Monday, 29 June 2015

“The Law that Liberates: the Ten Commandments Today” (1) “The God who liberates ... or any old god” (Exodus 20:1-3)

At the beginning of the series of articles, I want to make a few general comments about this whole series.
 
It is timely to speak to speak of the Ten Commandments today. Politicians – whether religious or not - are referring to these ancient Jewish laws a great deal these days. It is interesting (but not surprising) that the secular world often gives more importance to these commandments as a key aspect to the life of faith than do people who attend worship regularly.
  • Traditionally, people who view religion mostly in terms of a set of moral rules and regulations are usually not the people who attend worship regularly.
  • Traditionally, people who attend worship regularly know that there is much more to the life of faith. God offers unconditional grace, mercy, compassion, and love to all people ... regardless of our ethical standing.
In a sense, this series of articles may be an example of the secular world setting at least part of the church’s agenda. Sometimes, though, the church needs to let the world set its agenda.
 
And, for all people of faith, there has traditionally been a tension between “law” and “grace”. I believe that this is an artificial tension. 
  • For each of the Peoples of the One God (for Christians, for Jews, for Muslims, and for others) God’s compassion comes first, before we do anything, before we can do anything. God’s compassion always precedes any response we would ever make. The one living God is always the God of radical grace.
  • But, as well, for each of the Peoples of the One God, God’s compassion calls forth our own response of gratitude. And a significant part of our response always includes the ethical quality of our lives. 
The two go hand-in-hand.
 
And, in all this, there are those who always see legalism as someone else’s problem.
  • Christians who see legalism as “a Jewish problem”, ... and not as our own problem.
  • Protestants who see legalism as “a Catholic problem”, ... and not as our own problem.
  • Mainstream Christians who see legalism as “an evangelical problem”, ... and not as our own problem.
Legalism is a temptation faced by all the people of God:
  • Christian, Jewish, or Muslim;
  • Protestant, Catholic, or Orthodox;
  • Mainstream, evangelical, or “progressive”. 
Legalism is a temptation faced by us all. We can all say, with the writer of the comic strip “Pogo”: “We have met the enemy, ... and he is us.”
 
And there also may be issues here of how we view the origins of these Ten Commandments.
  • Some will view the giving of the Ten Commandments literally, in the way that the Book of Exodus describes it. Moses was up there on the mountain, getting the stone tablets directly from God. (Those of us who remember Cecil B. DeMille’s movie – with Charlton Heston as Moses and the late Yul Brynner as the Pharoah – may have very vivid visual images of Moses getting the tablets from God.)
  • Others may view the origins in another way, as the product of a community of people in exile, under great pressure in their life together. The community sought to state their deepest core values in a simple way. The community also sought to link these core values intimately to the God who liberated them centuries before. 
I’ll put my own cards on the table. I prefer the latter view. (So do the majority of contemporary biblical scholars, both Christian and Jewish.) But, in reality, with either view, we are still invited to honour these ten ancient Jewish laws and to receive them with the utmost seriousness for our own life of faith.
 
And so, we read from Exodus 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.
 
To put capital letters in the right places, the passage reads:
 
Then God (big G) spoke all these words: I am the Lord your God (big G), who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods (little g) before me.
 
In this first of the commandments, God identified Godself. “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; ...”. The one living God identified Godself as the God of liberation.
 
This is not just any old small-g god. This is the big-G God, the God of liberation. This is the God who took a gang of slaves and made it into a nation of free people.
 
The command not to have any gods before the One God was developed in a time before the Jews were strictly monotheistic in their beliefs. They worshipped the One God but that did not mean they denied the existence of the gods worshipped by other peoples.
 
This command was first seen in these terms: “Of all the possible gods to worship, the One God whom we worship is the One who has liberated us. Worship this God, rather than any of those gods who have not liberated us.”
 
Since that time, our idea of God has developed. All of the Peoples of the One God believe that there is only the One God to worship.
  • The God whom we worship as Christians is the same God whom Jews and Muslims worship.
  • The God whom we worship as Christians is the same God whom Sikhs and Baha’is worship. 
There is only the One God to worship.
 
But, even with this later understanding, there are some people, in each faith tradition, who do not grasp the one basic reality about this One God. The One God is the God of liberation: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; ...”. 
 
I believe the commandment, “ ... you shall have no other gods before me”, tells us today that we should not be content with any lesser god, any small-g notion of god, that is not the Big-G God of liberation.
 
And there are many people in the community, and even some people in churches, who are content with a small-g notion of God. There are many people whose idea of God is somewhat similar to their idea of someone else, someone of whom we sing at another time of the year:
 
He’s making a list. He’s checking it twice. 
Going to find out who’s naughty or nice.
 
These people have a god who exhibits a selective love, a god who operates on a scheme of rewards and punishments, rewarding those whose behaviour meets certain standards and punishing those whose behaviour doesn’t. This is a small-g god, a godlet even, far smaller that the Big-G God of liberation. I believe that those who are content with worshipping this little godlet have put some other god before the One Living God.   
 
The One Living God calls all the people of God, all the Peoples of God, to a worthy understanding of God; a Big-G understanding of the One Living God
  • the One Living God who liberates slaves,
  • the One Living God who loves the whole creation,
  • the One Living God whose compassion, mercy, and radical grace are eternal. 
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.
 
  

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