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Third Sunday in Lent, March 8, 2015

We always went to church during the school year. We always got our Christmas tree the last weekend before Christmas. We always did our homework. We had dinner at 6:15 every night. We always came home when Mom rang the bell (even the dog). We were not allowed to say “stupid” or “I hate you” to our siblings. If we got caught in a lie, we were in trouble. We were all expected to go to college. Those things and many others were what made us Biddles. What we did was the Biddle way of doing things. It was how we related to each other, how we made a family.

The 10 Commandments (or directions or teachings as the word Torah can be translated) are about being God’s people. They are about living in God’s community – God’s people in covenant with God. They are about how God’s people can draw closer to God. As with the other covenants God had made with Israel, this covenant was a gift, given by God to the people to help them live more fully and abundantly than they had before.

God’s covenant sets apart the relationship between God and Israel as a holy relationship. The people of Israel are to relate to God, to time, to one another in a holy way.

God is to be Israel’s only God. We have not yet reached the concept of monotheism, even though God proclaims the whole earth as God’s. There are other gods, but Israel is to have nothing to do with them. In this covenant God identifies Godself as Israel’s savior, the one who brought them out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. This action should make them loyal to this God, who defeated the powerful Pharoah and his armies and brought Israel through the Red Sea to freedom.

God is the great I AM, a God whose name is not spoken, a God who cannot be controlled, and the people must depend on God for their lives. God has shown Godself not to be capricious or whimsical as many of the pagan gods were, but a dependable steadfast lover ever since God called Abraham and Sarah to be the first generation of God’s people. But God knows the way people work. They want to be in charge of their own lives. They want to be in control. So God forbids them to make any gods and worship them. How odd to make a god that has power over a force you cannot control. If the god came from your hands and you named it and then worshipped it, can it be any god at all. That is what the pagans did, and it didn’t make any sense at all. But people being people, it was and still is the common practice. Except for Israel’s God, who initiated covenants with the people, the other gods were created by the people.

Idol worship was such a big taboo that it was surrounded with punishment. God would punish to the third and fourth generation those who disobeyed, but show steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who did not disobey. Having other gods meant that God was not set apart and the community was dealing with death giving rather than life giving practices.

In God’s covenant, time was holy. All time belonged to God and God gave it as a gift to the people for their living. The way Israel was to keep the time holy was to have a Sabbath day, as God did when God created the world. As slaves, they had no Sabbath time. They worked every day, pushed mercilessly by their oppressors. Now they were to take a day of rest. It was not necessarily to be a day of worship, just a day away from all the work one did to make a living and keep a household. God didn’t need constant productivity or the writers of the Hebrew Scriptures wouldn’t have even put in the Sabbath day, the day God deliberately rested, the day God renewed Godself for further work and the day Israel should stop and do the same. By making that time holy and consecrated, God gave Israel a way to order and shape their lives to live for God every day – work was holy during work time and Sabbath was holy during Sabbath time.

Because God delivered the people from slavery, God gave direction that created a community that was not abusive or oppressive in any way (Walter Brueggemann). The people of God were to remember that each one of them belonged to the people of God and should be treated as such. Honoring father and mother, a command given to adults, was to keep the family unit intact and to make sure the elderly were taken care of. Premeditated murder was out, though death in war, capital punishment and even revenge killing were permitted. Adultery, stealing, lying – especially in court – and coveting – wanting something someone else had so much that you would try to take it from them – were all actions that would tear apart the fabric of society and lead the people astray from God’s ways.

So God wants a people who relate to God, to time and to neighbor in the holy way God has given them. The Ten Commandments are practical instructions for living as God’s people that were the center of Jesus’ life and teaching. Righteousness was about love for God and neighbor and when this code was violated, Jesus set about to correct it. That is why Jesus throws the animal sellers and the money changers out of the temple. The temple was supposed to be God’s house, a holy place, a pure place and these people were profaning it by conducting business in its grounds.

We often hear about the law being opposed to grace, that we were given the grace of salvation with freedom from the law. But the Ten Commandments were a gift of grace too. God had already chosen and saved the people of Israel. They did not do anything to earn God’s love; living by the law was their response to the gift, just as our living by the law and Jesus’ direction are our response to the gift of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.

We look at the Ten Commandments during Lent because it is a time where we examine the ways we have gone astray from living as God’s people. Everyone has to be dependent on something and we are often dependent on things other than God – money, power, security, people pleasing.

We do not keep holy time either. Statistics are high on the number of people who work at home, who don’t take all their vacation, who are on antidepressants or anxiety medication because of stress in their lives.

And we certainly do not behave in a holy way toward our neighbors. We are angry and resentful, we hold grudges, we do not love our enemies as Jesus told us to do, we lie and we steal, whether it be office supplies or taking too much of someone’s time.

We are God’s people and the 10 Commandments apply to us just as much as they did to the people of Israel. Following them is a way to shape our living into relational, righteous behavior toward God and others and ourselves for that matter, being sure to get the rest we need. God’s teaching and direction for us is something to be thankful for and something to follow out of gratitude for God’s goodness in providing us a way to draw nearer to God and one another. Let us all remind ourselves of the role they played in Jesus’ life and so play in our lives as we make an effort to keep them so we can live a life of freedom in our Promised Land.


     - Rev. Ann Barker

Work cited:
Walter Brueggemann, Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV – Year B, Exodus 20:1-17 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press), p. 212-213