Every now and again I hear about a law that’s on file somewhere that doesn’t make much sense, at least not anymore. Laws like, in many states, no one can carry an ice cream cone in their back pocket. Or, in Alabama it’s illegal to put salt on a railroad track. Or, in Utah, it’s illegal to go whale hunting. I’m not sure where in Utah you’d be finding a whale, but should you do so, it’s illegal.
We laugh at these today because they sound so absurd, but when they were written someone thought they were a good idea, and convinced others they were too. Something was happening that they felt like they had to tell people not to put salt on the railroad tracks in Alabama. It turns out that if you put salt on the tracks, cows are attracted, and a train that can’t stop might derail. Or, in the case of the ice cream cone in the back pocket, people used to use it to lead a horse they wanted to steal away. Legislators wrote laws that made sense for the times, and now, decades if not centuries later, no one has thought to take them off the books.
The Bible has some examples like this too. According to Leviticus, you can’t wear a piece of clothing made of two fabrics. So corduroy is out. Or if your child is disrespectful, he can be stoned to death. Or, if you don’t have perfect eyesight, you shouldn’t enter into the Temple.
We as Christians don’t believe in those laws anymore. We know they are from another time and place. But we don’t throw out the history of where we’ve been. We know that there was a time when these laws, like the one about salt on a railroad track, made sense. And we know that they don’t any more.
It’s things like this though that made Christians sometimes claim that we are free from “the law”. You sometimes hear Christians claim that we don’t do everything that’s in the Old Testament because Christ’s grace set us free. It’s an easy way to justify why we eat bacon or cheeseburgers or shrimp. But it’s not that simple. And today’s reading, the story of the Ten Commandments, reminds us of that. Today’s reading reminds us that while grace has freed us from legalism, we are not free from the law. Nor do we want to be.
Today we read about how Moses went up on Mt. Sinai and talked to God. And God gave him Ten Commandments, ten laws, to take back to the people. And we read about how he took them back to a community that had just fled slavery and was looking for a promised land.
But we’re not just reading about some sort of divine law book with no longer relevant statues. We’re reading about the foundation for a covenant, the foundation for a relationship. We’re reading about God reaching out to God’s people and saying “you are not in that place of harshness and punishment anymore. You are not bound to me out of fear. You are bound to me out of love.”
And then God gives us these tablets. And on them are everything we need to love God back.
In the Gospels Jesus sums up the whole of the law this way:
37 And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. 38 This is the great and first commandment.
39 And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
40 On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”
He was really summing up the Ten Commandments, there. Jesus wasn’t a legalistic savior. He was one who lived not to serve legalism, but to serve the law itself. Because the law itself was there to encourage our love of God, and our love for one another. The law is a servant to the love of God, and our relationship with God – not a dictator of it.
Jesus showed us that was true when he healed the sick on the sabbath. Christ himself, in the eyes of many, broke one of the ten commandments. But he did it in order to save a life. And by doing so he was actually being more true to God’s law than those who would have stood by and watched someone suffer. Even today, an Orthodox Jew, one who will walk miles to shul on Friday night to keep the commandments, is allowed to break the Sabbath if by doing so they can save a life.
The reason for that is that the spirit of the law, the spirit of God’s love for us, and the love God wills us to have for one another, is more important than the letter of the law. The law is a useful guide in that it points to a greater grace, but it can only be understood in the context of God’s love and will for us. Unlike the laws of lesser gods, God’s law is given not to scare us into obedience, but to teach us how to live and how to relate to both God and others.
You may have noticed when you’ve seen some paintings of the Ten Commandments that one tablet has four laws on it and one has six. I never understood that when I was younger. I’ve always liked symmetry, and I wondered why not just put five on each. But when you hear about why they have historically been depicted like that, it makes sense.
One the first tablet are four commandments. And they are the commandments that teach us how to relate to God. And on the second tablet are six commandments. And they are the commandments that teach us how we, as the people of God, should relate to one another.
Listen to those first four commandments and hear how God wants to be in relationship with us: don’t have any other gods but me, don’t make idols and worship them, don’t take my name in vain and, one day a week, save it to be with me.
Some rabbis have compared these commandments as God’s marriage proposal to the people of Israel. This is God asking for us to commit to being God’s people, and to promise our faithfulness and that we won’t stray and we won’t confuse our lust for the fleeting things of this world with what we should truly worship. This is God asking us to say, “I do” and to be just as madly in love with God as God is with us. That’s what that first tablet is about.
And the second tablet is about being so loved by God, that we cannot help but to do right by those whom God also loves. Those around us, also beloved of God, who God wants us to respect and to love and to treat not just fairly, but with grace. Because if we are really in love with God, in our hearts we will want to do that.
This is what God asks: honor your father and mother. Which really means, honor all your elders who have loved you first, before you even knew it. Do not murder. Which means, do not take the life that God has given from anyone. Do not commit adultery. Which means do not be unfaithful or break your commitments to those you love. Do not steal. Which in Jewish tradition means more literally “do not kidnap”, which means do not take from someone what they love. Do not bear false witness, which means do not lie, especially not when it is done at another’s expense to unfairly help yourself. And, lastly, do not covet your neighbors house. Which is just another way of saying, do not let your envy and jealousy control you and distract you from the house God has already made for you.
Ten Commandments. Ten rules. Ten guides along the way not from a God who demands our obedience by invoking fear, but from a God who calls us into right relationship with God, and with one another. They are the standards upon which we should judge all our relationships. They are the cornerstones of the life Christ called us to. They are not a checklist of do’s and don’ts. They are not a symbol for politicians to debate or co-opt one way or another. They are not albatrosses around our necks. They are a way of life, and if we really are striving to have the relationship we are called to have with God, they will come easily.
Those funny laws I was telling you about earlier, the ones about landlocked whales and ice cream cones and salt on railroad tracks, they had their time and place. Even the ones our own Bible contains that make no sense anymore; at one time they did, and they served their purpose. But they were different kinds of laws. They were different than these commandments. They dealt with the details. The brass tacks of time and place and situation. And they were finite.
But the commandments, they are greater, because they point to a relationship that transcends time and place and circumstance. They point to God’s love for God’s people, and God’s hope for all of our lives together. They are laws that point beyond legalism. They are commandments that are greater than commands. They are the covenant that God has offered to us, and they are the assurances of a love that is too great to legislate. They are not written in dusty law books. They are written on our hearts, and on God’s. Thanks be to God. Amen.