In the movie “The Shawshank Redemption,” the character Brooks Hatlen began his prison sentence at the Shawshank State Prison in 1905. Fifty years later, at the age of 73, Brooks is paroled. But after serving fifty years in prison, he finds life on the outside to be very different from both the life he remembered before his prison sentence began and from the life he had come to know in prison. He writes a letter to his friends who remain behind bars:
“Dear fellas, I can’t believe how fast things move on the outside. I saw an automobile once when I was a kid, but now they’re everywhere. The world went and got itself in a big hurry. The parole board got me into this halfway house called “The Brewer” and a job bagging groceries at the Foodway. It’s hard work and I try to keep up, but my hands hurt most of the time. I don’t think the store manager likes me very much. Sometimes after work, I go to the park and feed the birds. I have trouble sleepin’ at night. I have bad dreams like I’m falling. I wake up scared. Sometimes it takes me a while to remember where I am. Maybe I should get me a gun and rob the Foodway so they’d send me home.” After fifty years of being a prisoner, Brooks had no framework for living a life of freedom.
That is the situation the Hebrew people found themselves in after being freed from slavery in Egypt. We don’t actually know how long they were enslaved; there’s no archaeological or even definitive scriptural evidence about that. But, that hasn’t stopped people from trying to figure it out, and estimates range from a couple hundred to four hundred years. I think it’s safe to say that it was a long time. No one among the Hebrew people even remembered what it was like to live on the outside. It was a long sentence of imprisonment and hard labor, a long sentence left them ill-equipped for freedom.
That could explain why, whenever the going got tough, the people complained. Often their complaints ended with a longing to return to their lives in slavery. Pharaoh’s armies pursue them, and they cry to Moses, “It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.” When they were hungry, they whined, “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by pots of cooking meat and ate our fill of bread.” When they were thirsty, they grumbled to Moses, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” Slavery may have been bad, but they knew what they could expect from it. They were not prepared for this new life of freedom.
We’re not so different from the Hebrew people. We are fortunate enough not to be literally owned by others, as so many in the world still are. But we are slaves to other things. We find ourselves enslaved to our doubts and insecurities. We are shackled by our feelings of unworthiness, constantly reminding ourselves of our faults and shortcomings. We are controlled by our feelings—our anger, our bitterness, our fear, our desire. Sometimes we are chained by our opinions—about the world, about the day’s issues, about other people. We feel relentlessly driven by the world to get more, do more, and spend more, and to live up to that, we have to work more, join more, make more. Sometimes, we even have to pretend more. Living in slavery to a lifestyle or to expectations—our own or other’s—can be miserable, and while we’re in the midst of it, we may long for freedom.
We’ve been given that freedom. We are given the power to live freely and fully, as God intended us to. But, like the newly-freed Hebrews, we may not know exactly what a life of freedom looks like. As unpleasant as a life of constant striving is, we at least know how the game is played. And so, when we find ourselves unshackled from the things that used to bind us, we may experience some confusion and long to go home, even if it means going home to a prison.
God, of course, knows what we need. Like the Hebrews, we need a framework. We need some structure. We need some rules. To that end, God gave the Hebrews the Ten Commandments. And while they may read mostly like a list of “shalt nots,” they are something much more important than that. They are God’s expression of how we are to live as free people—free to live in community with one another and with the God who leads us to freedom in the first place.
The first four commandments free us to worship God with our whole hearts. They give us permission to turn our backs on all the other gods that try to place a claim on our lives. The Hebrews literally lived in a world where many gods were worshiped. In our lives, too, there are other (lower case) gods that offer joy and security and success. God does not dispute that or pretend they don’t exist. But our God’s commandment to have no other gods before him is a declaration that we owe only one God our allegiance. We can confidently turn down the claims of other gods in our world, no matter how insistently they demand our loyalty.
Our God is so great, his kingdom so vast, that we cannot fully comprehend it. And so, God says in the second commandment, “Don’t try to confine me to an image you can shape with your own hands or imagine with your limited human understanding. Don’t worship an image of me, because you will end up worshipping an image of something I created, whether it’s from the earth, or sky, or sea. It may even end up looking like you.”
Of course, in our quest for understanding and intimacy with God, our museums and libraries and churches are full of images of God. I don’t think that there is any sin in our desire to express with our hands the desire we have to know God. But when we worship our images, then we get into trouble, as God said we would. Think of how often we see God portrayed as a white man with a thick white beard, or Jesus with distinctly Caucasian features. And think of how those images have shaped attitudes about people of other races or genders or ages for generation after generation. The second commandment frees us from our images and allows us to worship the transcendent God who is so much greater than we can envision.
The third one we often limit to not using God’s name as a swear word, thanks to the King James version and others which read, “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.” But the newer translations are better at expressing its broader meaning: “You shall not make wrongful use” of God’s name. You shall not “use God’s name as if it were of no significance.” You shall not “use God’s name for evil purposes.” These all get at the idea that God is never a means to an end, and God’s name is not a tool we can use to get what we want. Certainly, we shouldn’t be using it as a swear word, which is so common. How often do you see—or use—“OMG” in texts and other posts? But we also shouldn’t wrongly use God’s name to justify belittling or manipulating others, in order to satisfy our own needs, even if we think we’re doing the other person a favor. When we follow this commandment, we are free to reserve God’s name for worship and adoration.
The fourth commandment is a bridge between the ones that focus on our freedom to worship God alone and our freedom to live in community with others. Where the first three commandments recognize the majesty of God’s sovereignty, God’s uniqueness, and God’s name, Sabbath honors God’s time. In resting from the act of creation, God made a time of rest sacred. And in that divine rest, God blessed human rest, too. Honoring the Sabbath is not just one more chore for our long to-do lists. It is a time to remember that our worth comes not from what we do, but from who we are—God’s beloved creatures. As we keep the Sabbath as a holy time, set apart for God, we are freed to disengage from all the other things that drive us and seek to define us.
The fourth commandment, with its twin focus on divine and human things, leads us to the last six. They are all variations on one theme—the theme of building and sustaining human community. They address the many ways in which life can be eroded or ended. Disregard of one generation by another, the threat of physical violence, treating human sexuality and covenantal faithfulness as insignificant all destroy community. So does doing anything that whittles away at another’s self-hood. We are not to lie about others, or take something that’s not ours, or even desire something so much that we’re willing to take it. We are not to disrupt others’ relationships for our own purposes. We aren’t to destroy someone else’s reputation. We’re not to force others into roles or positions that demean their humanity. We are not to use so much of the world’s resources that others go wanting.
All these things eat away at the bonds of trust that are necessary for living in community. Instead, we honor others by working to preserve their dignity and protect them from those who would take advantage of them. When we follow these commandments, all of us are freed to trust and love each other, because each of us is free to live without fear of how others will treat us. We are freed for right relationships in community with all that God has created.
The passage with the Ten Commandments serves another, maybe even more important, role, though. It is rooted in the words of the first two verses of our passage—verses we often skip right over as we rush to get to the commandments themselves. Hear them again: “Then God spoke all these words: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” This is an announcement of God’s claim on the people God has freed. It is God’s own proclamation of who God is, and the rules that follow this pronouncement are the concrete expression of how a community of freed slaves is to practice who they are as God’s people.
That raises a question, though. When we acknowledge God’s claim on us, and reject the world’s claim—when we choose to follow God’s rules rather than the world’s rules, when we accept Jesus as our Lord rather than all the other gods that surround us—are we simply exchanging one master for another, one kind of slavery for another? No. As Paul says to the Romans, we “did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but we have received a spirit of adoption.” And to the Galatians he said, “For freedom, Christ has set us free.”
We are not owned by a harsh slave master, with hearts beaten into submission through fear. As God’s beloved children, we are set free to respond to God’s grace and forgiveness, poured out through Jesus. The gratitude and joy we feel in that freedom creates in us a desire to obey and shapes our hearts into obedient hearts.
In Scripture, both in the Old and New Testaments, the words that are used for obedience don’t mean a slavish following of arbitrary orders. They have to do with listening and hearing and embracing what has been heard. They have to do with understanding the nature of the rules God has given us as a gift.
This is what is the Hebrew people promise after receiving the Ten Commandments and the other rules God spoke. In Chapter 24, we read that Moses “took the book of the covenant, and read it in the hearing of the people; and they said, ‘All that the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient.’” This is what Jesus was talking about when he gave us the Great Commission—to make disciples of all nations, teaching them to obey everything he has commanded us.
Obedience is not so much an action as it is a condition of our hearts. During Lent, we strive to be more obedient. Sure, we try to do better what Scripture teaches us to do. But more than that, what we do is reflection of the freedom we have embraced. By grace, through Jesus’ death and resurrection, God has led us to freedom from the slavery of sin and the fear of death. By grace, God has given us a framework to guide us as we live in joyful community with God and neighbor. In response, we offer our obedient hearts, living as the free people whom God has claimed. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young