SERMON: The Decalogue – relevant or not?

A sermon preached at St.Mary’s Iffley
by Anthony Phillips on 4 March 2018

I remain constantly surprised at the number of people who express a keen devotion to the ten commandments and think that the lack of knowledge of these provisions accounts for our national decline in morality. But why should a series of rules for primitive peoples dating from at least 2500 years ago, and probably more, have such a hold? I venture to suggest that for those who express most devotion to them, because they can easily be obeyed and therefore provide pharisaic comfort to their consciences. It is time to challenge such complacency.

To understand the commandments, one must consider the society in which they were formed. Nowhere is this clearer than with the first commandment: ‘You shall have no other gods before me’. The Hebrews lived in a world where there were no atheists. Everyone believed in a god or gods. The question was to which one did you give your allegiance. For the Hebrews this was to be Yahweh alone, he who had delivered them from Egypt and given them the rich land of Canaan. The trouble was that the indigenous Canaanite religion proved to be much more exciting than the rather austere Israelite religion with its consortless god Yahweh and absence of any pantheon. In demanding monolatry, that is the worship of only one God, while admitting there were many other alternatives, a costly burden was put on the Hebrews and the temptation to apostatise was ever with them as the prophets indicate. Our situation is entirely different and makes the first commandment irrelevant. Our problem is to get people to recognise the divine, the other, the numinous. The majority of people live their lives without reference to any concept of divinity.

The second commandment forbids idols. The ancients did not think that the god was contained in the idol, so that if one destroyed the idol, the god was destroyed. Rather they saw idols as objects through which they could ensure that God would make himself known. But the Hebrew God was to be free of any manipulation by man. He could make himself known where and when he willed, but never to man’s order. So idols in any form were banned. Few of us are tempted to make an idol and despite certain Protestant outbursts at statutes of Jesus, the Virgin and the saints, no right minded person would ever regard them as images through which God must make himself known at man’s command.

The same idea of ensuring God’s freedom lies behind the third commandment. It is not about blasphemy for which the Hebrews needed no law since they believed that if anyone blasphemed, God would automatically strike them dead. That was what Job’s wife advised her husband to do seeing the hopelessness of his situation. Rather it relates to what we might call black magic, urging God to do something nasty to someone else, putting a curse on someone. But the Hebrew God is never to be manipulated by man. He is sovereign, free, other. We certainly don’t think that divine action will be taken against blasphemers. If we did our TV screens would be blank for considerable periods of time! Nor do we imagine that we can engineer God to hurt others. That would be totally contrary to his nature.

The Sabbath commandment was originally a declaration of the Hebrews freedom from any human authority. In Egypt they had had to work for Pharaoh every day that God created. The Sabbath, which appears to be a Hebrew invention, indicated that they were now politically free. Yahweh rather than any ruler was their suzerain and to confirm this he had ensured that they should enjoy a regular day off. The Sabbath though was not necessarily a day of worship: what it required was that normal daily work should stop – tilling the fields, cooking the meals. We have completely abandoned this commandment and if we are honest none of us would want to enforce it. The car, the roast, our electricity, the Sunday paper, the doctor, let alone the shop are now all Sabbath necessities. We are though free to order our working and worshipping lives. Our problem is we do not now see any connection between that freedom and God. Sunday is now like any other day of the week liable to the same stresses and strains and for many a normal working day. How do we insure proper rest?
The commandment to honour parents has been variously explained, but probably it was intended to ensure that children should not reject the ancestral faith. Initially mothers instructed their children, but later in the case of sons, fathers took over. The commandment came to be extended to any rebellious unsuitable behaviour including drunkenness for which the death penalty was exacted! Ancient Israel had no football hooligan problem. I doubt if any of us would want to put our children to death however awkward their adolescent years might be. Our Universities would certainly empty out and quite a number of us would not be here to-day!

The sixth commandment prohibits murder for all life belonged to God. But the Hebrews practised the death penalty, the victim being seen as a kind of sacrifice propitiating the God whose law he had broken by appropriating another’s blood – what Cain did to Abel. Further, they engaged in war which was regarded as a holy activity with Yahweh enthroned on the ark leading his troops into battle. And though the seven day creation account in Genesis 1 envisages that man was created to be vegetarian, later in Genesis 9 God concedes that meat may be eaten provided the blood which belonged to God was drained from it. This is still the position for Jews to-day.

The seventh commandment prohibiting adultery, for which the death penalty was exacted, had nothing to do with sex per se. First one must remember that the Hebrews were not monogamous as the lives of their kings illustrate. Second the law originally only forbad sexual intercourse between a man and a betrothed or married woman. This had nothing to do with any idea that the wife was the husband’s property but with paternity. A man had a right to believe that any child born by his wife was his own and not another man’s. Numbers 5 sets out a primitive paternity rite. You need to remember that the Hebrews did not believe in life after death, but rather that a man’s personality went on in his children. Hence the importance of this commandment. Our social situation is totally different. We allow a man only one wife and interpret adultery much more widely and either believe in life after death or don’t care about it.

The commandment against stealing almost certainly concerned man theft, what happened to Joseph when his brothers sold him to travellers who took him to Egypt. For this the death penalty was exacted, man theft being seen as a crime for it was in effect equivalent to murder, the victim being sold outside his community with little prospect of any return. Oddly this commandment does remain only too relevant in the face of so much human trafficking. In passing we should note that theft of property was not a crime, but a civil offence, a tort, for which the injured sued for proper compensation. Unlike persons, property could always be replaced.

The commandment against false witness was designed to prevent false conviction in a criminal case for which the Hebrews demanded the death penalty. The case of Naboth falsely convicted due to the machinations of Jezebel provides an example.

Finally the tenth commandment deals with coveting. Unlike the other commandments this is not an outward act, but an inward desire. Indeed it may result in no physical action at all. This commandment has certainly been expanded and it is probable that originally it too concerned a particular act – seizure of one’s neighbour’s house. In ancient Israel judicial decisions in the community were taken by the heads of houses, the elders. To deprive a man of his house would therefore be to deprive him of his place as a free citizen able to take his part in community affairs. Probably the commandment sought to protect the householders rights, but later when professional judges were appointed, it was secularised and expanded.

I hope now you can see that the ten commandments belong to a particular time and situation in the history of religion. But let me make one thing clear. I am in no sense attempting to knock them. They were of immense importance in the development of ancient Israel and their underlying motives remain as valid to-day as they ever did. Let me spell that out.

First the commandment to the Hebrews that they should worship only one God, Yahweh, – what we call monolatry – led eventually during the exile in Babylon to the recognition that there was only one God, that is monotheism – the belief that characterises Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Further because Yahweh acted alone, Hebrew religion was spared all the sexual and other connotations of a divine pantheon found in Canaanite myths and legends.

Second the commandments clearly show that the Hebrews had a double duty, first to God and then to their fellow citizen. Their religion not only required exclusive allegiance to their God but also certain social responsibilities designed to ensure the safety and freedom of the individual Hebrew. All this was confirmed by Jesus in his summary of the law. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbour as yourself. Nothing could be more open-ended that that.

Further as Jesus’ encounter with the rich young man recoded in Matthew, Mark and Luke’s Gospels indicates, even by his time to limit one’s obedience to God simply by conforming to the commandments was hardly an adequate response for someone seeking to serve God. They simply did not cost most believers anything to perform. As the young man comments of the commandments, ‘Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth’. There must be something more to religion if one was to enter eternal life.

Jesus agrees with the young man. Religion by definition must be costly. But the youth was hardly prepared for his devastating reply, ‘Go sell what you possess and give to the poor’. Under Hebrew law the young man would in any event have given substantially to charity. But what Jesus is saying is that to be perfect, that is to be wholly dedicated in one’s allegiance to God, one has to get rid of everything on which one relies for one’s own survival and throw oneself solely on God’s grace. Jesus’ ministry was to confirm his reply to the now sorrowful youth. For his basic message to his disciples, though its full meaning only became clear after his death, was starkly simple: take up your cross and follow me. As Jesus allowed himself to be stretched, so we must allow ourselves to be stretched; as his pinned arms willed to embrace all men and women, so must our open arms; as he was prepared to surrender everything not knowing where this would lead, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?, so we must let go in faithful impotence if we too would be perfect.

This is the message that needs again and again to be affirmed particularly to those who call for a back to basics approach to religion. It is a stark message and how we go about it individually and collectively is for each individual and parish to work out. But the one thing that is absolutely certain is that the enemy of being perfect whether as individual Christians or as a church at large is the desire for self-preservation.

No longer then should the commandments have a place in Christian liturgy. Rather our Gospel is a gospel of abandonment, vulnerability and powerlessness. It is when others see those attributes in individual Christians and the church, that they can not fail to respond as they did to him who abandoned himself for our sake and to whom be glory this day and for evermore. Amen.