Monday, 10 August 2015

“The Law that Liberates: the Ten Commandments Today”: (7) “The loyalty that liberates ... the generosity that liberates ... the honesty that liberates” (Exodus 20: 1-2, 14-16)

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 not commit adultery.

You shall not steal.

You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour.

I’m looking at three of the commandments together today, for two reasons because I believe these three commandments really belong together, as we shall see.

First of all, I’d like to tell two brief jokes.  I know three jokes about the Ten Commandments.  I’ve already told one of the three (the one where the businessman looked himself in the mirror after hearing a rousing sermon on the Ten Commandments and said to himself, “Well, at least I’ve never made a graven image.”).  The other two are relevant to today’s group of commandments.

In the first joke, Moses was seen coming down from the mountain with the stone tablets, and he said to the Israelites:  “I have some good news and some bad news.”

“What’s the good news?” they asked.

“I managed to negotiate him down to ten.”

“What’s the bad news?” they asked.

“I couldn’t get him to budge on adultery.”

And, as they would have said in the English of the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer, the second joke is like unto it.

There was a minister, a real fire-and-brimstone type who lost his wristwatch.  To make matters worse, he believed a member of his congregation stole the watch.  While playing golf on his day off with an older, more experienced minister, similarly inclined to a fire-and-brimstone approach, he asked his colleague what to do.

“Well, it’s easy,” said the older minister.  “You preach a sermon on the Ten Commandments, and when you get to the part about ‘Thou shalt not steal,’ you confront them about the watch.  If all goes well, you’ll get the watch back by Monday morning.”

A week later, the two ministers met again.

“Well,’ said the older minister, “did my idea work?”

“Did it ever?  I preached the sermon on the Ten Commandments and, when I got to the part about committing adultery, I remembered where I left my watch.”

But, even discounting these two old jokes, these three commandments belong together.  They are profoundly linked together by the two verses that introduce the whole group of commandments:

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; ...

The message here was: You were once slaves, but God has liberated you.  You are no longer a gang of slaves but a nation of free people.  Do not act like slaves.  Act like free people.

A slave could not form a lasting intimate relationship.  A slave could be sold.  A slave’s partner could be sold.  A slave was expected, if instructed to do so, to satisfy the sexual urges of the master or a member of the master’s family.  A slave had no choice.  A slave’s intimate relationships were, by necessity, very temporary and very provisional, and not always voluntary.  By contrast, a free person had the privilege of entering into a lasting intimate relationship into which one could give one’s full loyalty.

Similarly, a slave had no property.  A slave was property.  The only person a slave was in a position to rob was the master.  Since the master had already stolen the slave’s freedom, ethically it wasn’t really theft if the slave ripped off the master’s goods.  The master still had stolen far more from the slave than the slave had stolen from the master.

As well, a slave in the ancient world could not give evidence in court.  This right was reserved for free people.  A slave could not bear witness, either false or true, against anyone.

These three commandments recognise and celebrate the reality that the people who received them were free people:

·         people whom God had liberated;

·         people to whom God had given both the rights and responsibilities of living in civil society;

·         people enjoying the loyalty that liberates, the generosity that liberates, and the honesty that liberates.

And, as well each of these three commandments have been further sharpened over the years.

You shall not commit adultery.

Originally, this commandment was only applied to situations where the woman was married.  For many centuries, people believe that a married man, as long as he kept away from married women, could stray.  But over the centuries, (for Christians, for Jews, and for the broadly non-religious) the sense of this commandment has been broadened so that now there is the more just expectation of marital loyalty both from married women and from married men.

And today, the expectation is broadening even further.  There is an expectation of loyalty not only for those who are married in a formal sense, but increasingly now for anyone in an intimate relationship, whether formally married or not.  And I believe that communities of faith need to provide similar levels of pastoral support and encouragement for these couples as we for do couples in traditional marriages.

And (as they say in the TV ads for steak knives) ... and there’s more!  This loyalty that liberates needs to be about far more than just sex.  Some religious people seem to have picked up the idea that, for a couple, as long as you aren’t doing anything overtly sexual with anybody else, you can treat each other as badly as you wish.  The loyalty that liberates needs to be about far more than sex.

You shall not steal.

Theft takes many forms.  Increasingly, many people in our society have come to realise that an unjust distribution of financial and material resources is a form of theft.

As a result, to live in the light of this commandment needs to include a consciousness on the part of those of us who are comparatively prosperous to work for a just community, a just nation, and a just world, where all people can enjoy the necessities of life.  When we do this, we live within the light of this commandment and participate in the generosity that liberates.

If we do not do this, we are stealing, even if we do so in a far more subtle way than the burglar, the armed robber, or the tax cheat.

You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour.

Today, we are not only confronted with individuals bearing false witness against other individuals.  We are also confronted with groups of people bearing false witness against other groups of people.

To give a humourous example, think of the stereotypes that exist of the supporters of one sporting team or another.  Think of the rough-and-ready working blokes who are reputed to follow Collingwood, Port Power, or the Western Bulldogs.  Think also of the effete elites who are said to follow Hawthorn or Melbourne.  There are similar contrasts in in the stereotypes of sports fans in other cities around the world:  Celtic and the Rangers in Glasgow, the Mets and the Yankees in New York.  These stereotypes, while essentially humourous, are a form of false witness (except of course, in the case of fans of the New York Yankees).

More seriously, in politics, the various parties all try to cast each other in the worst possible light and, increasingly, in as personal a way as possible.  Is this negative campaigning a form of false witness?

And it goes even deeper.

·         Our Australian community has spent most of the time since 1788 bearing false witness against our indigenous population.
·         Throughout the English-speaking world, many "Protestants" have spent much of the past five hundred years bearing false witness against Roman Catholics.  We still hear this stuff today, even if it now comes more readily from people of no faith than from people of "Protestant" faith. 

·         Christians generally have spent much of the past fifteen hundred years bearing false witness against Muslims.  We have also spent much of the past two thousand years bearing false witness against Jews.

We are all challenged to find the ways in which we have borne false witness against any group of our neighbours:

·         whether Aboriginal or Catholic,

·         whether Jewish or Muslim,

·         whether Liberal or Labor,

·         whether Carlton or Collingwood,

and to transform our practices so as to embrace the honesty that liberates.

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 not commit adultery.

You shall not steal.

You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour.

As a gang of slaves was liberated by God to become a nation of free people, they were also challenged by God to take up the rights and responsibilities of their freedom.

So are we.
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.