As I said last Sunday, Mennonites often avoid Deuteronomy because as Protestants (saved by grace) we avoid the Law and as Mennonites (committed to peace) we avoid the war texts. Both objections are, I believe, misplaced. In two weeks we will look at a primary war text in Dt 7. Today we look at the core of the Law, often called the Ten Commandments.
The Hebrew name for these commands is “the ten words”, from which we get the name “Decalogue” (Greek for “ten words”). To think of them as laws (“commandments”) is misplaced, because it reduces them to a law code for lawyers to argue over, when they are meant as a paradigm or picture to give us a glimpse of what life spent walking with God looks like. The Ten Words give shape to discipleship. They show us what a godly life looks like. So we examine them this morning to find out how we respond to God’s grace at work in our lives.
Introducing the Ten Words
Verses 1 to 5 introduce the Ten Words. Moses says to the people:
Hear, Israel, the decrees and laws I declare in your hearing today. Learn them and be sure to follow them. The LORD our God made a covenant with us at Horeb. It was not with our ancestors that the LORD made this covenant, but with us, with all of us who are alive here today. The LORD spoke to you face to face out of the fire on the mountain. (At that time I stood between the LORD and you to declare to you the word of the LORD, because you were afraid of the fire and did not go up the mountain.)
Note the importance of hearing. An old joke tells of three men, all hard of hearing, riding the train in London. One says to the others, “Is this Wembley?” A second replies, “No, it’s Thursday.” The third says, “I am too. Let’s get off and have a drink.” We may be hard of hearing with each other, but we dare not be deaf towards God. God the creative Word speaks into our lives, and God’s words are life. This way of saying, “Hear, O Israel”, is a standard formulation in Deuteronomy. It means, “Pay attention! This is important!” It implies a close personal relationship for giving the Ten Words. Although God spoke at Sinai to Moses, who was there with the parents of his present audience, “Moses insists, “God made this covenant with you. God spoke these words to you. I stood between because of your fear, but this is God’s relationship with you.”
As with the whole of the Law, the Ten Words show how the people are to respond to God’s saving act in setting them free from Egypt and bringing them to their new home. They do not earn God’s intervention; rather they respond to it by living God’s way. This fact parallels the way that we understand the work of Jesus in the New Testament. God sets us free from the power of sin through his death and resurrection. We respond by living God’s way in this world.
What follows, then, gives us the shape of discipleship for God’s people, Israel, just as the Sermon on the Mount gives us the shape of discipleship for Christians who follow Jesus today. With this in mind, we can hear Moses speaking to us also: God made a covenant with you—not just with those people from three thousand years ago. God has acted in your lives. These words show you how to live as God’s people.
The Ten Words
So we turn to the Ten Words themselves. Gerald Gerbrandt has a helpful table showing the ways that different groups have numbered them. Judaism has one set of numbers beginning with “I am the Lord your God”, Roman Catholicism has another, and Protestants a third. (See Gerbrandt, Deuteronomy, 131.) I will use the usual Protestant numbering, following Christopher Wright. (See Wright, Deuteronomy, 68-86.) We go through the ten words in sequence and then consider what they mean for us today, taken together.
First Word: You shall have no other gods before me. We meet God as Yahweh, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. There may be other spiritual powers, but God alone is the source of life, the creator of all, the one whom we follow when we say, “Jesus is Lord”.
Second Word: You shall make no carved image. The use of idols was common in the ancient world, and remains so today in many religions. Followers of Jesus [applying this commandment directly to ourselves] relate to God as a person, as Creator and Divine Parent, as Lord and Saviour. A basic reason that we do not make “images” is that we are ourselves made in God’s image (Genesis 1). We do not point to an idol to show God to those around us; we point to ourselves. This is an awesome and terrible responsibility.
Third Word: You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God. Names were important in the OT. You remember the way that Jacob asks to know God’s name, and God asks, “Why do you want to know my name?” Jacob wanted to use God’s name to control God. When people today give their opinion about something, but claim that this is the word of the Lord, they transgress against this word from the Lord. Preachers are especially in danger here! We may too easily say, “Thus says the Lord,” when in fact it is only our own voice speaking.
Fourth Word: Observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. As I said last Sunday, this word to Israel is revolutionary. They were to take a day each week to remember God, to remember who they were and God is, to renew the covenant with God under which they lived. Most importantly, they did so because they had been slaves of the Egyptians and were now God’s people. Therefore they also made sure that the slaves in their own homes could share the Sabbath with them. All people stand equal in God’s presence, from the lowest to the highest in the land.
Fifth Word: Honour your father and mother. This word speaks to the importance of family life and of community. The word is not directed primarily to children as children, but to everyone to respect and honour those who precede them. The word assumes that our old people are a great asset to the community and worthy of great respect. I saw an example recently of a retirement centre in the Netherlands. Young adults in a university nearby are given lodging in the community; their rent is to socialize with the elderly people there, providing companionship to people suffering from dementia, for example. This experiment is a wonderful way of living out the fifth word to honour our oldest “mothers and fathers” in the community.
Sixth Word: You shall not kill. I don’t think that the Israelites heard a prohibition of all killing in this word, but Jesus deepens our understanding in the Sermon on the Mount to include all violence against other people, not just murder.
Seventh Word: You shall not commit adultery. Again, family life is to be valued, and actions that destroy the family are condemned. Some people wonder if this word reflects a patriarchal view in which women were condemned for adultery and men could get away with it. The way that the fifth word, also lifts up the family, calls for respect of father and mother suggests rather that all violence against the family is in view here.
Eighth Word: You shall not steal. Respect for other people, within and outside of the family, includes respect for property as well.
Ninth Word: You shall not give false testimony. Such respect also includes a careful and consistent integrity that does not speak against other people for one’s own gain.
Tenth Word: You shall not covet anything that belongs to your neighbour. This word is remarkable in that it deals with the heart, rather than with external action. Jesus picks up on this interior nature of the Law when he deepens the provisions of the Law in the Sermon on the Mount. For example, “You have heard that you should not kill another, but I tell you that one who hates another in his/her heart has become a murderer.” One not only avoids stealing (the eighth word), but one avoids even desiring what one might steal.
Bringing These Together
This is a quick survey of the content of the Ten Words. Remember that they are a picture of faithfulness, showing what discipleship looks like, not a comprehensive guide to how to live, nor are they meant to say all that God wants to say to us. Rather they grow out of God’s interaction with the Children of Israel, setting them free from slavery and giving them their own home in which to live.
Some observations, then, on the whole.
First, sometimes we want to turn these words into a list of rules to follow, but they represent our response to God rather than rules on how to get to God. We do follow them, but we follow them as our response to God’s work in our lives. If you are not a follower of Jesus, then these words are less important for you. They are good advice for everyone, but the first step is always to seek God’s face, to meet God ourselves.
Second, an observation comes from the dual focus in these words. They represent how we relate to God on the one hand and how we relate to our neighbours in community on the other. The vertical and horizontal dimensions are not two separate ways of being “good”, but rather they are bound together in every part of our lives. If you want to follow God, that includes treating each other rightly. If you want to treat each other well, that includes following God.
Jesus summarized the Law in the great commandment: “Love God with all that you are, and love your neighbour as yourself.” Jesus shows us clearly that these two movements—upwards to God and horizontally to each other—are two sides of the same coin. You cannot have one without the other. The Ten Words say the same thing.
My third observation is that these Ten Words give us a basic orientation to life that stands in great tension with the way that Canadians in general see life. Christopher Wright puts it like this:
It would be going too far to assert a strict sequential order of values in the Ten Commandments, but the overall impression seems valid. God’s priorities for human moral attention are: God, society, family, life, sex, property. It hardly needs to be pointed out that in Western society at least, modern culture has almost precisely inverted this order of priorities.
Consider the way that our culture treats sexual expression. We assume that life is most fulfilling if we experience a great deal of pleasure, and the highest form of pleasure is sexual. Therefore anything that interferes with sexual expression is wrong. I enjoy reading the advice column in the Winnipeg Free Press. It intrigues me how often the people asking for help refer to sex, and I observe that in her answers “Miss Lonelyhearts” assumes that sexual expression is simply good, unless it hurts someone. The Ten Words do not say she is wrong, but they do relativize sexual expression within the greater values of what is good for society and the family.
Similarly, our culture values making money and having lots of personal property. “Those who die with the most toys win,” we say. The Ten Words also value property, but place the good of the larger community and of each family above the acquisition of wealth.
Repeatedly in our world we find ourselves living by standards that are in tension with the Ten Words, and therefore also in tension with the values of God’s Reign in this world. Consider end of life issues that we face today in Canada. These are high on our radar, given the aging population of Canada. So the question arises about the right to end one’s own life.
If personal expression and the rights of the individual are greatest, then it makes sense to listen to the person who wishes to control the moment of his/her death. But if the first place is given to God, from whose hands life and death come, then we may look for other alternatives. The place that the Ten Words give to parents—to the oldest mothers and fathers in the community—suggests that we should at the least make their closing days as comfortable as possible. But a simple appeal to what the individual wants will carry less weight.
Hear me carefully at this point. I have given any answers any of the issues I have referred to. Rather I am saying that we must be clear about the basis on which we discuss and decide them. As followers of Jesus we observe that God has first place in our lives, and that we work out our relationship with God by valuing society, family, life, sex, and property in that order.
Our society answers these questions by valuing property above respect for life, sex above society, and what the individual wants above what the community wants. In our society’s view, God is a mostly irrelevant afterthought, which we do not bring into the conversation at all. For us, however, our whole conversation begins with God. God has saved us. God has made us. God has led us through the desert to the place where we now stand.
The precise shape that our discipleship takes requires careful conversation as a community, in which we help each other hear God speak. “Hear, Israel, the decrees and laws I declare in your hearing today. Learn them and be sure to follow them.”
Steinbach Mennonite Church
8 January 2017
Text: Deuteronomy 5: 1-21
5 Moses summoned all Israel and said:
Hear, Israel, the decrees and laws I declare in your hearing today. Learn them and be sure to follow them. 2 The Lord our God made a covenant with us at Horeb. 3 It was not with our ancestors that the Lord made this covenant, but with us, with all of us who are alive here today. 4 The Lord spoke to you face to face out of the fire on the mountain. 5 (At that time I stood between the Lord and you to declare to you the word of the Lord, because you were afraid of the fire and did not go up the mountain.) And he said:
6 “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.
7 “You shall have no other gods before me.
8 “You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below.9 You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, 10 but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.
11 “You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.
12 “Observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy, as the Lord your God has commanded you. 13 Six days you shall labor and do all your work, 14 but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your ox, your donkey or any of your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns, so that your male and female servants may rest, as you do. 15 Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.
16 “Honor your father and your mother, as the Lord your God has commanded you, so that you may live long and that it may go well with you in the land the Lord your God is giving you.
17 “You shall not murder.
18 “You shall not commit adultery.
19 “You shall not steal.
20 “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.
21 “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife. You shall not set your desire on your neighbor’s house or land, his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”