from slave people to holy people. And as we read them in comparison to the ways of Pharaoh, we can see how they might begin to do just.
First, they begin with an explicit reminder that the God who speaks these words is the God who delivered them out of the house of slavery. Whereas the house of slavery was run by a man who tried to act as if he were god and who disrespected the name of Yahweh, Israel is to be house where there are no other gods, not even idols, and where Yahweh's name was to be held in reverence. Israel's existence in Egypt was one defined by work. As slaves, they were only as valuable as what they could produce. Now they are told that they are to rest every seventh day because even God rested. Pharaoh's empire was one built on murder, theft, lies, and covetousness. Israel is told they must be none of those things if they are to be a free people living in the presence of a holy God. God has given Israel the basics of what a truly liberated life together as a community must look life.
But, of course, we know all this already. Good Christians that we are, the ten commandments are so familiar, so basic, as to almost be ignored. To be sure, we pay homage to them, talk about how important they are, and maybe even memorize them. But are they doing for us what they did for Israel? Are they a part of God's liberating work among us? Are they helping to transform us from being a people enslaved to the ways of the world around us to being a people free to live in the presence of a holy God?
I'll tell you how I think they work for most of us... as a checklist, and a self-inflating one at that. "I worship God." Check. "No idols in my house." Check. "I don't curse." Check. "I go to church on Sunday." Check. "I love my parents." Check. "I don't murder, steal, lie, commit adultery, or covet." Check,check, check. "Wow, I must be really holy. That wasn't even that hard." And after we've checked off our list we don't really see any reason to give the ten commandments much more thought since we would never do any of those things anyway. Rather than accomplishing the liberating work of God among us it seems that the ten commandments often accomplish little more than promoting self-satisfaction and self-righteousness.
I think it is worth noting at this point that I don't think we do this on purpose. No one sets out with the purpose of being smug and self-righteous. I think this actually happens as a result of our best attempts to be faithful to the text as we see it. We hear that these are ten commandments so we assume the appropriate response is to just obey. No questions. No arguing. If God gives a command then the only right thing for us to do is obey that command. There is nothing else to it. But lets just ask the obvious question here: If all we did as Christians was follow these commands in the simplest and most literal way, would that really honor God? Would it really fulfill the mission we heard about last week to be a holy people who represent God to the rest of the world? Would it really set us apart as a different kind of people? The truth is that there are a lot of ways we would barely even be keeping up with the "minimum requirements" of most secular morality in our day if we only follow these commands in a literal way.
If, however, we see these not merely as commands (though they certainly continue to be at least that) but as the words of God which are meant to be a means of God's liberating and life-giving grace among us, then we will do much more than fulfill them to the letter. We will ask how the Spirit can write the full intent of these laws on our hearts and minds. Rather than simply avoiding murder, we will ask what it means to be a community that values all life and what that, in turn, means for our response to realities like abortion, war, and capital punishment. Rather than simply saying it is enough that we don't steal, we will consider ourselves a people called to speak against inequality and work to alleviate poverty. Rather than just being a people who don't curse, we will strive to give God a good reputation in everything that we do.
I believe Jesus shows us as much in the sermon on the mount. In Matthew 5, Jesus likens anger to murder and lust to adultery. In doing so, I don't think Jesus is just ratcheting up the standards of the law to show us how hopeless it is for us to follow God's law so we'll be convinced we are sinners. I believe he is reminding us that God's law was always meant to be more than a rule book, more than a checklist. It was meant to be the life-giving, liberating word of God.