Then God spoke all these words: 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. You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or what is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments. You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name. Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six says shall you labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work – you, your son or your daughter, your male of female slave, your livestock, or the alien residents in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath and consecrated it. Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you. You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.
As a kid, I always preferred worship to Sunday School. Sunday School meant we had to wake up earlier in order to make it on time, it rushed us as a family to get things ready, and the classrooms were filled with all of those strangely adult renditions of biblical stories. The lesson might’ve been on David fighting Goliath, but all I could ever remember was how buff and old David appeared in the pictures rather than the young and innocent version from the story. The lesson might have been focused on the importance of sacrifice, but the imagery of Abraham preparing to kill his son left most of us utterly terrified of God, rather than ready to give our lives to him. The lesson might have been about Jesus and Mary Magdalene, but the story fell a little flat when our teacher kept calling Mary a “lady of the night” which made her sound more like a vampire than a prostitute.
On the other side, worship was awesome. I loved sitting near the front and watching all sorts of different people come together for this one thing. It amazed me that old men and women would take the time to talk to me and ask me questions about my life. Oh the joy that I remember experiencing when I was invited to the front for the children’s message; we were the special ones, all the adults had to sit in their pews but we, the kids, got to go all the way to the front and get closer to God.
My adolescent faith and love for church was like a roller-coaster. I looked forward to the hymns, the bread and cup, the communal act of praying together, but I dreaded the Sunday School classroom, the 25 year old cut-out flannel-graphs, and the seemingly endless amount of Old Testament arts and crafts.
But, if I’m honest, the thing that really drove me crazy about Sunday School was the fact that it felt way too much like regular school. We had a teacher who took attendance, put us in assigned seats, gave out homework, and even proctored pop-quizzes. Now, don’t get me wrong, there is an importance to the education that comes in Sunday School, but the way that it was done for me resulted in my desire to read the bible not for its knowledge, but for the promise of receiving a piece of candy if, for instance, I was the first person who could turn to the book of Isaiah.
I could go on and on about the things I experienced in those Sunday School classrooms, but the one that stands out the most was the day we were quizzed on the 10 Commandments. At the time I knew they were a thing, but I certainly had no idea what they were. Up to that point in my life I could not remember ever hearing them preached about in church, I had no idea where they were in the bible, but I knew you could find them in framed cross-stitch patterns at older people’s homes.
My sheet of paper remained blank for a long time. However, the teacher took pity on me and tried to help encourage some answers: “What are the ten things God wants us to do?” My mind raced through different sermons and scriptures; I tried to remember what the pastor always said about God… I think God wants us to love Him, I’m pretty sure we are supposed to do unto others as we would have them do unto us… What else? God calls us to lift up our crosses. Oh, and God wants us to give Him our money!
I don’t remember what I eventually wrote down for the quiz, but I do remember that I failed, and I did not receive a piece of candy.
Can you recite the Ten Commandments from memory? What do you imagine when you hear about the Ten Commandments? Do you think about how the law was established to protect and bind us together? Or do you just picture Charlton Heston from the movie version of the Ten Commandments?
Sadly, in our modern world we are more likely to hear about the Ten Commandments as they relate to controversies surrounding public displays than how they were written to help shape, guide, and mold our lives. Even as a child I was implicitly taught that it was more important to memorize God’s Top 10, than it was to understand them, and live accordingly.
The beginning of the commandments sets up an individual address, but the concern is not just about our private lives and welfare. The focus and thrust of the list is on protecting the health of the community in which the individual plays a pivotal role.
God graciously provided these guidelines as a way to open up our lives rather than limit them. It might not appear that way at first, but upon closer inspection they describe the outer limits of conduct rather than focusing on countless specific behaviors for every situation. At the foundation of the Ten Commandments is God’s desire for us to be protected from behaviors that have the potential to destroy.
In addition, the Ten Commandments are not a once-and-for-all declaration about the limitations of the Law. Throughout the history of Israel and the New Testament, faithful people struggled with these guidelines and amended them to be as fruitful as possible. This gives the people of God, in every age, the right and warrant to expand upon the laws.
If we can begin to see and imagine the commands as opportunities for fruitful living and malleable for our time, then they will no longer remain the stagnant list from our Sunday School memories.
I am the Lord your God, and you shall have other gods before me. You shall not create idols, nor shall your worship them
In our lives there are countless other gods fighting for our allegiances. From political parties to celebrities to businesses, it is next to impossible to be in the world without outside influences calling for us to worship them. When we find ourselves bowing to the powers in life, we neglect to honor the first two commandments. Honoring them encourages us to keep perspective about who is really in charge and the kinds of things that should be important in our lives. If we continue to worship what the media tells us, we will forget our call to love our enemies. If we spend more time catching up on all our favorite television programs, we will no longer catch up on what God is doing in our lives.
You shall not take the Lord’s name in vain
This is less about using curse words than it is about not claiming that we are doing something in the “name of the Lord” when we are really doing it in the name of ourselves. Perhaps some of us give time to serve the poor and homeless in Staunton, but if we do it to feel good about ourselves than we are taking the Lord’s name in vain. This command pushes us to commend and praise God for all the blessing of our lives, particularly when we can bless others.
Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy
Honoring the sabbath allows us to be our fullest. God rested on the sabbath, and we need rest in our lives. If we spend our days rushing through the familiar patterns of life, if we work without rest, then we will no longer be living. Or, as Ferris Bueller puts it, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” Enjoying life and resting was not some external thing handed down for us to abide by, but a way in which we can be the truest form that God hopes for.
Honor your mother and father
Having parents is a gift. More and more children grow up without the vitally important guidance of parents and have to learn to live according to the tests and trials that are thrown at them. Our parents, whether biological or situational, made the choice to love us in spite of us. They gave and provided when we could not do so for ourselves. Loving our parents encourages us to be people of gratitude, instead of imagining that we are the source of all good things in our lives.
You shall not murder
Instead we should protect the innocence of life. We are called to value every single life whether belonging to someone famous, or someone nearly invisible in Staunton living on the streets. Every life has value, and God wants us to cherish the beauty in all people.
You shall not commit adultery
Instead we should love and embrace our commitments. When we covenant to be in relationship with those whom we love, we are asking for God (and others) to hold us accountable to that promise. Fighting against the temptations of adultery results in us valuing the needs and wants of the other, more than ourselves.
You shall not steal
No one should have to steal to live in our world. Instead of stealing we are called to give with glad and generous hearts. Whether through the offering in church, or to any charitable organizations, when we give we help to prevent the need for people to steal to survive. God will provide, it just might not be the way we are anticipating.
You shall not bear false witness
Instead we should speak well of our brothers and sisters. Gossip and deception only serve to destroy our community. Just imagine how we might start loving and treating and trusting each other if we believed that no one would speak falsely about anyone else. Think about how beautiful a town and a church such as ours could be if people took this commandment seriously and worked hard for it to become manifest. When we begin to speak well of others at all times, we start seeing the world through God’s perspective and not just our own.
You shall not covet
Instead we should be grateful. It is too easy to look around at all the sources of blessings in other people’s lives and begin desiring to take them for ourselves. How quickly do we begin to resent our coworkers when they are given a raise, how quickly do we begin to ignore our classmates when they receive a better grade, how quickly do we avoid our fellow church folk when everything starts going well in their lives as ours fall apart? God has given all of us gifts, large and small, seen and unseen, they are there we only need a change in perspective to realize them in our midst. God will provide in ways that are miraculous and beautiful. We need not covet what our neighbors have when we remember that God has chosen to be with all of us.
The Ten Commandments are a gift, they open up life for us rather than restrict, they call us to do more rather than simply obey, and they help to build and foster our community rather than destroy it. God’s Top 10 are part of the basics of faith, from them we learn how to grow as disciples and serve others. If we can move them from a memorized list to a practiced way of life, everything will begin to change for the better.