Every year during Lent we begin our service with a version of the Ten Commandments, either the full reading of them as we did today, or a condensed  version of what Jesus calls the two greatest commandments – to love God and to love your neighbor.

The commandments also show up in our scripture readings during Lent.

This focus on God’s laws, part of God’s covenant with Israel, indicates how important these ancient prescripts for the life of faith still are.

There may be some who are surprised about this focus on the commandments in an Episcopal Church. After all, in recent years the Ten Commandments have become a battle cry of sorts for our more fundamentalist brothers and sisters, who in many parts of the country have tried to mandate that “God’s laws” be displayed in public courthouses.

I think it is safe to say that Episcopalians have not, for the most part, been at the forefront of those efforts. When I lived in Chattanooga the county commission passed such a law. The sole vote against it was by an Episcopalian, one of my parishioners.

Predictably, the county was taken to court. The law was eventually overturned by a federal judge, who was also an Episcopalian.

But just because many of us have reservations about legally mandating a religious document’s display in a place of government, it does not mean we don’t take the Ten Commandments seriously.

In fact, as their prominent place in our liturgy indicates, these ancient laws are still an essential part of our identity as people of faith.

The Ten Commandments were given by God to the people of Israel about 3,000 years ago. God had rescued the Israelites from generations of slavery in Egypt, but these newly liberated slaves were now wandering in the wilderness, a people without a land, without a true identity.

Using Moses as an intermediary, God makes a proposal to this ragtag bunch. They will be God’s chosen people, they will occupy a promised land and be a holy nation, if they promise to obey God and keep God’s covenant.

When Moses takes this proposal to the people they unanimously answer, “Everything that the Lord has spoken we will do.”

And so Moses gathers the people at the foot of Mt. Sinai, which is shrouded in smoke and fog, and from the clouds God speaks directly to them, giving them what we now know as the Ten Commandments.

These commands are not just a list of 10 important rules; they are far more than that. The commandments are at the very core of the covenant between God and God’s people; they form the parameters of our relationships with one another and with God.

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 – wrestling faithfully with the word of God to make it speak freshly to each new generation.

During the season of Lent, a time when the church calls us to look at our lives, to examine what influences us, 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 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.”

“You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor,” the commandment says. “But I tell you that anytime you engage in gossip 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.”

So these are God’s commands to us and God’s expectations of us.

And, of course, each of us can imagine other ways that the Ten Commandments apply to our lives. And maybe that is another way to keep this Lent.

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.


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