There is a saying isn’t there that ‘familiarity breeds contempt.’ I guess many of us will have heard the Ten Commandments so often that it becomes easy to gloss over the depth of their meaning; it’s like that with a lot of the words we both hear and say in church on a regular basis. And, yet just occasionally, it is good to ponder anew the foundations of our faith which are summarised through the words of the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, the Grace and so forth. In Lent next year I plan to do some teaching on the Lord’s Prayer but today let’s focus on the Ten Commandments. I will, however, be doing so with reference to the Lord’s Prayer.
Recently I met with a very remarkable lady. She was born into another faith and yet wants her children to be brought up in a distinctly Christian environment. She above all else values the notion of religious community at its best. She explained to me that she wants her children to have the freedom to be the people that only they can be, but that she wants them to live within certain moral limits. She also wants them to know their place in the greater scheme of things; in other words to know that God is God and they are his creation. What I would want to suggest is that this lady, who has to my knowledge never received any formal theological training, possesses a profound understanding of the theology behind the Ten Commandments.
The Ten Commandments begin with the notion that God is to be treated with awe and respect; he is after all the ‘our Father who art in heaven.’ To rank anything alongside or even above God is to commit the sin of idolatry. Idolatry is the most dangerous of all sins because what it does is to invert the most sacred of relationships. When people individually, or even communally, commit idolatry what they are essentially doing is ranking themselves above God in the pecking order. The result of this can only ever be the misuse of power and authority. The consequence then becomes, as we have heard in the gospel reading, tyranny, violence and ultimately death. So, as Christians to pray ‘Our Father’ is to acknowledge our status before the all loving God, which in turn frees us from the temptation to commit the worst of sins.
The remainder of the commandments then provide people of faith with the basic standards of morality to govern life. They set boundaries. They suggest we shouldn’t steal, that we shouldn’t covet, or tell lies, and that we should honour our parents. What they are doing, again by reference to the Lord’s Prayer, is suggesting that we shouldn’t commit acts of ‘trespass.’
Trespass is an interesting word and has clear technical and legal connotations but I prefer to think about the word as a real infringement against other people’s freedom to be themselves; the people they were created to be. When we ‘trespass’ we cross not just technical but moral boundaries. And, of course, the place where sin, or ‘trespass’ begins the toxic journey of disrespect, intolerance and violence is in our hearts, in our desires, hence the commandment that we shouldn’t ‘covet.’ Coveting and idolatry are the very DNA of sin.
If we want to live out the Ten Commandments the place where we must start is by paying honest attention to the state of our hearts. The phrases in the Lord’s Prayer ‘our Father who art in heaven’ and ‘forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,’ are perhaps appeals to be liberated from the sins of idolatry and the tendency to covet?
So are the Ten Commandments sufficient to allow us to live a truly moral life; one which ensures that our relationships are characterised by respect for both God and each other? Are they alone capable of allowing us to live as God’s chosen people in harmony with others? I suspect not! Now that may in itself sound blasphemous but what I would want to suggest is that they are the starting point. They are our basic Christian duties, and there is nothing wrong with duty. Duty is not an old fashioned, passed its sell-by-date notion. But, what we really need, for the sake of human flourishing, is duty animated and strengthened by love. Jesus after all sums up the entirety of the law by stressing that we should first love God and then love our neighbour. Love is the divine impulse, the energy that makes all things good.
So when we read the Ten Commandments and pray the Lord’s Prayer let us do so having opened ourselves up to the Love of God, for when we do so the words ‘thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven’ become real and explicit through the way we live our lives and people, like the lady I spoke with earlier in the week, will continue to be drawn into the community of faith.
Living the Ten Commandments animated by love is to live a life of infectious evangelical witness and, put simply, that is our calling; yours and mine.