When I was a child, sometimes my mother – like a lot of parents – would say to me “Pick up your toys” or “Eat all your dinner.” And I would respond “Why?”
“Because I said so.”
Because. I. Said. So. Four words I found deeply unsatisfying. Even infuriating. Because I said so. That has never worked for me as a reason to do or not do anything. I’ve always wanted to know WHY.
I don’t know about you, but if I think back to the way I was taught the Ten Commandments, it was much the same approach. Why should we follow these rules? Because God said so.
For some people, that may be reason enough.
But, we miss out on the deeper meaning of the Ten Commandments if we simply reduce them to laws that we are supposed to follow – or else.
Why does God present these commandments? Is it simply to help us know the difference between right and wrong? So that we tow the line? Or, is something more going on?
Friends, here’s the good news. These commandments aren’t arbitrary rules or Divine laws simply to keep us from getting into trouble or to satisfy the whims of a demanding God. They are not a mere script to follow to ensure that we stay on the straight and narrow, so that we can know what it is to be “good,” do it or face punishment. The Commandments are presented to build relationship – with God and one another.
The Ten Commandments were given at a particular time and place to a people at a crucial juncture in their history. Earlier in the Book of Exodus, we learn that the Israelites were enslaved by Egyptian masters who worked them “ruthlessly” (Exod. 1:13, 14) and made their lives “bitter” (Exod. 1:14) with hard, even cruel, service. As a result, the people of Israel languished in “misery” and “suffering” with a “broken spirit” (Exod. 6:9).
Then, in the crossing of the Red Sea, God does what Israel could not do for itself— gifting them with their longed for freedom and the opportunity for a new life of their own making. In the Decalogue (another name for the Ten Commandments) God explains how to keep this freedom, so that they (and we) we will never be enslaved to anyone else or anything else again. Resisting this enslavement depends on how the people relate to this liberating God and each other.
Because these commandments are situated within the relationship between God and the Israelites, God begins by reminding them who he uniquely is: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” It’s as if, just like in any relationship, we have to begin with knowing one another.
The peoples of the ancient near East understood that there were many gods. What this God wants is to make clear to the people that he is the one God who liberates and frees Israel from their long and brutal history of oppression. Therefore, “You shall have no other gods before me.”
After 400 years of being ruled by Pharaoh, the Israelites need to create a new way of life; they need to figure out how to set up a society that will enable them to flourish. The key to this is twofold. First, it is to develop a relationship with this liberating God. Second, it is to treat one another in such a way that all people can thrive.
Hebrew Bible Professor Amy Erickson highlights, “The commandments, as a whole, present an alternative vision to life in Egypt, a place where there was little interest in regeneration and rest, and no freedom.”
Why should we care about the Ten Commandments in 2023?
Because our lives will flourish to the extent that we remember that what is most important is our relationships with God and each other.
Two weeks ago we began an Aging with Grace Discussion Group. At our first meeting, I asked the group to write their responses to a number of questions, including “What are your priorities for the future?”
What do you think this group of wise elders said? Their priorities are relationships! With family, friends, and God.
As human beings, we thrive when we remember and live from our priorities. But, it is so easy to get side-tracked by lesser gods – by our own agendas and our desires for more or enough money, more power or some power, more attention, and more comfort – to name a few.
Though often overlooked or seen as less consequential than the other commandments, the Fourth commandment, “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy” is a lynch pin at the center of the Decalogue. We often mistakenly see it as simply telling us what we can’t do – work. We might look back to the 17th Century Puritans in Boston who made beans on Saturday, so they could eat them on Sunday and think it odd. Growing up in Schenectady, New York, which at the time had a large Jewish population that kept a sabbath day, I remember my classmates often feeling disappointed that they would miss out on certain activities scheduled on a Friday night or Saturday.
But, for the formerly enslaved Israelites, who never had a break from work, never were given opportunities for true rest, the Sabbath is an extraordinary gift of freedom. God wants to give the people something essential for well-being: rest.
It’s not possible to fully know the state of mind of the 17th century Puritans or my 20th Jewish classmates, but I have a hunch they had more peace of mind than we do. And I have a hunch that their sense of community and belonging was stronger than ours.
Perhaps one reason so many people in American culture are persistently exhausted, on edge, in poor health, feel disconnected and ungrounded, is because it is a society that doesn’t take a break – where the weekend isn’t really time to slow down, but rather, a time for a different kind of busyness. I do not think we can overestimate the cost to individuals, families, spiritual communities, and the overall society that we do not share in a day of rest; that we have let this commandment falter.
Hebrew Bible scholar Walter Brueggeman offers this, “Keep Sabbath: take a break from the rat-race of busyness and exhaustion and do not let (any) Pharaoh define your life.”
Why should we keep the commandments? Not just because God said so. But, because they build our relationships with God and each other; because they offer us a path to new life, a path to true freedom. Amen.