Thursday, 15 March 2012

The Ten Commandments... parts Five & Six

Yes, it has been a while, and I have lots of stuff I could be posting - but as I had a specific request to put the text of a talk I did this evening on line here it is....

I should say that the version I did this evening had a fair amount of improvisation around this text, particularly towards the end when my prepared notes became a bit sporadic...

Ten of the Best –
the 10 Commandments for today


The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein said ‘That about which you cannot speak, is that about which you must remain silent’… Time to sit down then, maybe….

Nahhhhh, when has not knowing something ever been a barrier to a good sermon…. so here we are Commandments 5 & 6 (at least in the Jewish and Protestant translations of Scripture) are  - 12 “Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the LORD your God is giving you.  13 “You shall not murder.

or in the King James version, which has a certain sonorous note which I always appreciate

12Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee.  13Thou shalt not kill.

OK, we are at the half way point of our jaunt through the 10 Commandments and (just like last year)  I have an advantage that none of our other speakers have – I’ve heard the others.  I’ve also heard the feedback, both good and bad, regarding David Gunn-Johnsons’ thoughts on the first two commandments and Martin Shaw’s reflections on three and four.  And I’ve heard the comments on style and delivery too, so I hope I shall be clear and audible, with conviction and some relatively meaty content!  When I said it was an advantage having heard the other two and the feedback, I might have been overly optimistic… Maybe the stakes, and expectations, are higher…

One thing I am surprised that neither of our previous speakers did is to take the cop out option that most speakers use when trying to break ourselves in gently to a subject matter.  To begin with the question ‘Why’?  Why are we looking at these ten commandments?  What are they for?  Why do we still refer to them with such reverence when they clearly were written in a very different context, in a very different time for a very different people?   

It’s not really a cop out, asking why we are doing something is often a good way to get to grips with its usefulness and purpose – which isn’t a bad description of what PCCs should be about… though often why isn’t a part of our discussions at all and we start off with the premise ‘but we’ve always done it like this, or that, or the other’.

Anyway, why the ten commandments.  As it was my choice it’s my responsibility, at least to some degree, to justify this theme for our Lent talks this year.  First of all though I would like you to talk to one another – we’ve not done a lot of that this time round in our Lent talks – I would like you to think about why the ten commandments may still be important for today in our walk with God in Christ.  Of if that seems a bit abstract to you – just speak for a minute or two to your neighbour about why your are here tonight, why you’ve come to this (and indeed the others if you came to them) Lent group on the 10 Commandments.  You won’t have to share your reasons with me or the whole group, so say whatever you like about why you are here, or what you wish you were doing instead!!!

Anyone want to share? 

Well I will share – I’m here because I want to deepen my faith and to learn more, and to grow in knowing God.  It’s been an interesting couple of weeks and I have learned from both of our speakers, and been challenged, and heard things which made me uncomfortable and things which have strengthened my own faith.  I believe that Christian faith is strong enough to stand scrutiny, and that God is greater than any challenge, intellectual or otherwise, that I can offer.  I long for my faith to grow – or as the father of the desperately ill boy said to Jesus in Mark’s Gospel Chapter 9v24  – Lord, I believe, help my unbelief!

I agree that holding fast to a simple faith is important for each one of us and commend a childlike faith, but not a simplistic or a childish faith.  I echo what Martin said to Brian last week when he said that what we might describe as simple faith is more complex than we probably give it credit for!  And I know that the approach to faith that all of you have in this room is to approach it with thought and care and to  seek to nurture your own faith in heart and mind.  It is my privilege as a minister to have a small part in that, and I hope that I help rather than hinder this process!

Well, I know that it caused some upset in one of the villages in our Mission Community that I chose this theme of the ten commandments because they are watching the DVDs from J John on the same subject and don’t see why we should do it again.  In response to that I say, terrible as it might be to hear it, J John does not have all the answers, nor the only way of looking at these words which have enlivened and enthralled scholars, priests, monarchs and peasants over thousands of years.  The two speakers we’ve had already have given us radical and very different ideas which have come from the springboard of our first four commandments.  Scripture is piled with layer upon layer of meaning and depth and looking at things twice with very eyes and a very different approach offers a chance for us to deepen, rather than narrow, our understanding.

So, back again ‘why’?  Well, in our first week we did hear some consideration to this question albeit implicit in what David  said rather than explicit perhaps…. 

These commandments, known as the Decalogue, the ten words, are foundational.  They are the basis of legal and ethical systems which have evolved in our own county and through western (and I use the word advisedly) ‘civilisation’ to form a framework for society. 

There’s something of a misunderstanding that the Jewish faith takes these ten words as importantly as the Christian tradition has – as far as any faithful Jew is concerned there are not ten commandments, there are 613, with no one or ten taking precedence.  The law is the law.  A whole tradition, or in fact one could say, THE whole tradition of Jewish faith exist around the interpretation and living under, within, inspired and guided by the commandments.  Alongside this are books and books of guidance and debate on what the law means and how it should be applied.

Why is this important, you may well ask, well it’s because this isn’t a set of rules you get marked on, “worshipping other Gods ‘tick’ name of the Lord ‘tick’, adultery ‘tick’ etc etc” but the whole of the law is concerned with the whole of life and with the way we turn to God and to one another in everything we do.  It goes back to the Shema, the foundation of Jewish Faith, and the first half of what we call ‘the summary of the law’ as Jesus used it! Deuteronomy 6 verse four says Shema Y’Israel = 4 Hear, O Israel: the LORD our God, the LORD is one.
and carries on in verse 
5 And thou shalt love the LORD thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might.

All of the Law is about obedience to the God revealed as ONE, the God of Israel who has claim on every part of life and therefore should be loved with every part of oneself.  It’s all about relationship with him – not a set of rules to be obeyed but a way of living that will bring about closeness.

Look at this way – I am married to Jo, and very fortunate I am too, and because I want to be close to her I am not making romantic relationships with anyone else.  I try and do my bit around the house, take time to be with her and the children, cook and do washing up not because these are the rules of the house or a series of demands put upon me but because by doing so harmony, intimacy, closeness, trust and a wealth of other good things comes from that.

That’s how a faithful Jew looks at the law.  It’s holding up the ideal way to live in order to grow closer to God. 

There’s also a phenomenal misunderstanding that because of this law and because we as Christians know forgiveness through Jesus there is a lack of Grace and forgiveness in Judaism.  That is absolutely not the case – because the law is given for the benefit of humanity then there is a desire to be in relationship with God and a sense of grace and forgiveness comes from the foundational premise that God wants to be in relationship with humanity – which is why God made the covenant, and the law which is the outworking of that covenant.  But that’s another discussion. 

I just wanted to say that we look at these commandments because they are the foundation of our Christian Faith, because when the Church began it didn’t separate from our Jewish roots, it grew from them.  This stuff is the stuff that Jesus knew, and believed, and taught and learnt from and shared and expanded on.  

So there’s my reasoning, well the start of it… and of course there is one thing, as highlighted in the sermon I heard on Sunday and by David in our first week together

‘And God said…’

I don’t know how God said, and I don’t want to enter into a debate on the inspiration of scripture – in fact I found the reminder that inspiration isn’t a one off event, but that the Holy Spirit works to inspire through, with, within Scripture every time we open in prayerfully asking for God’s word to come out of these words… But anyway, God said these things,  as our reading from Exodus 20, which was last Sunday’s Old Testament Lesson reminded us, God chose to speak for our benefit, and these commandments we are considering are a part of that.

OK, so we have two commandments that might on the face of it seem pretty unrelated.  Or at least the common link seems only to be that they’re in the Decalogue…. Honour your father and your mother…. and You shall not kill…  Is this where I regret bunching them together in twos just to get through the ten in five weeks.  Probably!

It might help to look at where we are in the commandments – we have had the first four which seem to be about God… One God to worship, no idols, take care of the name of God which is entrusted to you and keep the Sabbath.  These four seem to be particularly focussed on keeping our attitude to God in the right place. 

It now seems we move into six commands which are much more about our relationships with each other.  Honour mother and father, don’t kill, don’t commit adultery, don’t steal, don’t bear false witness, don’t covet.  These are very human things… and yet it’s not another, different approach – it’s building on what has gone before, just as the rest of the law will build on this initial revelation…

For those of you who like the prayer book from 1662 or who have been listening closely in our Parish Communions during Lent we have our Lord’s summary of the law…taken from Jesus’ words in Matthew 22

Our Lord Jesus Christ said:
Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord;
and thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart,
and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind,
and with all thy strength.
This is the first commandment.

And the second is like, namely this:
Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.
There is none other commandment greater than these.
On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.
Lord, have mercy upon us,
and write all these thy laws in our hearts, we beseech thee.

Did you notice that connecting sentence…
And the second is like, namely this

Somehow our relationship with others is bound up in our relationship with God – or even more tellingly, our relationship with God is bound up in our relationship with others! 

We have a direct connection with God in the way that we act towards others.  That’s why David Gunn Johnson could talk of the phrase ‘MY communion’  being so comical and inaccurate – there is no such thing as making ‘my communion’ – it can only be OUR communion – with God and with one another.  If it’s only about me and what I get and my spiritual fix then it isn’t communion at all, it’s a kind of religious self-help…

Some of you will remember in our talks last year the repeated phrase, and I know it was oft repeated because I was one of those that repeated it, that Israel’s faith, life, governance, temple, family life, the lot were and are all bound together.  There is no part of life that God is not the ruler of.  That’s why the prophets were constantly going on about justice and love and compassion being as important, no MORE IMPORTANT than paying the right temple tax or saying the right words.  Jesus carried on that prophetic tradition in his critique of the religious authorities that could tithe the herbs from the garden yet had no compassion on the poor and needy.

And all of that starts here.  There isn’t actually a difference between the God bit of the first four commandments and the person bit of the next six.  In fact even to describe them as such is to create a false dichotomy between them.  It’s all one.

If there’s only one thing, one message, that sticks with you from the many years I hope to be here, let it be this.

It’s all about relationship!

Our faith, the one passed down to us over centuries is about our relationship with God and with one another.  And that summary of the law, for me, crystalises the whole of the faith I hold so dear.

Which is why we have these commandments…

Honour your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the Land which the Lord your God has given you


You shall not kill….

These are commandments about respecting, honouring, caring for, protecting the other… as an expression of our love for one another and for God. 

But why do mum and dad get singled out for a special mention?

In Jewish thought procreation was a sharing in God’s constant activity of creation.  That meant that it took three to make a child – mother, father and God.  As such parents expressed something of the nature of God in the very fact of being parents.  But it wasn’t just parents, as we read the teachers and interpreters of the law that came later we see that carers of all kinds are included in this – grandparents, step parents, adoptive parents, uncles, older sibling, the lot.  Because it’s not just the act of making a new life that is God-like it is the nurture and care of that new life which reflects the essence of God’s relationship with humanity – and as Christians we would add is a reflection of God’s relationship with himself in trinity.  But that’s a thought for the Sunday after Pentecost, I think…

And as for honouring – what do you think that means?  It’s not a phrase we use very much these days….the Hebrew word we translate as honour in this case is Kabed – a wide-ranging verb; no one specific behavior is commanded but it contains within it respect, esteem, concern for, affection, love, consideration, appreciation, nurture, forgiveness.  It’s also an active thing, doing things which honour another person… and by honour another person you give them dignity as well as gaining dignity in your active honouring of them. 

It’s an active verb, something that is done not felt – something that adds to life, something that causes a growth in relationship, that adds to the fabric of life, that builds up relationship for the one who is honoured and the one who offers such honour….

But in essence there is a command here that is meant to be about the very fabric of society…. when we are bound together in honour we create a strong world, a strong society.  The second part of the command reflects this ‘that your days may be long in the land which the Lord your God is giving you’.  It’s not a threat  as in ‘you won’t be here long if you don’t do it’ but a recognition that this honour will make your culture, your nation strong – honour begins at home!  It’s meant to add not just to the relationship in a family but to the tribe, the culture around it. 

When people ask why western society feels so broken, and what is lacking in our ‘modern’ world I’m not sure that ‘honour’ is a bad response.  As we no longer ‘honour’ our parents and carers that culture of respect, love, trust and dignity is lost and the fabric of society becomes threadbare and hard to hold together.

As an extra factor too, it’s important to note the fact that there’s a command to honour Father and Mother, which is quite radical in a patriarchal world…  Having read this passage time and time again it struck me for the first time as I prepared this talk that in the midst of cultures that were overwhelmingly patriarchal or matriarchal the Biblical Jewish culture has a sense of balance and mutuality that is out of place, prophetic, radical in so many ways.  This, of course, stretches back to the principle of ‘In the image of God He created them, Male and Female created He them”

And the theme of respect, and of honour is carried on in the second of tonight’s commands.  You shall not kill, or you shall not murder…

Now this is a thorny one, and one which I could spend a long time on, in fact I’ve deliberately not left myself lots of time to do this  translating Hebrew לֹא תִּרְצָחlo tirṣaḥ), this command is a moral imperative  against unlawful killing resulting in bloodguilt. The Hebrew Bible contains numerous prohibitions against unlawful killing, but also allows for justified killing in the context of warfare, capital punishment, and self-defense.

The concern is again about respect – that others are not to have their life taken away from them.  We can argue about whether tirsah is killing per se or the specifics of murder, but the context of scripture seems to say it is about wrongful killing, and the rest is open to interpretation!  And always will be, as those who think they’ve got scripture all tied up, sorted out and ready to go, have probably missed the point!

Much more could be said, but in essence our relationship with one another is how our relationship to God is worked out.  1 Jn 3 etc…. How can we love God who we can’t see if we don’t love our neighbour who we can… WHO is my neighbour, another debate and so it goes on… probably why Jesus answered in parables…

I hope this gives you a glimpse of the importance of all these commandments, but the importance of their interconnectedness too!  We cannot compartmentalise faith, the commandments remind us that it is all mixed up together, holistic in the most positive and challenging way.

Looking at these commandments in this way is part of a process where we engage heart, soul, mind and strength in wrestling with the truths of our faith.  If we are seeking a faith that is simple not simplistic, childlike but not childish it will take some work, it may well be hard, it may be challenging, it may be disturbing – but it will also be life giving and life affirming.  Like Jacob who wrestled at the brook of Jabbok with a mysterious figure we are told was ‘an Angel’ we too need to wrestle with the deeper truths of our faith and as we ‘wrestle’ with God we too need to grasp hold of this faith and say boldly ‘I will not let you go unless you bless me’ and God will indeed bless us as our search bears its own rewards.