Walls Of Freedom
I am persuaded that the Ten Commandments are heard by most of us as a list of things we must do and must not do in order to be religiously and morally acceptable. We hear them as a prescription for what we must do to be saved.
To regard them thus is to misinterpret them. As the statement made by God in the preface emphasizes, they are being given to people who have already been saved. "I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage." It is "because" they have been recipients of God's saving grace that they are to do and not do the things indicated in the Ten Commandments. These commandments indicate the way in which people should respond to the grace of God, not the way in which they must achieve the grace of God. They are, to put it another way, a description of life as God's people, not a prescription for life as God's people. They are given by God as wings for the soul, not as burdens for the back. They point the way toward fullness and harmony in life, the way away from constriction and conflict.
Pat Miller, who teaches Old Testament at Princeton Seminary, suggests that the Ten Commandments are meant to function for the people of God the way the U.S. Constitution functions for Americans. The Constitution sets down the basic guidelines for the kind of life we want to have in America. Laws are formulated on the basis of these guidelines. In the same way, the Ten Commandments are not laws, since the principles set forth are very general and no penalties are prescribed for infraction. These principles, rather, are those which describe the character of our relationship to God and the character of our life together as God's people.
The first four commandments describe our responsibility to God. The last six describe our responsibility to each other.
Because of the power and love which God has shown toward us by creating us, by rescuing us from bondage in Egypt and later in Babylonia and finally by delivering us from enslavement to sin through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus we are
first, to worship God alone,
second, to resist the temptation to reduce God to our limited images of him,
third, to avoid using God's name for self-serving purposes, and
fourth, to have a regular and frequent time for allowing ourselves to be refreshed and renewed by God.
Because of what God has done for us, our responsibility, as Jesus puts it, is to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength.
And because of what God has done for us, we are responsible, as Jesus puts it, for loving our neighbors as ourselves. We are to live together in mutuality and solidarity.
Commandments five through ten indicate the basic things which that involves.
It involves, first of all, taking care to ensure our future as a community. "Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land." Professor Sib Towner of Union Seminary says, "The addition of the promise of lengthened life for the one who honors the aged suggests that the commandment is aimed at creating a social climate in which the survival chances of future generations are enhanced by the tender solicitousness shown in the present by people toward one another."
Living together in a community with a future also involves respect for the lives of one another ("You shall not kill"), respect for the integrity of the families and marriages of one another ("You shall not commit adultery"), respect for the right of everyone to have a fair trial when accused of wrongdoing ("You shall not bear false witness, or give false evidence, against your neighbor").
Living together in a stable, harmonious community, however, does not only involve refraining from the actions of murder, adultery, theft and false witness; it also involves avoiding the inordinate desire and self-centeredness - the covetousness - which leads to those actions.
The main point which I hope to get across today is that the Ten Commandments are not basically ten rules of private morality; they are ten guidelines for community strength and harmony.
We cannot look at the sixth commandment and conclude that we are keeping it because none of us has murdered anybody. The fact is that ours is an increasingly murderous society. What we have to consider is whether we are contributing to that by our taste for violence, our lack of restriction on the sale and ownership of weapons, our unpredictable penalties for crimes of violence and our failure to address social conditions which breed hostility and homicide.
I cannot look at the eighth commandment and conclude that I am keeping it because I have not taken the church's pencils home for personal use and have not shoplifted items from the store. The fact is that theft is a growing threat to the stability of the human community, and I need to ask myself if I am contributing to that by my silence when I learn that the prices companies charge for goods and services are sometimes much higher when the government is the customer or when I learn that the officers of an investment banking firm paid themselves huge cash bonuses before declaring bankruptcy or when I learn of poaching by hunters and fishermen.
The Ten Commandments are guidelines for human community life which will stand the test of time. They call us to look up to God and to relate to each other with respect and care. When we do not do that, but begin rather to focus on ourselves with the inordinate desire identified in the tenth commandment, the balance between us and God and others is broken; and there is hell to pay.
It is not so much that we are going to hell if we break the commandments. It is, rather, that we are going to feel like we are in hell now if we disregard them. Violence and dishonesty and infidelity and slander and greed turn society into something dark and sour. You know in your own life, unless you have learned how to justify and rationalize everything you do, how badly your animosities and deceits and thefts and envies and jealousies have left you feeling. Disregard for God's constitution for human community simply makes life awful.
The reverse side of this is that when we live by this constitution to the best of our ability, with God's forgiveness and help in Christ, we experience wholeness and peace, not only as individuals but in the community as well.
The Decalogue is a corrective to an "anything goes," "if you can get by with it, do it," attitude - the kind of thing we saw explode at the individual level in the 1970s and at the corporate level in the 1980s. It serves as a corrective by giving us some walls which provide structure for our lives, just as young people need parental and societal walls at home, at school and ultimately in the world. The Ten Commandments are walls which keep us from harming ourselves and which lead ultimately to a deep and endurable freedom as they are internalized and made part of our character, personally and communally.
It was that internalization for which the prophet Jeremiah yearned.
Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant which they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts; and I will be their God and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each man teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying "Know the Lord," for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.
It is that internalization of the law which has become a possibility for us through our belief in, our trust in and our obedience to Jesus Christ. And when that internalization takes place, we begin to discover the wonder and delight and pleasure to which the law of God is meant to lead. Here is how the writer of Psalm 19 describes that discovery:
The law of the Lord is perfect,
reviving the soul;
the testimony of the Lord is sure,
making wise the simple;
the precepts of the Lord are right,
rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the Lord is pure,
enlightening the eyes;
the fear of the Lord is clean,
enduring for ever;
the ordinances of the Lord are true,
and righteous altogether.
More to be desired are they than gold,
even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey
and drippings of the honeycomb.
In Jesus Christ, the commandments of the Lord cease to be burdens for the back and truly become wings for the soul.
The Rev. J. Harold McKeithen, Minister
Hidenwood Presbyterian Church, Newport News, Virginia