God’s Loving Wisdom/Words of Life

Sunday, October 5
Twenty-seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time

Focus Theme
God’s Loving Wisdom

Weekly Prayer
God, our beloved, you set before us the goal of new life in Christ. May we live in the power of his resurrection and bring forth the fruit of your gentle and loving rule.  Amen.

Focus Reading
Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20

Then God spoke all these words:

I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name. Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. For six days you shall labor and do all your work. Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you. You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

When all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking, they were afraid and trembled and stood at a distance, and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die.” Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid; for God has come only to test you and to put the fear of him upon you so that you do not sin.”

All Readings For This Sunday
Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20; with Psalm 19 or
Isaiah 5:1-7 with Psalm 80:7-15 and
Philippians 3:4b-14
Matthew 21:33-46

Focus Questions

1. How do the Ten Commandments shape your understanding of who God is?

2. Why, in what ways, is God’s law far more than “ten good ideas for living”?

3. Is there an image or metaphor (other than a tent and its poles) that describes the relationship of the law and the promise?

4. Do you think most of us obey the commandments in the hope of earning God’s love, out of fear, or for another reason?

5. If we really had no other gods before God, how would that affect the shape of our life together?

Reflection by Kate Matthews Huey
From time to time, the Ten Commandments have provoked a measure of controversy in our public life: not about whether we actually obey them and keep them at the heart of our life together, or how they might change the way we live if we observed them. That would be an excellent controversy. No, our national argument has been about their display, engraved (ironically) in stone and practically worshipped not even for their content but for the message they are assumed to convey, that we are a nation under God, specifically, in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

The prominent display of these commandments serves to remind people in other faiths, and atheists as well, about who “we” are, whenever “they” walk into public buildings, regardless of the separation of church and state that was intended to protect all of us, however futilely, from religious wars of one kind or another. And yet, we are apparently the ones who need to be reminded of who we are and what it means to live faithfully, for “in recent polls of the American public,” Gene Tucker observes, “although the majority affirmed that the Bible is in some way the word of God, only a small percentage could name as many as four of the Ten Commandments.” If we don’t even know what they are, how can we obey them, and let our lives, personal and public, be shaped by them?

Where and how did you receive them?

Indeed, the deep significance of the gift of the Ten Commandments has been obscured if not lost in our domesticating them or, as Gary Anderson writes, in making them “into a cultural icon.” As a consequence, we lose the sense of “religious awe” that we find in this story from Exodus, and we lessen our understanding and receiving of the commandments as God’s own revelation: “These are not ten good maxims for the good life,” Anderson writes, but “the living words of God.” It’s quite a different thing to receive the commandments, as most of us did, in a church school class or by reading a print Bible, than it must have been for Moses, high on that mountaintop, practically thrown about by the awesome, focused presence of God.

Barbara Brown Taylor has written a sermon on the text in chapter 19 of Exodus that sets the scene for today’s passage, when Moses went up high on the mountain at Sinai, and an extraordinary (and very long) conversation began. She entitled her sermon, “Peculiar Treasures,” because that’s what the people were to the God who had brought them out of bondage, out into the wilderness on their way to a new life. One is reminded of “treasures” in the way she describes the story of this people: “God’s covenant with their grandfather Abraham had three shining jewels in it: descendants as plentiful as the stars in the sky, a special relationship to God, and a land of milk and honey all their own.” But “something was still missing,” she writes, “something Moses went up the mountain to get” (her sermon is in the collection, Gospel Medicine). 

Guarding our life together

Taylor reflects beautifully on the relationship between the law and the promise, and about how much we might think we like the promise better than the law, and how much we appreciate just being loved, unconditionally. She then uses the metaphor of a tent (a good metaphor for people in the wilderness!) to explain how it all works together, because “promise without law is like a tent without tent poles.” The law, or Torah, would shape the life and identity of the people of God, and be a force that would preserve it against every threat. Taylor imagines God giving the gift of the law and saying: “Sink these ten posts in the center of your camp, hang a tent on them, and together you may survive the wilderness….Guard your life together. Guard your life with me.”

Rather than leading to the conclusion that we somehow earn God’s love and care, this understanding affirms God’s love first in giving the law, and casts obedience as a loving, grateful response to all that God has done and continues to do. This is a relationship, after all, not a one-time thing at one moment in the history of Israel. And every self-help book and marriage therapist will tell us that relationships aren’t easy, that they require work and commitment and tender care. Gary Anderson describes love as “a precious and fragile seedling. Only with constant care and attention to its details will it grow to a mature and healthy tree.”

First, loving an awesome God

We might focus on the first commandment, since many people see all the others springing from it. It seems to me that Israel’s number one commandment reminds them of who they are only in light of who God is. When Walter Brueggemann says that it’s “likely that Torah is peculiarly aimed at the young, in order to invite them into this distinct identity of wonder, gratitude, and obedience,” we notice that those words (wonder, gratitude and obedience) are all responses to “Another” who is not like anyone else, no human, no god, nothing and no one else. Our domestication of God and the Ten Commandments may make us feel safer, down here at the base of the mountain, away from that fearsome, awe-filled nearness of God. It may keep things on an even keel for us down here, waiting for a word from heaven. Meanwhile, we go about our business of building our own little (manageable, and not too scary) idols to worship, knowing somewhere deep inside that these are not really God at all. Now wonder we are so spiritually hungry.

If the Torah provides “the lovingly drawn boundaries of a Creator bent on reminding creatures of their size,” as Taylor says, then the first of those commandments makes it very clear that, as my seminary professor often reminded us, “God is God, and we’re not.” (Actually, she usually said, “God is God, and you’re not,” a much-needed reminder to seminary students!) While the other commandments are conveniently and erratically invoked to judge and even condemn others, we rarely hear mention of this first, foundational commandment.

Our culture, with those engraved stones we value more highly than the mysterious, less tangible treasures of our faith, offers us many other “gods.” We just don’t recognize them as gods. The first commandment was given at a time when other gods “existed” in the culture around the Israelites. We assume that we’ve progressed past such “primitive” ways, ignoring the many idols that draw us toward them and away from being the people God has called us to be. Walter Brueggemann writes powerfully of these temptations in a world filled with “gods who make powerful, competing appeals. It does us no good to pretend that there are no other offers of well-being, joy, and security. In pursuit of joy, we may choose Bacchus; in pursuit of security, we may choose Mars; in pursuit of genuine love, we may choose Eros. It is clear that these choices are not Yahweh, that these are not gods who have ever wrought an Exodus or offered a covenant.” Bacchus, Mars, Eros: what good are they, indeed?

The Two Great Relationships, and our “God choice”

Marcus Borg helpfully reflects on faith as “fidelity,” and faithfulness to the heart of the law. We remember that Jesus, when asked, summed up all of these commandments into two great commandments, and Borg translates those as “The Two Great Relationships” (see his beautiful work, The Heart of Christianity, for more on faithfulness): To love God with one’s whole being, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself. The first relationship, with God, leads to the second; Brueggemann says that “the second true desire of our life, derivative from the first, is to have ‘good neighbors,’ that is, to live in a neighborhood.” And if both of our great relationships were healthy and strong as they should be, “our energy might be redirected toward neighborly matters like housing, education, health care…” (an especially powerful message for people of faith in our present political climate, preparing for another election).

Brueggemann connects all this with the “dramatic” choice we make–“a God choice,” which entails “living by a single loyalty among a mass of options.” Perhaps we’re overwhelmed by the options and possibilities before us, and “distraction” is a mild term for what we suffer. Remembering our baptism, and who we are, and most importantly, who God is, up on that mountain, or down by the river, in the inner recesses of our hearts and in the life we share together, makes us grateful that God has given us such beautiful tent posts, these Ten Commandments, that we might find strength and shelter in a wilderness of our own. Even in the wilderness, we are never alone.            

For Further Reflection

Martin Luther King Jr., 20th century
“It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, but it can stop him from lynching me, and I think that’s pretty important.”

Horace Greeley, 19th century
“It is impossible to enslave, mentally or socially, a bible-reading people. The principles of the bible are the groundwork of human freedom.”  

Dorothy Soelle, 20th century
“God dreams for us today. Today, at this moment, God has an image and hope for what we are becoming. We should not let God dream alone.”

Immanuel Kant, 18th century
“Live your life as though your every act were to become a universal law.”

Calvin Coolidge, 20th century
“I sometimes wish that people would put a little more emphasis upon the observance of the law than they do upon its enforcement.”

Isadora Duncan, 20th century
“We may not all break the Ten Commandments, but we are certainly all capable of it. Within us lurks the breaker of all laws, ready to spring out at the first real opportunity.”

John Adams, 18th century
“The Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount contain my religion.”

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