This year as we have made our way through the strange time of a global pandemic many of our Old Testament readings have come from the Book of Exodus.
Both have been interesting, and often parallel, journeys.
We’ve heard God call Moses to lead the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt into the promised land. We’ve heard the people rejoice as they crossed the Jordan River, leaving Egypt and slavery behind.
We’ve been with them as the joy of liberation gives way to the fear of the unknown wilderness, asking Moses, “Is the Lord among us or not?” — a question that many of us have had in recent months.
As we know, the people of Israel spent 40 years in the wilderness. We’re eight months into the wilderness of living in a pandemic, with no end in sight. These past eight months may give us some renewed sympathy for what the Israelites were experiencing.
Many times the people of Israel felt alone in the wilderness, abandoned by God, unable to see a future of hope and promise. But God also gives them reminders that the divine presence is with them. We hear one of those reminders today.
Immediately preceding today’s reading, God calls Moses to the top of Mt. Sinai and instructs him to tell the people, “If you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.”
Moses goes down and tells the people what God has said, and they reply, “Everything that the Lord has spoken we will do.”
So Moses and his brother Aaron go back up the holy mountain to meet with God again. The words that God gives them are what we hear today, what is commonly called the Ten Commandments.
It’s hard to overestimate the importance of these words. They are the central pillar in Israel’s understanding of its relationship to God. They have been the bedrock of many codes of law throughout the world.
But when we remove these words from their context and think of them as just 10 rules that God handed down from on high, we lose something of their value.
The commandments are not the orders of a master to his slaves, they are set in the context of a covenant between God and God’s people. They are God’s gracious gift to the people — instructions on how we are to shape our lives in response to God’s love.
Old Testament scholar Walter Harrelson compares the Ten Commandments to the Bill of Rights. That document, essential to the founding of this country, tells what kind of society we are, how we live together, what we value.
More than 200 years after it was written, the Bill of Rights continues to shape us as a people.
The Ten Commandments serve the same role for the people of Israel, and people of faith through the ages.
Perhaps our most familiar image of the Ten Commandments is from the movie by that name, with Charlton Heston as a bearded Moses coming down the mountain, carrying stones engraved with God’s holy words.
And so we think of these words as “set in stone.”
The danger of that image comes when we think “set in stone” means never changing, never accruing new meaning over time. Things that are set in stone can all too easily become idols.
Just as the Bill of Rights is continuously being reinterpreted to address issues its framers could never have anticipated, so must the Ten Commandments undergo constant reinterpretation.
Jesus certainly interprets these holy words in his sermon on the mount.
“You have heard that it is said, ‘You shall not murder,’” he says, quoting the commandment. You can imagine his listeners thinking, as we might, that they are okay on this one. But Jesus doesn’t stop there.
“But I say to you if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment.” Suddenly, we may all begin to squirm as the commandment takes on new meaning.
“You have heard it said, ‘You shall not commit adultery,’” Jesus continues. “But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery.”
Jesus was doing what God’s people must do in every age – wrestle faithfully with the word of God to make it speak freshly to each new generation.
During our own time in the wilderness of a pandemic, we are reminded that God’s ancient holy words are still fresh and alive for us today.
Perhaps it would be helpful for us to imagine in this season how Jesus might interpret other commandments as well.
“You shall have no other gods before me, “ the commandment says. “You shall not make for yourself an idol.
“But I tell you that if having the right job, or the right address or the right education is the most important thing in your life, then you have made these things your god.
“Or if you believe that God can only be revealed by one way of worship or prayer or action, then you have made these things your idols.”
“You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God,” the commandment says. “But I tell you that anyone who uses religion as a political club or weapon, or to threaten or frighten another in the name of God has used the name of the Lord in vain.”
“Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy,” the commandment says. “But I tell you if you engage in ceaseless activity, or require others to do so, if you do not set aside time for thought, reflection, and worship, for relaxation or enjoyment, you are not keeping this commandment.”
“Honor your father and mother,” the commandment says. “But I tell you when you do not have patience with your aging parents, you do not honor them.”
“You shall not steal,” the commandment says. “But I tell you, if you do not pay an employee fair wages, you have stolen from her. And if you have taken away a child’s chance for education or adequate health care, you have stolen their future. If you take away their access to health care you have stolen from them.”
“You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor,” the commandment says. “But I tell you that anytime you engage in ‘alternative facts” rather than the truth or anytime you are silent in the face of lies or injustice, you are bearing false witness.”
“You shall not covet your neighbor’s belongings,” the commandment says. “But I tell you if you are jealous of your neighbor’s success, if you cannot rejoice in your neighbor’s good fortune, you have not kept this command.”
These are God’s commands to us and God’s expectations of us, a gift in the wilderness to help us shape our lives.
Each of us can imagine other ways that the Ten Commandments apply to our lives. And maybe that is another way to be faithful in this time of wilderness.
Take a commandment or two, or all of them if you want, and think and pray through them again. Wrestle faithfully with them, and see if they take on new life and meaning.
We may be surprised at what we find.