March 4, 2018
Third Sunday in Lent, Year B
Exodus 20:1-7; John 2:13-22
In our first reading this morning we have heard the story of God revealing the laws to Moses, beginning with the Ten Commandments. The keynote of Israel’s relationship with God is to be obedient; the people’s commitment to God is to be shown by keeping these laws. They are firm, clear, and concise. Although several begin with the words, “You shall not,” their effect is positive, with the intention of liberating God’s people from sin. In their simplicity and directness they apply to everyone, without exception, for all time.
The first commandments deal with respect for God, clearly making the point that God must exist at the very center of our lives: nothing else is to come before God; and the last commandments have to do with people’s behaviour towards each other. In effect, we are called to love God first (as God has loved us), and everything we are, everything we think, do, and say must be rooted in the primary love shared with God. Some theological interpretations of these commandments suggest that they are stamped onto our heart/soul at the moment of conception and become what we think of as our conscience. So, whenever we are plagued with that nagging feeling of discomfort within ourselves – what we often refer to as a guilty conscience - it is actually the voice of God drawing us back into the ways in which we are called to live.
In her book ‘Amazing Grace – A Vocabulary of Faith’, Kathleen Norris talks about the way in which she for years dreaded hearing the Ten Commandments read aloud in church. Within the context of a fairly conservative church, it seemed to her that they were presented in an overwhelmingly negative way - causing her to think that their primary purpose was to shine a spotlight onto those pieces of our lives for which we are most ashamed. For her, the commandments appeared to be instruments intended to impose shame. In her father’s family, God’s instructions concerning human behaviour were interpreted in drastic – and rather specific – ways, with such things as cigarettes, movies on a Sunday, certain musical instruments played in church, games such as dominoes were forbidden, and the Ten Commandments were sited as the reason why.
It does, however, seem that tobacco, banjo playing, and dominoes do not figure in the Decalogue as recorded in the Book of Exodus. (Unless, of course, they become the primary focus of one’s life, in which case that would certainly be considered sinful behaviour.) But particularly in 19th and 20th century North America, Christians (it would seem) have been remarkably inventive at interpreting God’s commandments to cover just about anything they choose not to approve of. The commandments often become a kind of weapon to justify our tendency to judge others for behaving in ways that we have deemed unacceptable. And let’s not allow ourselves to think that Anglicans are exempt from this selective interpretation of God’s commandments. Based on my observations, it seems to me that we’re just slightly more subtle about how we judge the behaviour, appearance and priorities of the people around us. It happens within Anglican circles; it is – often, although not always - just simply more covert. I’ve seen Anglicans shunned – reputations destroyed – as a result of malicious gossip, often based on false information. Allowing God’s commandments to justify unkind, judgmental behaviour reduces the surprisingly large God of the Scriptures into a petty monitor, pacing up and down the corridors of life.
Addictions (as we all may know) are certainly not petty, and it is worth noting that we (in the western world) live in an addictive society: whether it be alcohol, or tobacco, or gambling, or any number of addictive drugs, or food, or shopping, or working, or exercise: addictions run rampant in an attempt to fill the void that only God can fill. But for Christians, stressing over them as exclusively moral issues can be a convenient way of only looking at the surface, rather than deeper into what stirs within our hearts and our minds.
Although I was raised in a very different environment than Kathleen Norris, I think I share some of her baggage around God’s Commandments, and the lifelong struggle around them. (Or, perhaps, more specifically, my observations of the ways in which they have been put to use.) But, like her, I think I began to let go of that baggage when they began to strike me as potentially sensible, both outwardly, as teachings that help sustain civil and social order, and inwardly, as principles that assist us in naming and resisting negative (sinful) behaviour such as greed, malice, gossip and covetousness; and most importantly, as the will of God to reshape us according to his loving purpose. I began to see God’s Commandments in a new light when I was able to see them not so much as prescriptions for moral behaviour, but as guidelines (a road map – if you will) helping me to follow the heart of God.
When the gift of God’s Grace makes it possible for me to become aware that I have broken one of the Commandments, I have also been forced to pay attention to the trouble, turmoil, pain that follows when a Commandment is broken. Whenever we worship false gods (that is, our many potential addictions; or gods of fashion, success, self-aggrandizement, to name just a few . . .); whenever our words or actions dishonour the name of God; whenever we fail to honour our elders when they deserve to be honoured; whenever we attempt to control people so that their spirit is diminished; whenever we place our own wants over and above what is best for the community in which we are placed; whenever we are not faithful to family and friends; whenever we take what is not ours to take (and this can happen in many different forms); whenever we engage in gossip . . . (we mustn’t ever underestimate the destructive damage that gossip can create . . . indeed, gossip has the potential to destroy individuals and whole communities). . . Whenever we break God’s Commandments, we infect God’s world; damaging our relationship with God and damaging the relationship of trust we share with others. So, to follow God’s commands, is to be free from such burden; to be free from such sin.
St. Augustine calls the Decalogue the Christian’s charter of freedom. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was executed for his attempt to overturn the Hitler regime, writes that God’s Commandments, “not only forbid, but also permit; not only bind, but also set free.” Paul Lehmann, theologian, scholar of Christian ethics and civil rights activist says it is important to get the tone right, “The tonality of the Ten Commandments does not sound like, ‘This you must do, or else.’ It sounds rather, like, ‘… this is the way ahead, the way of being and living in the truth, the way of freedom.’” Augustine / Bonhoeffer / Lehmann . . . They all agree that the Commandments offer freedom to discover and live according to the heart of God. The root word for ‘commandment’ is commandare, which means to ‘commend’; meaning ‘to entrust’. In other words, “I – God – am entrusting this to you.” And this gift will set you free.
One final word about the Decalogue: Often people have difficulty with the word ‘jealousy’ – e.g. “I the Lord am a jealous God.” It is important here to recognize that there is a difference between human jealousy and the kind of jealousy mentioned in this passage. Human jealousy is often a sign of fear; often it indicates a state of immaturity. (If Person A is jealous of Person B it is likely an indication that Person A is not fully satisfied with his/her own life as it currently exists.) God’s jealousy, however, is different; more like mother-love, the protective zeal of a lioness or mother bear for her young. The word ‘jealousy’ has its root in ‘zealous,’ suggesting extreme enthusiasm and devotion, which helps us become more clear about the kind of love God has for us. This understanding, it seems to me, has the potential to help us develop a greater trust in God. Who, after all, would trust a God, a parent, a spouse, or lover, who would say, “I really love you, but I don’t really care what you do or who you become?” The commandments are, in large part, God’s way of saying, “You are my people; I love you; I care what you do and who you become.”
Any relationship, to remain alive, requires at least two living participants. The Commandments are a reminder that we are in a relationship that begins with God; a God who IS – the ground of all being; the great “I AM;” a God who loves us enough to care when we stray; who has given us commandments – road map - to help us find our way to Him – our One True Home.
As a Christian people we believe that these Commandments have been fulfilled in Jesus; we believe that God has made for us a home in Jesus. In our Gospel reading this morning we are told the story of Jesus driving out the merchants and moneychangers in the temple. When asked what sign he could show for doing this, he responded by saying that if this temple is destroyed he will raise it in three days. The response to this is a reminder that the temple has been under construction for 46 years, so how could he possibly think that he could raise it up in three days. But he, of course, is referring to the temple of his body, and his disciples remember this when he is raised from death. They recognize that through Jesus' death on the cross, and rising to new life, the old order of sin and death has been destroyed, and God's Commandments now live in Jesus, and through Jesus, in us.
Jesus embodies God’s commandments, and in this passage he reveals himself as the new temple in which they – and we – may dwell. Jesus, in whom the fullness of God’s commandments dwells, has become our home. Jesus is the place in which we are all invited to dwell. The commandments are the road map that can, with the gift of God’s Grace, lead us home.