The Ten Commandments: a Living Framework

by the Rev. Anna Doherty

The Ten Commandments, otherwise known as the Decalogue, the “Ten laws”, occupy a formidable place in Christian tradition and faith.

The Ten Commandments have been dramatized and satirized from Charleston Heston to Mel Brooks.

When reflecting on, and even more so, when trying to live out, God’s commandments to God’s people….

It’s important to pay attention to the context in which the commandments were given, as well as the nuances of what God is actually doing in giving God’s people’s these laws.

God has just liberated the Israelites from slavery in Egypt.

The Israelites are no longer slaves, they are masters of their own lives, but they are also dwelling in a wilderness.

The Israelites are responsible for forming a new community in a new space, in a sometimes hostile world, and God, who has just rescued them from slavery…

Now proceeds to liberate the people in a new way.

Put another way, a truly liberated life is not a life completely void of rules and structure.

A truly liberated life is life in covenanted, committed community with God and God’s people.

And that is what the Ten Commandments are: a framework for being in relationship with God and with other people.

The Book of Exodus is full of codes and laws for God’s people.

Just keep reading the very next chapter of Exodus, chapter 21, and you’ll get laws that demand renumeration and punishment when broken.

The Decalogue, however, provides no consequences for when the commandments are broken.

Which is not to say that we can disregard the ten commandments or that they are not important.

Rather, instead as serving as punitive laws that people must follow in order to be “right” with God…

The ten commandments are meant to function as a relational framework.

God doesn’t plan or punish the people’s every move because God trusts and loves the people enough that, when they are in right relationship with God and other people….

Everything else falls into place.

The Ten Commandments are, in function and intent, about building trust and relationship between God and God’s people.

It is no accident that the first four commandments are about God, and the people’s relationship with God.

“I am the Lord your God,” God says, “you shall have no other gods before me.”

In the original Hebrew, God even gives God’s own name: “I am YAHWEH”, God says.

“You shall have no other Gods cross my face.”

Interestingly enough, God does not say that other gods cannot exist.

God simply says that for this people, this God, YAHWEH, is the God they will worship.

And to give even more credence to that statement, God follows the first commandment

with a second one:

“You shall not make for yourself an idol.”

Now this commandment has been taken, at various times and by various religious groups, to mean different things.

The iconoclastic movements throughout Christian history have often used this commandment as evidence for destroying or removing religious images from churches.

But I interpret this commandment as God saying to God’s people, do not falsely identify God with powers that are not God.

Do not confuse the power of God with the worldly powers of money, for example, or material success.

Do not confuse God with military might or self-righteousness.

God must not just be the central God for God’s people, but God must be truly YAWEH.

A God of compassion, love, justice, and mercy.

Not a God that we’ve constructed to serve our own ends, and not a God who harms or hurts other people.

If the first and second commandments establish who God is and the centrality of God in the lives of God’s people . . .

Then the third commandment keeps us from subverting or using God for our own purposes.

“You shall not,” God says, “make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God.”

This has been interpreted, over the years, to be a prohibition against bad language, against swearing, and against taking God’s name in vain.

And while it is true, that our words and how we evoke God carry profound weight that we should

be mindful of . . .

I think this particular commandment is calling God’s people into something deeper than simply watching our language.

Another way of translating this third commandment would be, “do not use the name of God for mischief.”

In other words, do not mask our own will or purpose or desire, as God’s will or purpose or desire.

If we think about the many horrible things that have been perpetrated or justified in the

name of God, or as the will of God . . .

. . . things like slavery, Imperialism, the subjugation of women, or the demonizing of other religions, to name only a few . . .

Then we realize how important, and challenging, this commandment can be to follow, to not make wrongful use of God’s name.

We should not make God the means to our own ends.

Now, if the commandments have felt a little heavy-handed up to this point, then the fourth commandment, with its emphasis on keeping the Sabbath,

demonstrates that the God of Israel is not just another slave driver or task master.

The opportunity for rest, recreation, and renewal are part of God’s will for God’s people; rest is an act of faith.

What a contrast, I can only imagine, this commandment is to the slavery and forced labor that the Israelites had left behind them in Egypt!

And if you ever feel as though the commandments, or even the life of faith itself, have been reduced to a rigid and oppressive set of demands . . .

If you are left tired and disillusioned by the life of faith, then try keeping the Sabbath in a

way that provides rest and a renewed sense of purpose.

And see what happens.

While the first four commandments center on God and the people’s relationship to God,

The remaining six are commandments are about the people’s relationship with others; they are about how we treat our neighbor.

These six commandments are succinctly delivered, yet just as important and challenging

as the first four:

Honor the older generations, do not murder, or commit adultery, or steal, do not lie, or

covet what others have.

In other words, do not harm, discount, defraud, or bear ill-will towards other people.

How we treat others, it seems, is as central to the life of faith as how we understand and relate to God.

What is important to recognize about the Ten Commandments, especially the last six, is that they are meant to be appropriated for the context in which God’s people find themselves.

What does honoring the older generations look like when we talk about health care in this country, or the cost of medications?

What does stealing look like, for example, in an age of identity theft and internet hacking?

What does murder look like, with our drone technology and automatic machine guns?

What does false witness look like in an age of social media and fake news?

The Ten Commandments are not static rules to be interpreted in just one way for all time.

They are meant to guide people in their on going relationship with God and with one another.

The Ten Commandments are a living framework, they are made flesh and blood in the way we live our lives as people of faith.

The centrality of God, and the care our neighbor, are what it means to be God’s people.

It is just as true for us as it was for the Israelites.