Monday, 17 August 2015

“The Law that Liberates: the Ten Commandments Today”: (8) “Liberating our thoughts” (Exodus 20: 1-2, 17)

You shall not covet your neighbour’s house; you shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything else that belongs to your neighbour.

To repeat, my general introduction to this series of posts:
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.
 
So here we go for one more time.

You shall not covet your neighbour’s house; you shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything else that belongs to your neighbour.

Traditionally, this commandment was directed at the less economically prosperous members of society.  The commandment was interpreted as particularly advising ... directing ... even demanding that the poor and those of modest means must be content with their lot in life.  Don’t desire a better lot in life too much.  Some are destined to prosper economically.  Others are not.  If you are one of the “have-nots”, be content with your lot in life.  As one verse of “All things bright and beautiful”, now thankfully omitted from most hymnbooks, puts it:
The rich man in his castle, the poor man at the gate,
God made them high or lowly and ordered their estate.

It is a good thing that this verse has been omitted from hymnbooks.  It is very bad theology.  God does not will social inequality.  God never has willed social inequality.

And, in fact, if we consider the scriptures, whenever we see examples of people violating this commandment against coveting, the violators are usually the rich and the powerful and the victims are usually far more vulnerable than the violators.

·         King David coveted Bathsheba, the wife of his general Uriah.

·         King Ahab coveted a vineyard owned by a small farmer named Naboth.

This commandment against coveting has very little to do with the just and rational desire of the “have-nots” to improve their lot in life.

This commandment against coveting has everything to do with the unjust and irrational desire of the “haves” to acquire more and more, often at the expense of the “have-nots”.

This commandment is not about:
The rich man in his castle, the poor man at the gate,
God made them high or lowly and ordered their estate.

Rather, this commandment is about encouraging all of us (but particularly those of us who are more fortunate economically) to “live simply ... so that others may simply live”.

But this idea runs counter to what we have been brain-washed by our advertising-driven culture into believing we need. 

·         We are being taught by the media that we need – and that we have a right to own – great petrol-guzzling four-wheel-drive Toorak tractors.

·         We are being taught by the media that we need – and that we have a right to own – huge McMansions.

·         We are being taught by the media that we need – and that we have a right to own – all the latest electronic adult toys.

·         We are being taught by the media that those who do not believe that we need all this stuff – and do not believe that we have an inalienable right to all these possessions - are strange people; and threats to our economic and social well-being.  It’s like the message proclaimed in one film from the decade of greed, the 1980s:  “He who dies with the most toys, wins.” 

But, running counter to all this we hear the challenge of today’s commandment:

You shall not covet your neighbour’s house; you shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything else that belongs to your neighbour.

Perhaps, in contemporary terms, we also hear:

·         You shall not covet your neighbour’s McMansion;

·         ... or your neighbour’s trophy wife,

·         ... or your neighbour’s toyboy,

·         ... or your neighbour’s personal trainer,

·         ... or your neighbour’s Toorak tractor,

·         ... or your neighbour’s iPhone or digital TV,

·         ... or your neighbour’s facelift or silicone implants,

·         ... or anything else that belongs to your neighbour.

Perhaps, in contemporary terms, we are being encouraged by this commandment to liberate our thoughts from the tyranny of “He who dies with the most toys, wins.”.  We are being challenged to embrace the freedom to “live simply ... so that others may simply live”.

You shall not covet your neighbour’s house; you shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything else that belongs to your neighbour.

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