A Very High Bar Indeed: Reflections on The Ten Commandments and World Communion Sunday

Lectionary Reflections
Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20
October 5, 2014
World Communion Sunday

Though the sea shanty goes, "What shall we do with a drunken sailor?" the important question for modern day Christians is, "What shall we do with the Ten Commandments?" Well, come to think of it, the modern world has already answered this question, and that answer is, "Nothing!" The famous "Ten Words," a more literal rendering of what the commands are called in the Hebrew text, have been reduced for most of us to an issue of where in a secular society we may post the Ten, rather than any serious wrestling about what the Ten may mean for a culture that plainly is indifferent or downright hostile.

"Do not kill?" What can such a demand mean when we kill one another at a truly alarming rate, from parents murdering their children, to Russians killing Ukrainians, to Shiites slaughtering Sunnis, to white policemen gunning down black teenagers? "Do not commit adultery?" Our TV and movie screens are fairly riddled with comely starlets leaping in and out of various sorts of beds with beefy stars with marriage vows having nothing at all to do with the activity. "Do not use YHWH's name for nothing?" Why, every political speech we hear from Republicans or Democrats or Libertarians or other off-brand types ends with a hearty, "God bless America," thus rendering the God of the universe into a tribal godlet, interested only in the good old USA, notwithstanding the other seven billion or so human beings whom God loves and cares for.

Naming the Ten Commandments as serious demands to be considered as part of a healthy Christian life has gone the way of white sidewall tires, VHS movies, and eight track tapes. "It is so '82," as we "with it" types love to say with a decided smirk. In a time when individual decision is the source of right morality, any suggestion, let alone command, is made irrelevant, unwelcome, and to be avoided like the plague it clearly is. "Don't bug me, man" with your outdated, outmoded ideas about how we might live with our fellow human beings.

So, preachers, you and I have a problem, as the old Ten roll around again. We utter the Ten Commandments into the ears of many who could just care less. I imagine it is fair to say that every single member of your congregation, including you of course, has broken, is breaking, or surely will break one or more of the Ten before the day is out, if not before we make it to the cafeteria for lunch. Because one certain thing may be said about the Ten Commandments: they are a very high bar, well over twenty-five feet for you pole-vault lovers. And since the world record for the pole vault is several feet short of that mark, each of us will either come up short of the bar or kick the bar down and will certainly fall heavily into the pit below.

So what do we do with them on this World Communion Sunday? Get to the Eucharist as soon as possible? Read them solemnly and hope nobody is listening too carefully? Thunder them into unwilling ears and warn that God is displeased with all of us, and planning to send each of us to a place where the temperature is hot and the air conditioning has been broken for a very long time?

I have a suggestion or two; you may accept or discard them as you will. 1) Do not even dream of trying to talk about all of the Ten in one Sunday. Our lectionary friends here have certainly not helped us. Trying to preach all Ten today is not unlike eating too much chocolate: tasty it is but sickening it also is. Take one of them and have at it with energy and force. 2) Solemn or thunderous readings have no effect; as I have said, most of your congregation just do not get the reason for all the fuss. In one ear, out the other, accompanied by invective against you who have tried to tell them what to do. They are simply not having it! 3) Help them to see that arguments about where lists of the Ten may be posted have exactly nothing to do with their significance. 4) Most important of all: they are serious demands all right, but they set a very high bar. Let me take one example.

Exodus 20:13 reads in the NRSV, "You shall not murder." Not to put too fine a point on that translation, it is just wrong. To translate the Hebrew word ratzach "murder" is an attempt to soften the blow of its meaning, to weasel out of the high bar that the command sets. That translation has become common, because translators know, as do I and probably most of you, that the Hebrews in fact practiced both capital punishment and war, the latter with special gusto if the countless battle texts are to be taken seriously. Hence, the reasoning goes, since they did those things they surely would not have made a commandment that called those practices into question. Wrong! The Bible often and regularly announces divine demands that precisely call into question any number of practices that the Hebrews have done willy-nilly for years. "Let's have a king," they say, and immediately the kings are described, and act, as a ne'er-do-wells, greedy toads, and lying twits. "Let's build a temple for YHWH," shouts Solomon, and soon Jeremiah is said to warn everyone to avoid the place, since the injustice of the society has made it a "den of robbers," a phrase picked up by a later prophet with similar concerns.

9/29/2014 4:00:00 AM
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  • John Holbert
    About John Holbert
    John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.