Of what value, those Ten Commandments?

This week’s first reading is the retelling of the Ten Commandments from Exodus chapter 20. They are also to be found in Deuteronomy 4.13f.  Originally presumed to be given as Ten short words or commands about what it is to exist in a right relationship with God and with one’s neighbor, the Ten Commandments form the basis of the Old Covenant, but they also teach us about the dynamic reality of covenantal living.

I suppose we could spend a great deal of energy lamenting how, with the separation of Church and State, and the limited involvement that most of the citizens of the State have with the Church, these Ten Commandments have become less known in contemporary times as a guide, or an expectation of behavior. Whereas most of us had to memorize these Ten Commandments at some moment of our youth, today’s youth largely know nothing of them, let alone what value they might be as a guide to making moral and ethical choices in life.

A more sophisticated reflection might come from a sobering reflection that in reality all humans fall short of the demands of these Ten Commandments.   Who among us, for example, has fully kept the Sabbath Day as contemplated in scripture? Particularly when we recall that the keeping of the Sabbath pertained to the day we call Saturday? Who among us has always fully honored our mothers and our fathers to the degree implicated in the Ten Commandments? Surely, though we may not be adulterers in the literal sense, yet, in a wider sense, we have all had the pain of living in relationships of one sort or another that have been poisoned by brokenness among the parties of the covenanted relationship. So, the more sophisticated reflection would include that these Commandments teach us our duty towards God and our fellow human beings. But in the same moment we might realize that that we cannot fully live up to the expectations of these Ten Commandments, and therefore they help us to see our need and our dependence on the Grace of God.

Many of Saint Paul’s writings deal with this struggle between the expectation of the law, and the grace of God. Most of us find them difficult to understand and to appreciate.  And yet, despite the tortured language and difficult logic that Paul uses, he consistently drives home an important lesson for us to understand. Lesson number 1: We need to know where the lines are, so that we do not cross the lines; Lesson Number 2: God deals with us by grace and forgiveness.

There used to be a slogan about driving: “be right but don’t be dead right!” It was a reminder for drivers to be mindful of the laws—in this case the Rules of the Road—but to learn to apply them with sense and courtesy. The end in mind was to avoid accidents. Morally we need to know the lines, and the Ten Commandments teach us where those lines are. But we also know from driving, that we rely on both grace and courtesy. That what the Bible really teaches. We need to know where the lines are, but we are also are challenged to apply not just the letter of the law but the Spirit of love and grace.


Canon Greg+


About canongreg

I have been Rector of St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Wellsboro, PA since 1994.
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