Re-Reading the Ten Commandments Through a Lens of Love *

A sermon based on Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9;12-20
October 5, 2014 at Mount Vernon, OH
by Rev. Scott Elliott
I recently read some amusing quotes by children about their recollection of Bible stories. Here are some of the best quotes:

-Noah’s wife was called Joan of Ark.
-Lot’s wife was a pillar of salt by day, but a ball of fire by night . .
-The Egyptians were all drowned in the desert. Afterward Moses went up Mt. Cyanide to get the Ten Amendments.
-The First Commandment was when Eve told Adam to eat the apple.
-The Fifth Commandment is to humor thy mother and father.
-The Seventh Commandment is thou shall not admit adultery.
-Moses dies before he ever reached Canada. Then Joshua led the Hebrews in the Battle of Geritol.
-Jesus enunciated the Golden Rule which says to do unto others before they do unto you .
-The epistles were the wives of the apostles . . .
-St Paul cavorted to Christianity. He preached holy acrimony, which is another name for marriage. 1

That is pretty funny stuff. Those misunderstandings by children make us smile.
There are adult misunderstandings of the Bible too, most of them are a little less amusing. One of the concerns I’ve long had is that we think the Old Testament is, well . . . old and not useful. I hear sometimes that we should just do away with it. Other times I hear that the Old Testament is all about an angry God while the New Testament is about a loving God.
This idea that the Old Testament is somehow old and moldy and only about an angry God– belies the fact that all of Jesus’ teachings and most of the rest of the New Testament are derived from the Old Testament AND the God depicted therein. Jesus and Paul, the preeminent human beings in the New Testament, were both Jewish, and they both worshiped and followed Yahweh the God of their religion, and the God of what we call the Old Testament, which really is best called the Hebrew Scriptures. And those scriptures, they lay the foundation– the underpinnings– for Christianity.
Not only is Yahweh Jesus, Paul and the early Church’s God, Yahweh is our God. Have you seen our new sign? It proclaims “God is love.” So like most Sundays we are going to talk about that God who is love using the Old Testament.
I had this wonderful comment a few weeks ago by a member of the church right after the service, on the way out the door he said “Love and peace, you can’t go wrong with that.” Not only is he right, but he pretty much summed up the focus of every church service here. Love, God, longs for and leads us to peace.

Jesus message, like this church’s, over and over again is that we are to love. Jesus got that core message from the Old Testament, it is Leviticus 19:18 that first commands love your neighbor as yourself.  And like the Old Testament book of Leviticus, the New Testament books of Matthew (22:39) , Mark (12:31), Luke (10:27), Romans (13:9), Galatians (5:14) and James (2:8) all contain that command that we are to love our neighbors as our self.  Both Jesus and Paul assert this Old Testament commandment, along with love God, is the sum all the Old Testament commandments.   See to them, to Jesus and Paul, the Old Testament– the Hebrew Scriptures– mattered. They mattered enough that both Jesus and Paul tried to capture the essence in their teaching and preaching and actions.   Not only that, but the New Testament writers and compilers thought those teachings important enough to record and remember and pass down for generations in what we have come to call the Word of God, the Bible.
So this morning I want to invite us all to consider opening our minds up about the Old Testament. Lets erase any pre-conceived notions we have about the Hebrew Scriptures and look at this morning’s very famous text anew, and lets look for love in the message ‘cause it’s there . . . I promise.   Thinking openly about the Ten Commandments (and any Bible story actually) can help us reclaim their rich meanings. See our reclamation and open thinking about the Bible ought not to be limited to just stories and metaphor. We can also often choose to reclaim the meaning of the law.

We don’t have to hear the Ten Commandments as stodgy outdated oppressive laws that some politicians and religious elites rarely seem to follow, but still try and stick in everyone’s face out in the public market place.  While many of us may bristle at the notion of having the Ten Commandments zealously hung about town by the government, the truth is that those Ten Commandments can be read and heard as one heck of a set of rules requiring love of God, love of neighbor and love of self. The Ten commandments are radical, subversive, love-centered texts.
Now I suspect most of us grew up hearing the Ten Commandments as law from an angry, wrathful, punishing God, the type of god many of those who loudly advocate imposing the Ten Commandments in the market place seem to tend to believe in and peddle. But here’s what we need to do, we need to shift our thinking and consider what those ten commandments might mean if we take instead Paul and Jesus’s spin on the law and hear the Ten Commandments as they both did, based on love, from the God of Love, Yahweh.
When we do this something amazing happens: the harsh laws are transformed into loving laws that reflect a call to love God and love neighbor.

Check it out:
First some background: Traditionally the Ten Commandments have been “commonly understood as divided into ‘two tablets’: one concerning relations to God . . .and one concerning [relations to] neighbor.” 2.  This division is very interesting because – as I promised– it matches up squarely with Jesus’s assertion that all the law and the prophets hang on two commandments: to love God and to love your neighbor as yourself.

With that in mind, with that love filter on, if you will, let’s look at the four commandments on the tablets that pertain to our relationship with God, the ones that command us not to have other gods, not have idols, not use God’s name in vain and to keep the Sabbath holy.

The first Commandment is, like all but one, specifically aimed at the Hebrew people. God, speaking to the Hebrews through Moses, proclaims “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, you shall have no other gods before me.”   The word translated as “Lord” is Yahweh and the word God comes from the Hebrew word for gods, Elohyim. Yahweh is the Hebrew’s god among other choices for gods, and is recognized as the Hebrew people’s God because Yahweh sided with them in their oppressions and rescued them.

This Commandment asks that those – the Hebrews– who follow God, Yahweh, recognize Yahweh from experiences of saving-liberating acts. God is known as the one who sides with the oppressed and frees them, liberates them, looks after their well being. This is the very same God we know as the God of Love, right?

And note that this First Commandment while issued to the followers of Yahweh also recognizes other god choices.   The First Commandment does not demand that those who follow other gods must follow Yahweh, the God of Love, only that the people of Yahweh must. “I am the Lord your God . . .”

The God we understand and try and place before us is love. The god others have before them is often something all together different.   So this Commandment does not have to be heard as a dictate that only the angry god of the religious elite can be worshiped! Rather it can be heard anew as a dictate that those who follow Yahweh, which Christians are supposed to do, are to have no god, but the God of Love.

In fact the part of the Commandment that reads “no other gods before me” can be translated as no other gods “at my altar,” “in my house,” “during worship.” 3
In other words, as a people of Yahweh we are not to compromise our worship services, our prayers, this holy sacred place with any other god, we must at all time keep before us the God of Love, the One who saves and liberates us and delivers the oppressed and downtrodden to safety –the God who loves and is love.

Now imagine for a moment what a difference it would make if all of Christendom had no other God but the God of Love in church on Sundays!  Racism and its hate could never be promoted in church with only the God of Love before congregations.  Sexism and its hate could never be promoted in church with only the God of Love before congregations.
Xenophobia and its hate could never be promoted in church with only the God of Love before congregations.  Homophobia and its hate could never be promoted in church with only the God of Love before congregations.   Hearing the First Commandment in this way gives us a very different Way to hear the law. It promotes the God of love; a Way of love; a Way away from hate.
The Second Commandment reads “you shall not make yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.”   Hearing this through the Love God/Love-others filter that the Jewish Rabbi Jesus established for his followers, “You shall not make for yourself an idol” does not mean don’t worship images of the loving god that offends religious elites, but, rather don’t idolize anything other than the God of Love.   This means don’t idolize anything including not only images from creation, but also money, wealth, power and I dare say the Bible; or unloving church traditions, dogmas, dictates or creeds.   Nothing, absolutely nothing (no matter where it comes from), is to stand between us and the God of Love.
Think how things might look if there was no idolatry in our houses of worship. No idols of man-made doctrines, phobias, hatreds, riches or religious pronouncements. Instead we’s only gaze upon the God of Love!
The Third Commandment is “You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God.” If we hear this as a prohibition against misusing the God of Love’s name it’s no longer about swearing or cursing, it is about misusing the name of God (who is Love) for things that are not loving. God’s name is not to be used as an instrument of hate or hurt or oppression or injustice, or other violence.
Pretty cool stuff this rehearing the commandments.

The last love God related Commandment is “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.” this is not a prohibition, but, rather calls us to positive action– and it’s the one commandment intended to apply to everyone. We are to remember the Sabbath and keep it holy. Stop all distractions, dedicate a day to the God of Love and keep it holy . . .
This benefits us not only by keeping us in touch with God but by letting our body and mind rest and focus on that which is holy: the God of Love. One day of the week, the whole day, being all about Love ought to work for all of us.

The rest of the commandments are on the tablet for relations with others, our neighbors. They are quite easy to hear as love oriented when we think about it. I’ll just run through them quickly.  Honor your father and your mother is not about kids doing as parents tell them or accepting abuse by a parent, rather it is, treat with respect, provide for and care for all mothers and fathers, the elders in the family of Christ, the elders down the street and the elders from coast to coast. Love these neighbors as yourself.

The other commandments follow this Yahweh’s-followers-are-to-love neighbors line. Don’t murder, don’t commit adultery, don’t steal, don’t bear false witness, don’t covet your neighbor’s things or spouse. These commandments are about honoring your neighbors, acting respectfully and lovingly toward them.

So there we have it. Heard anew all ten commandments are about love of God and love of neighbor. Imagine that! Jesus got it right! The law is about loving God and about loving others.  When understood as being about love, the Ten Commandments are not stodgy prohibitions or outdated rules that favor the religious elites’ way of understanding God, rather they are a Way for us Christians to stay focused on the God of Jesus, Yahweh, the God of Love and to spread that love about.

So here’s the thing, if anyone asks what today’s sermon was about the simple answer is: it was about The Ten Commandments being read as requiring love of God and the love of others, the same stuff Jesus and Paul and the New Testament teach. . .


* Based in part on a sermon I wrote in 2008.
1. I got this quote out of 1001 Quotes, Illustrations, and Humorous Stories, Grand Rapids, Baker Books, (2008), 298 attributed to Roger Moberg.
2. New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol I, p. 839.
3. Ibid. at 841.
Scott Elliott Copyright © 2014