It seems that in St. Pauls’ day there were two extremes when it came to recognizing the law of God. Some were legalists who thought that circumcision and the dietary laws were still in effect and demanded that Christians follow them. These were the ones St. Paul was writing about in Galatians. Others believed that all of the law had been abolished and so they were free to do whatever they wanted. Such people are called antinomians (from the Greek nomos = law). These were the ones that St. Paul was trying to rope back into the herd through his admonitions in Corinthians.
We continue to have legalists and antinomians in our day but I would guess that even for those who fall into neither category there continues to be some confusion about the Christian’s relationship with the law. So lets delve into it a little since we have the 10 Commandments before us in the OT lesson.
First, we need to note that not all laws are equal. Whether or not you are allowed to eat shrimp cannot be compared to “thou shalt do no murder”. Our Anglican Reformers recognized such distinctions and so they wisely divided the OT law into three categories. First there is the ceremonial law. This includes the dietary laws, the sacrificial system, the religious cultus. Since Christ is the ultimate sacrifice, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, we are no longer under those laws. He is the fulfillment of them. Not only do we cease from making animal sacrifices, more importantly, we get to eat BACON!
A second category is the civil law. Israel was a theocracy and therefore had its own set of laws of crimes and punishments. But since the Gospel is to go to all nations, and in order not to impede the spread of the Gospel, Christians are to live under their particular nation’s laws as long as conscience allows. We are not called to institute Israel’s civil laws nor turn American into a theocracy. So we no longer stone or burn folks (but if you watch an episode of Reality TV you may want to reconsider).
The third category is the moral law. While Jesus fulfilled them through His sinless life, it does not follow that He made them null and void for us. He modeled them, He did not remove them. So when the rich young ruler asks what he must do to inherit eternal life, Jesus replied, “You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery, Do not murder, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother.’” The young man replied that he had kept all these laws.
Jesus then demonstrates that keeping the law does not save you and He did this by exposing that the rich young ruler ultimately trusted in his riches. But again showing that the moral law does not save you is not the same as saying that it is unimportant. Following Jesus, Christians are to keep the moral law because by doing so we demonstrate our love for God. They are not threatening rules, they are given to us as a light upon our path. They tell us how to live life as God intended it to be lived. As we just read from the Psalmist “the law of the Lord is perfect and revives the soul.”…the commandment of the Lord is clear and gives light to the eyes.” Let’s take a closer look each of them. .
The first commandment is to have no other gods but the Lord. That is about as straightforward as it gets and it is fairly easy to keep if you believe, as Holy Scripture teaches, that there are no other gods BUT the Lord. This fundamental truth is why universalism is a lie. There are no other gods and so there is no plan B.
The second commandment is that we are to have no graven or carved images. Romans, Orthodox and Anglicans get some push back about this from other parts of Christ’s Body because of our icons and statues and crucifixes, which some believe to be a violation of this commandment. But if this commandment was intended to be a wholesale ban against all images then God would have contradicted Himself when He gave Moses the design for the ark of the covenant that included two golden seraphim on the top.
The last ecumenical council, before the Church split east and west, teaches us that key here is that what is forbidden is not statues or images but rather the worship and the service of them. And while carved idols may not be a temptation for us today we do need to be cautious about other less obvious idols that we might be serving. If I check the stock market before I say my prayers every day then I might have a problem.
The third commandment is to not take the Name of the Lord in vain. That is important for at least two reasons. First because God’s name is Holy and so we don’t profane it by using it as a curse word or casually tossing it around. But second, from a biblical perspective, the name IS the person and so when we take His Name in vain we dishonor His Person. So for the sake of your soul don’t let this be a habit.
The fourth commandment is to honor the Sabbath and keep it holy. In Leviticus 23 it says “Six days shall your work be done, but on the seventh day is a Sabbath of solemn rest, a holy convocation.” The Sabbath is to be a day of rest and gathering for worship. It is a way that we confess that God is our ultimate provider and that we do not live by bread alone. Chick Filet is proof that it works.
It was during the time of St. Paul that the Church moved the Sabbath from Saturday to the first day of the week in honor of our Lord’s resurrection. I learned the hard way that if you ignore this commandment that you will pay for it. If you fail to worship your soul grows lean, and if you fail to rest you will end up burning out and getting the kind of down time that is anything but enjoyable. Rest and worship weekly. You were made for these things.
This ends the first tablet concerning our relationship with God. Now we move to the second tablet and our relationship with our neighbor. The fifth commandment is to honor our father and our mother. This commandment comes with a promise that if we do so then we live long in the land He has given us. The opposite seems to be true also. Children who are allowed to dishonor their parents are anything but blessed. They grow to disrespect all authority, they listen to no one, and they make up their own rules. In short they become fools. These are the ones who fill our prisons and rehabs and tear apart our social fabric. So parents I exhort you to teach, model and demand respect.
The sixth commandment is “You shall not murder.” This is a better translation than “Thou shalt not kill.” There is a difference. Look at David’s life. When he killed Goliath he was doing the Lord’s bidding. But when he murdered Bathsheba’s husband the Lord sent a prophet to call him to repentance. So when a police officer or someone in the military takes a life in the line of duty it is not murder, nor is it when a civilian does so in self-defense. Murder is the taking of an innocent life.
Number seven is “You shall not commit adultery.” And remember that Jesus even kicked this one up a notch when He equated it with lust. If He referred to His time as “a wicked and adulterous generation” what would He call our day given what is on the Internet or what comes out of Hollywood? In one generation we have gone from Mayberry to Sex and the City. While I have caution about some aspects of the #Me Too movement, it does shine a spotlight on how perverse that we have grown and hopefully will push at least some to seek a better way, to seek Gods’ way.
The eighth commandment is “You shall not steal.” And while this includes things, it goes beyond things. We can steal time when we do not give our loved ones the time that they deserve. We steal talent with we do not use our God given gifts. We can even steal from God. How is that possible? God says in Malachi, “Will a man rob God? Yet you are robbing me. But you say, ‘How are we robbing you?’ In your tithe and contributions.” They were failing to bring their tithes and offerings into the storehouse and so God sent the prophet to confront them. “Thou shall not steal” includes not stealing time, talent or the tithe from God.
The ninth commandment is about not bearing false witness. If we kept that commandment as a people there would be very little social media and even less of a Congress.
The last commandment is about coveting. This is a seditious sin because it goes from being envious to seeking ways to take what is not yours. Rather than rejoicing in the blessings of his neighbor, the covetous demands what others have even if they do not deserve it or have earned it. And when we consider the literally millions of lives lost when coveting is morphed into political and economic systems it is beyond sobering. It is then we can see this sin for the evil that it is and why a good God would want it out of our lives.
There is another insight about these commandments, as the Jews understood them, that is important for us to grasp. These laws are about living in community so they are more than just personal ethics. Thus the law to not murder not only means that I must not harm my neighbor but I have a responsibility to see that no one else does so either. From this perspective the deputy who failed to go into the school in Florida to stop the killer would be seen as culpable unless he had a very good reason that he did not act.
In case you find it difficult to remember all Ten Commandments, Jesus has made it simple for us. He said that loving God with all our heart and loving our neighbor as ourselves fulfills them all. And while that is extremely helpful, to think about it in the reverse can be equally helpful. How do I know that I am loving God? Because I have no other Gods but Him. Because I don’t worship idols. Because I don’t take His Name in vain. Because I make it a priority to stop what I am doing at least one day a week to worship Him. The same approach can be taken for loving my neighbor. The advantage in thinking of them this way is that we move love beyond being simply a feeling or an emotion and make it an action.
I have spoken with people that view the Ten Commandments as some onerous threat that hangs over their lives like the sword of Damocles. While it is true that they are not optional (you will note that they are not called the Ten Suggestions) they are not restrictive any more than two rails are restrictive to a locomotive. Imagine what our society would be like if we all kept these laws and had them written on our hearts. Would our society be repressed and puritanical or would it be a step closer to paradise? Surely the latter. And so that is why we can say with the Psalmist “The stautes of the Lord are just and rejoice the heart.” In the Penitential Rite in the Book of Common Prayer, the priest recites each commandment and the refrain of the people is “Lord have mercy upon us and incline our hearts to keep this law.” To which we should all say “Amen.”