When I was in fifth grade, if we memorized Exodus 20:1-17, our Sunday School teacher promised to give us a 1lb Hershey’s chocolate bar. It is amazing what a fifth grader would do for a 1lb bar of chocolate. Thinking back on it she was probably aiming pretty low, many of us might have memorized 5 chapters of the Bible for that much chocolate. There are few things in the Bible that our greater society at large knows about. Even if a person is disconnected enough from the Old Testament that they are unable to list even one of the commandments, they should know - assuming that they are following recent events in the last 10 years - that they at the very least exist and that there is controversy over whether or not they should be displayed at the local court house. If you grew up in the church even, if someone did not bribe you with chocolate to memorize them in their entirely, I am sure that somewhere along the line you were asked to recite at least some shortened version of these 17 verses as part of some Bible School, Children’s church, or VBS push.
This is the point in the Biblical narrative that God comes to the nation of Israel, which God has already sent Moses to, performed the plagues on their behalf, freed from Egyptian slavery, led safely across the sea, fed with manna and quail and have finally led them to the foot of the mountain, so that they can meet this God who has chosen them, rescued them and taken care of them up ‘til this point. They have come to this point so that they can come to an understanding as to what it truly means for God to be their god and for them to be God’s people. And God gives them these 10 commandments as the heart of the covenant.
These are the great commandments, this is the heart of how a community desiring to join together and join themselves with God will live. As I mentions last week, a covenant is a legally binding agreement where both parties agree to certain guidelines and stipulations. These 10 commandments are not suggestions, guidelines, or statements; they are the articles of the covenant God is making with these people. God says, “This is how a community living with me will live.” This is what your half of the agreement looks like. I will be your God, I have shown you what that looks like, I have worked on your behalf to bring you to this point and here is what I require of you. These are the legal guidelines of the relationship which God is building with these people. These commandments are in a sense legally binding on the community which desires to join itself in relationship with God.
It is interesting that not quite half of these covenant stipulations are not about the people’s relationship with God, actually just over half of them deal with their relationships with each other. Jesus summed up all the law and the prophets, Love the Lord your God and love your neighbor. And this is indeed true in that most all of the law are expansions of these basic commands and the heart of these commandments are just simply about loving God and loving each other.
The things most gods asked of their adherents had to do mainly about what the people needed to do to get the gods to do what they wanted/needed the god to do. If you bring me honey cakes and your first born son, then I might make the crops grow. I you dance around in a particular fashion and give up one your daughters to the temple, then, if I am in a good mood, I might make it rain. If you anger me, if you displease me, if I woke up this morning and ticked about what my consort did, then I might rain fire and hail down on you, your animals and your crops, deal.
But that is not what God is like. God hears the cries and pleas of the people of Israel, when many of them don’t know God or have ever heard of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. God calls one out from among them to be God’s voice to their oppressors and God comes to them and works on their behalf to free them and take care of them. And instead of proving to be a capricious or selfish God, God asks that they worship God and God alone, take one day out of every seven to set aside for worship and rest and to be nice to each other. This really does set God apart from the gods of Egypt and the gods of the other communities of the ancient near east.
God cares about them, in fact God love them. God wants what is best for them. So God set up parameters that not only their relationship with God, but their relationships with each other. God was not merely giving them rules about how to worship, rules on how to sacrifice. Being the people of God was harder than cutting of a nearly unnecessary part of their body that nobody could see anyway. The covenant stipulations might be simple but they are far from easy. Being the people of God meant that they had to change the way the lived their lives, all of their lives.
Being the people of God did not merely affect their “spiritual” life, how they worshipped, where they worshipped, who they worshipped and what they did when they worshipped, it affected every part of their lives. It affected how they spoke, what they said about others, their familial relationships, what and who they wanted, and what they did about what and who they wanted. It affected how they lived in relation to God and it affected how they lived in relation to every other person around them. This was not just making an agreement about which God they choose to worship, this was about adhering to a new way of life.
These covenant stipulations are not simply about how we worship or act toward God. Nor are they a check list that allows us to know if we have done all the proper things to get God to love us. God does not call us to live by a new set of rules. God does not call us to come to church on Sundays and make nice with the people of God we encounter there. God does not just care our spiritual lives. God does not merely want our worship. God wants us to completely change our whole lives. To change how we interact with each and every person we encounter, when we are at church as well as when we are not.
God cares about who we worship, why we worship and when we worship, but God also cares about how we treat each other. God does not want us to speak wrongly about God, but neither does God want us to speak wrongly about others. God loves us and desires our honor and praise, likewise God expects us to honor our parents. God love us and is a jealous God, God will not share us with other gods, and thus God wants us to assume that other people are just as jealous about those whom they love and that they do not wish to share those whom they have covenanted to love with us. Nor are we to desire their stuff, or take it. And on no account are we to haul off and kill them for just any reason. God does not merely care about who we worship, and when we worship, God cares about all our relationships, who we are when we are not worshipping, how we treat others when it is not the Sabbath, these things matter just as much to God as our focused allegiance and love.
What it looks live to live in covenant relationship with God is not easy. A check list is easy. Rules about how to properly worship God are easy. Things that tell us what we need to do to get God to do what we want God to do, sound a whole lot more appealing. Even if God is asking us to do things we don’t really want to do. At least then we know there is a pay in the end. God asks for more than adherence to a set of rules. Covenant relationship with god is more than just adding another checklist to our lives; or something else on our daily “to do.” God wants more than that. God wants all of us. God wants every part of who we are, every part of what we do.
These ten commandments; only worship God, do not have and idols, keep the Sabbath holy, do not speak wrongly about God, honor your parents, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not speak wrongly of others, do not murder, and do not covet. Sound easy, but they are more than just a check list, they are a way of life. They are the backbone, the heart, the inner workings of a relationship with God. This is about loving God and loving neighbor, as a way of life, a complete and utter change that requires us to wholly commit all aspects of who we are and all the relationships in our lives, whether they be who we worship, our parents, our friends, our neighbors, they guy who pumps our gas or that lady we pass every day on our way to work, all our relationships, every part of our lives is handed over and given over to a new way a life, a way of life that may not be easy but a way of life that is what living a community that is in relationship with the God of the universe is.
I am not against memorizing scripture, but I am not sure memorizing these 10 commandments in fifth grade did anything to help me truly understand what God was asking of me. Recently one of my friends on facebook said something to this effect in their status, “When I tell my children what to do, do not expect them to come back later and recite what I told them.” Memorizing the 10 commandments is not what it takes for them to take shape in our lives and change who we are. Memorizing these 17 verses probably makes it easier to see them as rules that help us earn God’s love. Simply calling them commandments, instead of seeing them as the heart of a covenant relationship, probably leads them to becoming a checklist to proving our worth before God.
In fact, I don’t know about you, but for many years, I thought these to be a list of what we are to do and not do in order to be Christians. And I would venture to say for many years they were are checklist for me, a part of my daily to do list. By doing these things, I was doing what I needed to do, so that God would look favorably upon me, so that God would love me. God does not ask for just part of us, God does not ask that we live by a set of standards, God asks for all of who we are. God asks for all of our relationships, all of our interactions, God asks for all of who we are. God wants to be in loving relationship with us and for us to in turn be in loving relationship with everyone else. God does not ask for much, but what God asks for is everything.