The Foolishness of the Commandments

A Sermon Preached on The Third Sunday of Lent
(following the Julian Calendar used to calculate Easter in Greece)
April 4, 2021, at 11:00 am
for an Online Service with The Anglican Church of St. Thomas the Apostle, Kefalas, Crete
.

The readings used were: Exodus 20:1-17 (The Ten Commandments), Psalm 19 (The Torah Reflects Creation), 1 Corinthians 1:18-25 (God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom) and John 2:13-22 (Jesus Cleanses the Temple).

If you are looking for an Easter sermon, here is the one I would have preached last year had we been allowed to gather in churches, and if we had started to do services online by then. Since it never actually was preached, I may use it this year, when we in Greece get to Easter on May 2, 2021!

The Ten Commandments in St Anthony’s Church, Cartmel Fell, Cumbria, England

The Ten Commandments are not what they used to be.

Did you have to memorise the Catechism? Many older Anglicans did. It was, and still is, the expectation in the Book of Common Prayer, that people preparing for confirmation would learn it by heart. It used to be the practice that

The Curate of every Parish shall diligently upon Sundays and Holy-days, after the second Lesson at Evening Prayer, openly in the Church instruct and examine so many Children of his Parish sent unto him, as he shall think convenient, in some part of this Catechism.

And all Fathers, Mothers, Masters, and Dames, shall cause their Children, Servants, and Prentices, (which have not learned their Catechism,) to come to the Church at the time appointed, and obediently to hear and be ordered by the Curate, until such time as they have learned all that is here appointed for them to learn.

So soon as Children are come to a competent age, and can say, in their mother tongue, the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Ten Commandments; and also can answer to the other questions of this short Catechism; they shall be brought to the Bishop: Book of Common Prayer (1662), p. 296

This is why one finds in old churches boards with the Ten Commandments and the Apostles Creed and the Lord’s Prayer – to assist those who could read in memorising them. Today, though, I suspect relatively few people learn the Ten Commandments in the way they did a hundred years ago. I expect that if you were to ask the average person in England to name them they would remember only some of them.

For many modern people the Ten Commandments is an old movie with Charlton Heston, and not much more. The commandments sound quaint, well-meaning, perhaps patriarchal, and not terribly relevant.

Not Charlton Heston

There is an old joke about them. Moses comes down from the mountain, and he says to the Children of Israel, “I’ve got good news and I’ve got bad news. The good news is that I got ’em down to ten. The bad news is, the one about adultery is still in there.” We laugh, of course, because we know all too well the predisposition of people to ignore the bonds of matrimony. However, we do not see it as criminal, but rather, as something between consenting adults. Since 1970 adultery is no longer a crime under English Law, and it is no longer a crime anywhere in Europe; it comes as a shock to some that in many jurisdictions in the United States it remains on the books, including in the military, and there are still occasional prosecutions. However, it is no longer a bar to success, or even to highest office in the land, whether the UK or the USA.

And, more obviously, we do not observe the Sabbath. As we know, living in Greece, το Σαββατο is Saturday. The Greek’s took the name directly from Hebrew and gave it to the seventh day of the week. And in Hebrew it is תבש, the root of which simply means “cease”.

Some of us see Sunday as the Christian Sabbath, but this is a late development, associated with the Puritans and some parts of the Reformation. Sunday was always a feast day, a day to cease work to go to church, but if one had to work, one could. And I do not see any footnote in the Ten Commandment allowing us to transfer the Sabbath from the seventh to the first day of the week.

And as for the other commandments? Well, consider the prohibition of idolatry. I grew up in a church that, under Calvinist influence, was hesitant to ever allow any depictions of Jesus. That was something Catholics did, with their statues and stations of the cross. Indeed, it was only a few years before I was baptised that my home church even had a cross in it. The prohibition against depicting God was taken seriously in the late Roman Empire, in the Iconoclastic era of the 8th century when most icons and church decorations under the Byzantine Emperors were destroyed or replaced. Nowadays, of course, most of us have icons, this Tabernacle has icons, and many Protestant churches use them as means to contemplate God. And as for the tenth, the prohibition against coveting something – isn’t our whole economy based on wanting things that our neighbours have? Aren’t we supposed to keep up with the Jones?

So what are we to do? Are the Ten Commandments irrelevant?

Counter-Cultural Commandments

I suggest to you that, for us as Christians, the value of the Ten Commandments is not in the literally following of them, but in the recognition of justice that is inherent in them. We are called to apply the principles in them for our times.

God begins with the reminder that as YHWH he redeemed the people of Israel: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. YHWH is a God who liberates, who frees slaves, and is opposed to the imperial forces of Egypt, just as Jesus called into question the arrogant claims of the Roman Empire. God claims the people of Israel, and God, through Christ, has a claim on us by virtue of our baptisms. The relationship is not just that of the Creator – it is special – God is the redeemer of this particular people. As Paul puts it, we have been bought with a price, and we find in service our perfect freedom.

If you don’t have a large container ship handy, this is another way to cross over to Sinai.

This sounds like foolishness to much of the world. Real freedom is not in religion, but is in being unencumbered by rules and regulations, eschewing dogma and doctrine, and acknowledging no greater authority than one’s own self. But we who are known by God in Jesus find in Christ a wisdom beyond that of the sages of this world.

The real idols in the world today are not made with paint and wood or stone, but are constructed in more subtle ways.

  • The nation-state has been an idol, one to which too often we sacrifice our youth.
  • If you are a Marxist then one’s idol is history as worked out by class conflict. Individuals cease to be terribly important in the grand scheme of things as history marches forward to the glories of communism.
  • If you are an old-fashioned Tory, the idol is the maintenance of the class system, with aristocracy, landed gentry, and the peasantry – the rich man in his castle and the poor man at his gate.
  • The superiority of one “race” over another has justified theft and economic exploitation, and in some cases has led to genocide.
  • If you are an old-fashioned economic liberal, the idol is the invisible hand of God in the free market, which supposedly benefits everybody, and the most vulnerable simply have to put up with the costs of creative destruction.
  • In the 1930s balanced budgets and the value of the currency served as idols, which resulted in a depressed economy and widespread unemployment.
  • In Canada the idol was the culture of the settlers, in whose image the churches and governments sought to remake the Indigenous peoples through the Indian Residential Schools.

All of these idols are false, and our worship of them has not served us well. So, the second commandment, the one against idolatry is still valid – we just need to apply it differently. This is God the liberator telling us to watch out where we put our values.

What about number four, the one about the Sabbath? Notice that it says nothing about going to the Synagogue or the Temple – it’s all about stopping work. Someone once suggested that this is a commandment about justice – that the person in power has to make sure that everybody gets at least one day off out of seven – one’s children, one’s servants and slaves, and even the animals. While the property owners and slave owners could choose to work or not, the slaves and hired hands had no choice. This was God the liberator telling the powerful that even the least among them deserved one day off in every seven.

The fifth commandment says to honour one’s parents – and this is likewise a matter of justice. In ancient times there were no pensions, and so children were expected to take care of the elderly, and to respect their wisdom. Today we live in a society that fetishizes youth. The elderly are often excluded from ordinary life with other generations. The great thing about churches is that we are typically intergenerational, with children, people in their early careers, young parents, singles, and the elderly all together in one messy mess.

The Seventh Commandment (1961) is no cinematic masterpiece.”
“The acting is not as bad as you’d expect in an early 60s low-budget movie.”
From here.

The seventh commandment, the one against adultery, may not just be about breaching solemn contracts, but it, too, may be a matter of justice. The Ten Commandments come from an extremely patriarchal world. Men enjoyed privilege and power; they could divorce their wives if they wanted to, and there was not much that the woman could do. However, men could also try to have their cake and eat it, too. The prohibition against adultery may have been a means of protection for the woman in the relationship. If the man could commit adultery with impunity, that means he could cast the woman aside, and still enjoy all the benefits of matrimony – which involved control of any property she brought into the marriage, something he would have lost with a divorce. As well, if the man had slaves, he could have sex with them and there, again, the slave could not do much about it – the slaveowner in that patriarchal, slave-owning society, could assault their human property with impunity. So the prohibition against adultery may also be a protection for the slaves from sexualized violence. We are a long ways away from the modern understanding of marriage centered on love and equality, but behind this ancient commandment is a God who liberates and protects the vulnerable.

Even the tenth commandment is relevant. If you covet something of your neighbour’s, then you have misplaced desire. Your desire should be for God. Desire for God translates into desiring the best for one’s neighbours. The problems with our society almost always revolve around misplaced desire, or the fear that we do not have enough, or that someone else has what we ought to have. The only thing we do not have enough of is the desire for God. The problem with the money changers and people selling animals in the Temple was that they were more interested in profit than in God.

God’s Foolishness

Psalm 19 has two parts, one in which is sung, “The heavens declare the glory of God, * and the firmament shows his handiwork” and the second in which the psalmist proclaims, “The law of the Lord is perfect and revives the soul; * the testimony of the Lord is sure and gives wisdom to the innocent.” God’s “law” – the word in Hebrew is Torah – compares and elevates together the “heavens” and the “instruction” of God. Both reveal who God is, as Creator and as the Righteous One. Many people find the divine in nature, and some seem to rely on revelation alone, but the scripture here argues that we need both. Working from the revelation of both scripture and nature, and using our God-given minds, we can see the glory of God before us.

The Ten Commandments are foolishness to many, a set of rules whose time has passed. May I suggest to you that in them we see the wisdom of God, the way in which God wants us to become the beautiful, amazing creatures that we were made to be. That wisdom took on flesh and lived among us in the person of Jesus Christ, who called attention to the one who sent him, and in whom we find the divine life. As we continue our journey from Ashes to Easter, may we continue to

proclaim Christ crucified,
a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles,
but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks,
Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.
For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom,
and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

About Bruce Bryant-Scott

Canadian. Husband. Father. Christian. Recovering Settler. A priest of the Church of England, Diocese in Europe, on the island of Crete in Greece. More about me at https://www.linkedin.com/in/bruce-bryant-scott-4205501a/
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