Ten Commandments About Love – March 7
A sermon based on Exodus 20:1-17 *
March 7, 2021 at Mount Vernon, OH
by Rev. Scott Elliott
As we just heard, the ten commandments are before us in our Lectionary text from the Hebrew Scriptures. While I’ve mentioned the Ten Commandments a number of times in church, it has been a long while since I’ve selected a Lectionary lesson that lifts them up specifically. They don’t come around a lot in the Lectionary cycle–but they are up this week and here we are.
Sadly, there are parts of the Bible that cause divisiveness in our culture. Among them are the Ten Commandments. My sense is many of the issues over the Ten Commandments come from the battles that have gone on with religious leaders trying to force feed them on people in pubic laws and displays. They have come to sort of epitomize angst about mixing church and state. Added to this are the images we have in art and movies of a gnarly looking old Moses angrily bringing them down to the masses. We also have similar images of fire and brimstone preachers.
In America we like to have a say in our rules. Most of us do not want laws mixed in with religion and forced on others. Consequently, there’s seems to be this culturally built-in distrust that hangs over the Ten Commandments. So, a lot of us start with the idea they are stifling old musty laws, irrelevant to today. But I think they’ve been misunderstood by their misuse and abuse and are very much relevant and love oriented! If you take them out of the cultural battles and set aside preconceptions and just read them, it turns out they align with Jesus’ greatest commandment to love God and love neighbor. The Ten Commandments cover those two loves and Jesus even tells us those two loves summarize the law.
And it could be Rabbi Jesus was inspired by the Ten Commandments as they are reported to have originally come on two tablets, one lists the way to loving relationship with God, the other lists the way to loving relationship with neighbors. How cool is that?
I suspect that love is probably not the first thing that comes to mind with the Ten Commandments. But keep it in mind as we go through them. I’ve mentioned this connection when we’ve looked at them before.
Let’s start with the first tablet with the commandments focused on our relationship with God. There are four of these commandments. The short version is to be in good relationship with God we need to be faithful to God. How? By not having other gods, or idols, not using God’s name for ungodly reasons and have one day a week to rest and pay respect to God in creation and us.
Let’s take a bit of a longer look at the first tablet. In the First Commandment God tells the faith community of the Hebrews, “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.” “Lord” in Hebrew is Yahweh the name of the Hebrew’s God. It’s kind of confusing but the word for God in the commandment is Elohim which means gods– plural. Out of all the gods, Yahweh is the Hebrews’ God. They understood Yahweh to side with them and rescue them. Other gods in the Ancient Near East didn’t do that!
The First Commandment is about recognizing Yahweh’s love for them and asking them to love their God of love, Yahweh, back. Note that it does not demand that those who follow other gods must follow Yahweh, the God of Love is speaking to the Hebrews “I am the Lord YOUR God . . .” The God we understand and try and place before is this same God, Yahweh the God who is love. The Commandment is for those who follow Yahweh. In fact, the part of the Commandment that reads “no other gods before me” can also 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 Sacred times and places with any other god, we are to 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– we are to love.
Let’s hear the primary part of the Second Commandment again, “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.” How can we hear this as about loving God? “You shall not make for yourself an idol” is agreeing to not idolize anything. We are supposed to revere God alone. This means not worship things. We often think this means images from creation, but it also includes money, wealth and power, cultural prejudices, and even books and dogma and creeds. Which can include the Bible, and church tradition. Nothing is to stand in the way of our relating to the God of Love.
The most troubling part of the lesson is the note on the second commandment that indicates God is jealous and punishes generations of a Hebrew family for any hatred of Yahweh. Our trouble with this is it seems to make God lash out like petty people do at being hated. But that’s not a fair reading. The Creator set up creation in such ways that there are consequences for hatred, for lack love and those consequences can and do affect generations in the future.
Slavery in America is an example. It hated God in others. Our nation’s early worship of wealth over and against justice– and frankly against the God of love and the Bible’s commandments continues to inflict punishment on generations. God did not lash out at us, our forebearers’ ungodly behavior has lack love related consequences! And to the extent our generation lacks the love to resolve injustices our children and children’s children will continue to pay the price. Hate of God in others is very costly.
The Third Commandment is about misusing God by twisting God and God’s love to justify something sinful. God’s name is not to be used improperly to support ungodly acts. “You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God.” It’s not focused on common swearing or cursing as we may have been led to believe. It’s about NOT abusing the idea of God (who is Love) for things that are not loving. Like racism. Like religionism. Like classism. Like sexism. Like heterosexism. It is improper to invoke God as an instrument of such wrongs, and other wrongs. God’s name is not to be used to back up oppression, injustice, violence or hate.
The Fourth Commandment affirms we are to stop all the busy distracting things we do the rest of the week and pay attention to our relationship with God. “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.” We need to reconnect by letting go and getting closer to God. No less than one whole day a week ought to have us soaking in the Love that is God– and focusing on and honoring God.
That’s the first tablet. Let’s look at the commandments on the second tablet, the ones about relationship with others. The short version is to be in good relationship with others is to respect elders, to not murder, to not be unfaithful to marriages, to not steal, to not lie about others and to not enviously desire what others have. Let’s look at them in more detail.
The Fifth commandment, the first one on that second tablet, is about relations with the older generation: “Honor your father and your mother.” Which means treat with respect, provide for and care for the well-being of the fathers and mothers in our midst. It does mean accept, or forget, abuse by a parent, it means not abusing or wishing ill on a father or mother, any of them. This can be heard to mean all mothers and fathers. This is foundational “tend to the well-being – love– your neighbors’ stuff.”
The rest of other commandments on the love-your-neighbor’s tablet are fundamental relational rules too. The next, the Sixth, is about as basic and fundamental as can be, “You shall not murder” that applies not just to fathers and mothers, but also to children, siblings, neighbors and strangers. No one is to be murdered. It makes sense to honor the lives of fellow humans.
The Seventh Commandment makes sense too, it’s about not dishonoring marital relationships, we are to not commit adultery– this means we honor both our marriage and those of everyone else.
The Eighth Commandment requires the honoring of others possessions. “You shall not steal.” That certainly makes sense in relationship with others, right? We do not dishonor people by taking their things.
And we do not dishonor them by lying about them either. That’s the Ninth Commandment “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” Neighbor in Hebrew means another person. We are not to lie about another person in private or in public, anywhere, any time.
The Tenth and last commandment is to not covet – which means to desire with envy– what others have. Coveting amounts to valuing physical things above relationship, it makes love of things of more value than love of your neighbor.
We just went through the Ten Commandments. They sure seem relevant to modern relationships. Here’s my modern summary of them:
Tablet One: Be in good relationship with God by not having other gods or idols and not using God’s name for ungodly reasons. Take one day a week to rest and focus on and honor God.
Tablet Two: Be in good relationship with others by respecting elders, not murdering, not being unfaithful to marriages, not stealing, not lying about others and not enviously desiring what others have.
Those are the Ten Commandments. They are about placing, above everything and giving highest value to, God and others. Following the Ten Commandments dovetails with Jesus’ teachings– which is not a surprise since he was a Jewish Rabbi and taught the Law is summed as loving God and neighbor. Jesus was all about those two loves . . . May we also strive to be all about those two loves.
* Based in part on a sermon I wrote in 2008.
Scott Elliott Copyright © 2021