The Ten Commandments – everybody knows them. They are part of popular culture as much as religious culture. We tell jokes about The Ten Commandments – “What did God tell Moses when Moses complained? Take two tablets and call me in the morning.”
The Daily Bonnet, a Mennonite satire website, posted this headline yesterday – Mennonite Protestors Demand Their ‘Second Commandment Rights.’ According to the report, Thousands of conservative Mennonites rallied in Goshen this week to protest what they perceived as an imminent threat to their Second Commandment Rights. The rally attracted a wide range of Mennonites united in their love for God, country, and the Second Commandment. “It’s as clear as day: Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image,” said rally leader Jakob Miller to an enthusiastic crowd of Second Commandment supporters. “I for one will not just lay down and see our Second Commandment rights trampled on by some leftists in Washington who want to put up graven images all over the place.”
I was talking with some friends the other evening, all of us having grown up in various churches, and we couldn’t crowd source all ten commandments. We got to about eight and started repeating ourselves. Maybe we can have our own contest to name all ten without looking – for the talent show at retreat in two weeks.
The Ten Commandments almost have a life of their own, beyond Judaism, beyond Christianity. It’s one of the ways we know we live in a Christian nation: everybody knows about the Big Ten. And some people are so committed to The Ten that they want to place them in classrooms and courtrooms and other public spaces in addition to houses of worship.
Sometimes the Ten Commandments are pointed to as the solution to all our problems. If we all just focused on The Ten everything would work much better. (If this is all it takes, our Jewish spiritual ancestors would not have added 603 more commandments to the law to say nothing of the Prophets with their perspectives and correctives.)
But the Ten Commandments weren’t written for us in this country or century. The Ten were given to an itinerant people who were escaping generations of slavery. What a gift to receive The Ten, something that could frame their lives, that could help give them definition when life was changing all around them.
And they were terrified by it all. It was a quite a scene as Moses received The Ten. When all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking, they were afraid and trembled and stood at a distance, and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die.” And Moses replied to the people, “Do not be afraid; for God has come only to test you and to put the fear of God upon you so that you do not sin.”
Despite their fear, the people receive the commandments and presumably try to live them out. Imagine these straight forward rules while living on the road, in the unknown wilderness, in the company of a lot of people.
– Don’t tell lies about people.
– Don’t be jealous of others – the “stuff” they have or their family members.
– Don’t steal stuff from other people
– and for goodness sake, don’t kill them.
– Don’t sleep with someone else’s beloved.
– Take a break, only work 6 days, not 7.
– Remember that only God is God.
– Don’t have idols.
– Don’t use God’s name as a swear word or treat it frivolously,
– and for heaven’s sake, if you want to live a long life – honor your parents.
This is helpful, practical advice, then and now. And we must remember that the Ten Commandments are not God; they are important practices that help point us to God, that help make faith possible. The Ten are a framework for living. They remind the people that God brought them out of slavery, that they are free. And because they are now free, and if they want to stay free, the Ten will help them to live free and well together, facing toward God.
We heard the Ten Commandments from Exodus this morning but they also appear in Deuteronomy, with a few alterations. In Deuteronomy, after the Ten are spelled out, there is a sort of summary – “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”
When we love God with all our heart, soul and might (connecting our mind, body, and spirit) then we can more easily live into the rest of The Ten. We start with ourselves and God. Then we are free to treat those around us with respect and love. The Ten are a gift to help us live joyfully and contentedly.
The temptation is to look at that frame, The Ten, and think that’s all there is. But that is like looking at the arrow pointing to the destination and mistaking the arrow for the destination. “Ah, we found the arrow pointing the way. We have arrived.” Not quite. When we are so focused on the framework itself, we miss what is being framed. We miss the art, that the commandments point us toward – the love and justice and hesed of God (hesed is a Hebrew word that is hard to define in English but is often translated “loving kindness.”)
Last week Michelle showed us a video of a cool piece of art. “The Ideal Palace” by Bernard Pras. You look head on through a frame and you see the weathered, jagged, modern art-face of Ferdinand Cheval. When you step away from the frame you see a wheelbarrow, guitar, broken chair, lamp and other assorted cast offs. Step back to look through the frame and the face appears once more, assembled and making sense.
The Ten Commandments are a frame. They helped the Israelites organize their lives and they can help us too. We may not be nomadic in quite the same way but our lives can get messy. When we try to understand life without the frame, it can feel unmanageable and chaotic. Without some kind of rules for living we may lose focus or focus in the wrong direction. The frame brings things into perspective, gives us an angle from which to operate. And if we focus only on the frame, only on The Ten, we don’t see who we are, who God is. We miss the art in the middle.
Matthew’s gospel tells us that Jesus tried to help people catch a glimpse of what The Ten can mean in a new time with his own Sermon on the Mount (patterned after Moses receiving The Ten on Mt. Sinai.) Jesus uses some new parables and reworks some old symbols that he hopes point toward God, toward community, toward justice, love and hesed (loving kindness.)
We have the Ten Commandments and Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, as well as the Prophets and two thousand years of the faithful trying to explain what it all means and it is still easy to get caught up by the frame. The art in the middle is impossible to grasp for very long. How can one understand and see the mystery that is God? How can one capture the beauty of community shared at the table? Or contain the smell of bread, the sweetness of grape juice, the feeling of connection, forgiveness and acceptance. Commandments can point us toward that but they are not it.
There are lots of ways we try hard to grasp the inexplicable. We tell stories from the bible, stories from our families. We make art, we sing, we dance, we philosophize, we analyze. One middle-aged person told me recently that he has had a few memorable experiences of God, with God (what I would call the art in the frame.) He would not tell me about these experiences. “You can ask me but I will never speak them aloud. They cannot be put into words.” This is the art in the middle, that we sometimes catch in a side glance – so holy that it cannot be put into words, dare not be spoken.
These days, in my own spiritual journey, I am intrigued by the ways that we as humans try over and over again to capture the ineffable, through prescribed words and prescribed actions in our religions. These are all well meaning attempts to understand God, to understand that which is beyond ourselves and at the same time very near. My current attempt to understand religion has me wondering if we most often get stuck on the frame and rarely make it to the middle, where the art is.
Perhaps part of the trouble is that the “art” is not stagnant, it is barely contained by the frame. It is more like the portraits in Harry Potter than the art we know. It is changing and moving, singing and interacting in ways we cannot always understand or ever control. It can be unpredictable and perhaps scare us.
We cling to the frame because it is sturdy and known and gives us a way to understand. But if we stop there, if we do not take the risky chance to turn toward what the frame contains (or attempts to contain) we miss the whole point. We miss the mysterious art of God to which The Ten point. We continue to be afraid, like the Israelites in the wilderness, instead of understanding the freedom and joy to which we are called.
Let’s keep practicing and learning the frame – the Ten Commandments, the Sermon on the Mount, the parables, the prophets. And let’s keep finding ways to turn toward the art, toward the unfathomable mystery to which they all point.