Monday, 13 July 2015

“The Law that Liberates: the Ten Commandments Today”: (3) “Conscripting God for your own crusades” (Exodus 20: 1-2, 7)

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.

In the old Authorised Version of the scriptures, this commandment refers to taking the name of the Lord “in vain”.

What does this mean: ... to “take the name of the Lord ... in vain”, ... or to make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God” ... ?

Is this commandment mainly about using God’s name - or other sacred names - for the purpose of profanity, or, as they say before the movies on TV, “coarse language” (and, in many cases, “frequent coarse language”).  Is that essentially what this commandment is all about?

I believe that this is only a very small part of what this commandment is about.  You can say many things about using the name of God – or other sacred names – for the purposes of profanity:
·         It’s a sign of ignorance.
·         It’s a sign of a poor vocabulary.
·         It’s a sign of a lazy mind.
·         It’s very, very obnoxious.

But it’s really only a very small part – I’d say maybe about ten per cent at most – of what this commandment is all about.

But, then, this is not the only way in which people have focused only on a small part of this commandment.  I’ll give two examples.

The first example is that in ancient times – and even to the present day - the Jews became so sensitive to this commandment against making wrongful use of God’s name that they decided that God’s name was too sacred to pronounce at all.  Whenever the Hebrew word for God’s name (Yahweh) was found in the text of scripture, the person reading scripture substituted the Hebrew word Adonai, meaning “The Lord”. 

In the time of the Jerusalem Temple, the name Yahweh was pronounced only once a year in Jewish worship:
·         only on the Day of Atonement,
·         only in the small central room of the Temple called the Holy of Holies,
·         only by the High Priest,
·         only with no one else around,
·         only speaking in a whisper. 

Today, the name Yahweh is not spoken at all by Jews.  Jews find the use of the name Yahweh offensive.  In recent decades, some translations of the Bible, such as The Jerusalem Bible, have used the name Yahweh in the Old Testament as the name for God.  (As a result, The Jerusalem Bible is not a translation that is appropriate to use when Christians and Jews worship together.)

The second example of people focussing only on a small part of this commandment involves a Christian group.  The Society of Friends (also known as the Quakers), believed that an appropriate way to keep this commandment was to refuse to take any oath in a court of law or for any other civil purpose.  In the early centuries of their movement, many Quakers have gone to prison as a matter of conscience rather than taking a civil oath and, in their own mind, making “wrongful use” of God’s name.  The contemporary provision for secular affirmations in courts of law and for other civil purposes stems, in large part, from the influence of the Quakers.

Now, just as I don’t think this commandment is about the use of religious swearwords, neither do I think it is about the use of civil oaths.  Neither is this commandment about a God whose very name is too holy for mere mortals to pronounce.  So what, then, is this commandment about?

I’ll tell a story about a theological student and one of his teachers.  Decades later, the student is now a retired Uniting Church minister.

At the time of the story, this man was a theological student in his final year of studies.  He was telling his teacher, the late J.D. Northey, formerly Principal of the Congregationalist Theological College, about the kind of ministry he wanted to undertake after his studies.  The student said, “Not only is this what I want to do, but it’s what God wants me to do.”

Principal Northey was furious:  “Never use God as an excuse for doing what you want to do anyway.”

And this, I believe, is the main focus of what this commandment is all about.
·         This commandment is not really about civil oaths.
·         This commandment is not really about a God whose name is too holy to pronounce.
·         This commandment is not really even about the obnoxiously ignorant use of God’s name, or of any other sacred name, as “coarse language”.

This commandment is about using God “as an excuse for doing what you want to do anyway”.  This commandment is about conscripting God as an unwilling draftee for our own crusades.  When we do this, this is when we really “make wrongful use of the name of the Lord ...”, when we really “take the name of the Lord ... in vain”.

There are many examples of this wrongful use of God’s name both in history and in our own day.  I’ll name a few examples.

There were those people in many countries who believed that white people were superior to other people.  They believed that white people had the right to enslave people of other races, or to segregate people of other races to limit their contact with white people.  Many of these people tried to make God an unwilling conscript in this crusade by twisting various passages of scripture to justify these policies.   They took “the name of the Lord ... in vain”.

There are churches who proclaim what they call a “gospel of prosperity”.  They say that if you really have genuine faith, material prosperity will follow.  These churches say that wealth is a sign of God’s favour.  They twist various passages of scripture to make their point.   These churches may be doing well for themselves.  (Churches who tell people what they want to hear usually do.)  But they also “take the name of the Lord ... in vain”.

When people tell others that they will be do God’s will if they fly a jet plane into a skyscraper or if they set off a car bomb outside a crowded disco, they too “take the name of the Lord ... in vain”.

As well, when politicians (in any country) who glibly speak of a war (with all its death and destruction) as somehow fulfilling God’s will, these politicians also “take the name of the Lord ... in vain”.

One day, I heard a sermon.  It was back in the mid-1980s, during the first wave of public knowledge of AIDS.  The man preaching rather glibly claimed that AIDS was God’s will, sent as a punishment to its victims.   

Afterwards, I wrote the man (Unfortunately, he was a Uniting Church lay preacher.) and I told him that I believed his comments were an exercise in blasphemy.  God’s will is health and wholeness for all creation.  Illness is never God’s will.  God doesn’t work that way.

I believe, very firmly, that this man took “the name of the Lord ... in vain”.  He tried to conscript God as an unwilling soldier in own crusade.

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.

This commandment isn’t really about the use of religious swearwords, as ignorant and obnoxious as they are.  In a real way, this commandment is an invitation to us to allow God to surprise us with God’s agendas, rather than for us to make God an unwilling and passive conscript for our own agendas. It’s an invitation to us all to let God be God. 
 
In the first post in this series of articles, there is a general introduction to the series.

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Constructive comments, from a diversity of viewpoints, are always welcome. I reserve the right to choose which comments will be printed. I'm happy to post opinions differing from mine. Courtesy, an ecumenical attitude, and a willingness to give your name always help. A sense of humour is a definite "plus", as well.