Scripture: Exodus 20:1-17
A couple weeks ago when we were reading about the Israelites crossing the Red Sea I said that I thought that was the most Exodus-y part of Exodus. If any scene has stuck with you from Sunday School or Hollywood adaptations, it’s probably that one.
But I think today we’ve come to the second most Exodus-y part of Exodus: the Ten Commandments. If another scene has stuck with you, it’s probably along these lines: Moses emerging from the top of Mount Sinai, stone tablets in hand, while all the people watch on below.
But let’s back up and get there. Last week we left the Israelites wandering in the wilderness, facing hardship and deprivation, wondering if God was still with them, but also finding grace and provision along the way. They eat manna and drink the water God provides in the dusty desert. They fend off attacks from nearby tribes with God’s help. They start to think about the structure of their community, and how conflicts get solved. They will be wandering in the wilderness still for a while now, but we could say they are beginning to settle into the wandering, beginning to learn bit by bit what it means to be God’s people.
They have already been wandering for three months when they enter the Sinai desert. Here God calls to Moses from the top of Mount Sinai, “Tell the people: You’ve seen what I’ve done for you, how I rescued you from the Egyptians. Now, if you and all the Israelites obey me and keep my covenant, you out of all the nations will be my people, my treasured possession. You will be a priestly kingdom and a holy people.”
Moses repeats all these words to the people down at the bottom of the mountain and he says, “Will you do it?” and the people say, “We will.” God and the Israelites have been feeling each other out up to this point, each learning about who the other is and what they can reasonably expect and what life looks like together – and they’re ready to make it official.
God tells Moses to have the people consecrate themselves, to make themselves ready for something holy. They wash their clothes and get ready.
On the third day there is thunder and lightning and a thick cloud descends over Mount Sinai. There is the blast of a trumpet so loud, the text says, that “all the people in the camp trembled.” They stand at the foot of the mountain and smoke billows up from the peak and the mountain trembles, too.
God calls to Moses, and as the people watch, Moses ascends, disappearing into the smoke.
And then, the text says, God spoke these words. The ones we just heard: Have no other gods before me. Don’t make idols. Don’t take the Lord’s name in vain. Honor the Sabbath, and your father and your mother. Don’t kill, or commit adultery, or steal, or bear false witness, or covet.
These things, according to God, are at the very core of what it means to be God’s people. They’re not the only laws God will give the Israelites. The next few chapters are full of more, and Leviticus comes after that. But these ten are the core of God’s covenant with God’s people.
For something so at the core of what it means to be in relationship with God, though, I think it’s safe to say that the legacy of the Ten Commandments is mixed. Many of us may still see them as the most basic tenets of what it means to be faithful, if not almost universal rules for what it means to be good and moral people. There may also be those of us who question their relevance today, at least some of them – I’m going to guess we’re all on board with “thou shalt not commit murder” but what about taking God’s name in vain? It’s possible, also, that some of us may feel like something is missing – that if we were going to pick our top ten rules for being God’s people, we might have included others, like more about caring for the poor.
Some of us may see the Ten Commandments as all well and good but also think they don’t really matter so much anymore, because they represent “the Law” from which we as Christians are freed. What it means to be God’s people (we might say) isn’t following commandments but having faith in Jesus.
But on the other hand we fight over whether they should stand in front of courthouses. The Ten Commandments continue to have a hold on us, both culturally and individually.
There’s plenty that could be said, and has been, about every one of these commandments. We could talk, for example, about whether the prohibition on murder extends to killing in war, or in self-defense. We could talk about what it really means to take God’s name in vain – what if it’s more than just an occasional “oh my God,” but more about when we do harmful things in God’s name? We could talk about all the idols we make, not just out of wood or silver or stone, but out of the things we put before God in our lives, like money and popularity and success.
But instead, I want to talk about the Ten Commandments as a whole. The Israelites are, in the wilderness, beginning to learn what it means to be God’s people. And one of the first thing God tells them is that being God’s people means living like God’s people. This is not a chosenness that lets them get away with anything they want, it’s a chosenness that comes with the burden, and gift, of obedience and loyalty.
And since we understand ourselves to be God’s people and part of God’s continuing story, I think it’s worth asking what that looks like for us now.
In the Gospels, someone asks Jesus what the greatest of the commandments is. He answers, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and mind and soul and strength. And the second,” he says, “is like it: love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22; Mark 12; Luke 10)
He’s not quoting any of the ten when he says that – he’s quoting other passages from Deuteronomy (6) and Leviticus (19) – but some scholars have pointed out that the Ten Commandments can be read in this light. How do we love God with all our heart and mind and soul and strength? We have no other gods, we make no idols, we don’t take the Lord’s name in vain and we honor the Sabbath. And how do we love our neighbors as ourselves? We honor our parents, we don’t murder or commit adultery or steal or bear false witness or covet. It’s at least a start.
The thing is that we may say we don’t need the law anymore because now we are God’s people in a new way; we’re God’s people by faith and we live that faith by loving God and our neighbors. And yet if you’re anything like me, maybe you still need some help. Because loving people is great, but if I’m honest I’m not always sure what that looks like or what that means, concretely. And I believe in the Holy Spirit’s guidance on these matters, but also believe that having some things spelled out for me can help.
In monastic communities, they have what is called a Rule of Life. This will say things like you gather for worship at these times; that you will spend the rest of your time in worship and study. They say things like you wear clothes that are plain and cheap, that you regularly confess your sins, that you care for the poor and the old and the sick and welcome guests like you are welcoming Christ. They also dictate the way you are supposed to relate to the other people in your community, both peers and superiors.
All that is of course much more specific and detailed than the Ten Commandments, which are by and large very broad, leaving a lot to be filled in. But I’ve found myself really attracted to this idea of living intentionally as God’s people and the way those specifics have the potential to shape our daily lives by holding us accountable to our priorities. And I wonder if we can think of the Ten Commandments as the first Rule of Life. It’s the one that sets a baseline for all other Rules of Life.
So here’s something for you to think about this week: if you were going to make a Rule of Life for yourself, what would you include?
We claim to be God’s people in the world. How are we intentionally living that out? What are we setting as priorities? What makes us distinct from others wandering in this same wilderness? Is it in how we spend our money, how we spend our time? Is it in how we treat the most vulnerable members of our community? Is it in being willing to confess our sin instead of defending it? Some of all these things? How do we spell out what it means for us to love God and love our neighbor?
How does the witness of the saints we named today help you think about that?
The good news is we don’t have to do it perfectly. Living as God’s people isn’t about checking all the boxes all the time. It’s letting ourselves be shaped and formed by God’s grace as we figure out what it means in practice to worship God in all aspects of our lives and to live well in community together. And this grace isn’t even a New Testament concept, as we often make the mistake of thinking. As we’ll hear about next week, Moses will barely be down from that mountain before the Israelites break about half of the commandments in one fell swoop (maybe you’ve heard of this little incident involving a golden calf?) And yes, God gets pretty worked up about it. And no, God doesn’t abandon them. Because they are still God’s people, and there will be more chances.
And we are God’s people, and there are always more chances.
And still God calls us, over and over, to live like we know it: to live like we are God’s people. Because it is through God’s people that God will achieve the very redemption of the world.
 I recommend The Rule of Benedict: A Spirituality for the 21st Century by Joan Chittister on the Benedictine Rule and its relevance today.