Reflection: The Ten Commandments: Part 1 – The Law of Love May 27/18
Exodus 19:1-6; 20:1-2; Matthew 22:34-40
Every year since 1973 cable television has aired Cecil B DeMille’s blockbuster movie The Ten Commandments during the Passover and Easter season. Quick quiz: who played Moses? (Charleton Heston) Who played the Pharaoh, Ramses the II? (Yul Brynner) Who played Nefretiri, the wife of Ramses? (Anne Baxter) For some people Easter isn’t Easter without this grand epic, filmed on location in Egypt more than 60 years ago. For children, there’s the animated musical adventure The Prince of Egypt, from 1988. You certainly can’t beat the voice cast: Val Kilmer, Ralph Fiennes, Michelle Pfeiffer, Helen Mirren, Patrick Stewart – the list shines with the names of a dozen stars of the late 80s. If you want something more recent, you could also watch Exodus: Gods and Kings, directed by Ridley Scott and released in 2014 to rather mixed reviews. People are still filming and re-writing and commenting on this story, thousands of years after the time it is said to have happened – somewhere around the 15th to the 13th centuries before Christ.
The story of the Exodus is one of the foundational stories of Western and Middle Eastern culture. For Jews, it is the central story of their faith; it’s the story that most defines their understanding of their covenant with the one God. For Muslims, Moses is one of their most important prophets, sent to the Egyptians and the Israelites for guidance and warning. Many parallels are drawn between Musa (Moses), and their greatest prophet Mohammed. For Christians, it is the greatest story of God’s covenant with the Jewish people and a precursor to the covenant made with us through Jesus. It has inspired countless liberation movements, including the emancipation of slaves in Britain and North America and the Civil Rights movement in the States. It is a difficult story: violent, unverifiable by archaeological or historical study, full of hard theological questions, magic and miracles. As problematic as it may be, it has an enduring power in our imaginations and on our spirits. The story of the Exodus from Egypt brings us to where we are today: God’s direct self-revelation to Moses, and through Moses, to the people whom God has chosen as a priesthood to the world.
Let me repeat that: Israel has been chosen, not for special privileges so much as for special responsibility. The book of Exodus says explicitly: “the whole earth is mine”. Yahweh, Jehovah, this God who told Moses the name “I Am Who I Am”, has chosen Israel to be a holy nation and a priestly people on behalf of the whole earth. The role of the priest is to help people experience the reality of God through ritual and worship, to guide people through important moments in life and mark those occasions as holy, to intercede for the people and stand for them before God. This is the role of ancient Israel.
Traditional Christian theology has placed Christians in that role as well: to intercede on behalf of the world before God, and to help people experience the great I AM though an encounter with Jesus, by the power of the Holy Spirit. For Jews, their covenant with God is outlined in the commandments given to Moses from the mountain top – commandments you’re going to hear about in the next couple of weeks. For Christians, those commandments still hold, but it is the relationship with Jesus that is the main element of the covenant. For Jews, the holy law of God, the Torah, draws them close to I Am; for Christians, it is Jesus: his teachings, his call to follow, his transforming self-sacrifice, his resurrection and the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Jesus, like other great rabbis both before and after him, taught that those ten commandments given to the people of Israel could be condensed into two summarizing commandments: to love Yahweh God with all of our being and all of our lives, and to love our neighbours as we love ourselves. I expect you will discover over the next few weeks, if you haven’t already, that all of those ten commandments, as well as the other 600 plus commandments found in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, fall into the subsets of how we express our devotion to God, and how we keep our relationships with our neighbours healthy. It is true that some of those many laws simply don’t translate into a modern context – the world has changed far too much for laws about food or clothing or child rearing or what kind of candles to put in the worship tent to continue to apply – but overall those two guiding commandments and the 10 or so that go with them can still help hold us accountable to the laws of love that Jesus taught.
It might seem odd from a contemporary perspective to make a journey from slavery into a set of rules to live by. That counteracts all of those baby boomer notions about freedom and “doing your own thing” and the Gen X and Millenial fascination with the individual above community. But those rules to live by are a gift from the Holy One to help us be in relationship with one another. If we had no common rules to follow, we’d be lost. Just imagine, for example, if we didn’t share a knowledge of the rules of the road. We’d have an awful lot more accidents! Those of you who co-parent with someone who has different rules than you, know that it can create a lot of tension in child-rearing, as a child plays one parent off against the other. If we didn’t generally agree that it was wrong to steal or kill or run roughshod over others, then we would spend our lives holed up in fortresses, afraid to come out of our own doors unless we were armed to the teeth. Our rules, our laws, actually give us freedom. They allow us to live together in relative harmony.
When the Christian church was just getting started, the apostle Paul had to remind some of the new Jesus followers that freedom from the many laws that comprised Judaism at that time didn’t mean they could do whatever they wanted. He had to remind them that the freedom that they experienced through relationship with Jesus was freedom to love, freedom to be of service, freedom to make the right choice. Unlike slaves, who must do what their owners says, whether right or wrong, those who are free have a choice. For Paul, that choice for Christians is made out of gratitude for their freedom, in ways that honour God and serve our neighbours. Freedom in Christ takes us right back to those great commandments: Love God, and love your neighbour.
I know that many of you watched the royal wedding last weekend, and even those who didn’t have probably seen some reports about the sermon given that day. It surprised many with its contemporary feel and liberal theology. It’s the kind of sermon you could hear any Sunday in a United Church congregation, but for those expecting something stuffy or rigid, it came as a big surprise. Part of what the Rev. Michael Bruce Curry said was based on that Scripture we heard from Matthew’s Gospel. He went on to say:
“Love is not selfish and self-centred. Love can be sacrificial, and in so doing, becomes redemptive.
And that way of unselfish, sacrificial, redemptive love changes lives and it can change this world.
If you don’t believe me, just stop and think and imagine.
Well, think and imagine a world where love is the way. Imagine our homes and families when love is the way.
Imagine neighbourhoods and communities where love is the way.
Imagine governments and nations where love is the way.
Imagine business and commerce when love is the way.
Imagine this tired old world when love is the way.
When love is the way—unselfish, sacrificial, redemptive, when love is the way—then no child will go to bed hungry in this world ever again.
When love is the way, we will let justice roll down like a mighty stream and righteousness like an ever-flowing brook.
When love is the way, poverty will become history.
When love is the way, the earth will be a sanctuary.
When love is the way, we will lay down our swords and shields down by the riverside, to study war no more.
When love is the way, there’s plenty good room, plenty good room for all of God’s children.
Because when love is the way, we actually treat each other, well, like we are actually family.
When love is the way we know that God is the source of us all. And we are brothers and sisters. Children of God, my brothers and sisters, that’s a new heaven. A new earth. A new world. A new human family.”
When the Israelites made that journey out of slavery, they were making a journey into love. They had to trust that the God Moses reminded them about was still their God, and still cared about what happened to them. They had to believe that it was not God’s will that they stay enslaved. And when Moses and Aaron and Miriam got them out of Egypt, then the great I Am told Moses: These are my people, and they need to know how to LIVE like they’re my people. So here’s how it’s going to be. They need to live like they love me. And they need to live like they love each other.” And that’s how the 10 Commandments came to be. The commandments showed the Hebrew people how they were going to be ambassadors for God and priests of the Most High, by living that love.
Sadly, the stories that come next in the Bible? They lose track of that love – and even those who wrote down those stories, well, they seemed to think that God loved only them, the Israelites. Everyone else seemed to be up for grabs, and those Hebrews coveted and stole and killed and raped and enslaved, all believing that they were doing so at the will of God. And as we look down at those ancient people, let’s remember, that we Western people have coveted and stolen and killed too, all the while proclaiming that we had the blessing of God as we did it.
But that’s not who God is. It took Jesus to really wake us up to that fact. It took Jesus to take us beyond those commandments to the heart of who God is. Not because he taught something no-one else did; no; but because he lived it, and in his supreme sacrifice, he showed us that the way to be God’s people is to love without reserve, without counting any cost. And as the Most Rev. Curry said at Harry and Megan’s wedding, “There is power in love.”
Start with slavery, move through rules for living, and end with love. That’s the movement of the Scriptures today. It’s also the movement of Christian maturity. We start in a place of captivity – captive to fears, impulses, negative emotions, experiences or forces; we are set free to embrace a way of life that is ethically sound and that centres on the God we know in Jesus; and finally, we come to know at the deepest levels of our being that the greatest law is Love. It’s the simplest word to say, and the hardest word to live. May we grow day by day in the love of Christ Jesus. Amen.