Opening The Old Testament
It's about Freedom: Reflections on the Ten Commandments
March 11, 2012
What could be easier than commenting on the most famous list of rules ever etched into stone, the Ten Commandments? Surely, nothing is especially difficult about "you must not commit adultery" or "you must not steal." That seems clear enough, does it not? Some ten years ago, I was asked to edit a series of books for Abingdon Press, called "Preaching Classic Texts." They do not come more "classic" than the Ten Commandments. So, in a fit of extreme bravado, I assigned the big Ten to me.
My first thought was that the task was bound to be something more like a chore, since the Ten were obviously not narratives, but rather rules, a list of "do's and don'ts," as the familiar phrase has it. I tend to go for the stories—so much more fun, you know. My second thought was: my, what a mountain of commentary there was on these ancient words! I cannot begin to describe the 2500-year (or so) observations on the list. It far exceeded a mountain; it was a whole mountain range. I had obviously bitten off a chunk far larger than my little brain could easily chew.
But chew I did, and got my book down to 120 pages, the size mandated by the publisher. In this process, that turned out to be far more good fun than a scholar should be allowed to have, I developed some basic claims concerning the preaching of the Ten. So here they are.
Never, and I underline never, be tempted by what the lectionary has today tempted you to do, namely, attempt to preach all Ten in one sermon. That way lies disaster! The result will be either trivialization of several of them or obfuscation of all of them. If you preach on the Ten, and I urge you to do so, take them one at a time and give the list ten Sundays. Announce your intention to do so well in advance and have at the study with all your might. For reasons that remain to me murky, the Ten still command astonishing attention in our culture, though not one person in a hundred could even list all ten, let alone in any kind of canonical order. So there is a ready audience for your efforts, and that cannot be said about all of the biblical material that catches our homiletical eyes.
Still, today in Lent the lectionary gives us the whole load. What to do? Let me suggest, against my own clear demand in the previous paragraph, the following:
1) The Ten do have an important shape to them; they do in fact relate one to another in at least one crucial way. The first commandment is the first commandment for a very important reason. Note: your study will soon reveal that there is little agreement across denominations and faith traditions about just how the Ten are to be numbered. I choose the traditional Jewish way that makes Exodus 20:2 the first commandment. This, on the face of it, is decidedly odd, since Exodus 20:2 is not a commandment at all; it is a statement, a foundational theological claim. But because it is that, it anchors the other nine in a most significant way.
"I am YHWH your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery." From that central claim flow all the other commandments. The Ten Commandments do not begin with a command, but with a claim. The God we worship is a God who first and foremost is a God who majors in freedom, all sorts of freedom. In whatever ways God's people seem intent on falling back into multiple kinds of slavery, this YHWH is always in the business of searching for ways to grant these would-be slaves a perfect freedom.
John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.