Exodus 20:1-7 (Watch on YouTube)
I can’t say that I was thrilled to learn that the Ten Commandments were in our lectionary passage for today. We’ve known them since we were kids. We’ve probably all heard multiple sermons about them. I’ve preached on them more than once. So, I wondered how I could possibly find something new in this passage. This probably made the Holy Spirit chuckle at my ignorance. Because, since our Scripture is a living thing, of course it always has something new to say.
This new thing, though, was not something I found in the designated verses. I actually found it in the verses that the lectionary leaves out. Between verses 1 and 20, the folks who made up the lectionary left out verses 5 and 6, just after the 2nd commandment about making idols, and verses 10 through 12, about the Sabbath.
I tried to find out why these verses were left out and couldn’t find an explanation. Maybe the lectionary committee thought they weren’t that important and could be left out to save some time in worship. Or, maybe the committee thought these verses would be too uncomfortable to talk about because, honestly, they are challenging. This wouldn’t be the only case of skipping over something that might make us squeamish. Our Psalm readings regularly leave out the parts that describe violence or angry emotions.
But I think that it’s important for us to confront these passages, even if they make us squirm a bit. After all, we hear in 2 Timothy that “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.” So, for the next two weeks, we’ll take a look at these left-out verses to see how they might help us better understand what the commandments tell us about living righteously before God.
Our favorite image of the Ten Commandments is the stone tablets, usually carried in Moses’ arms. But, at this point in the story, the commandments haven’t yet been literally written in stone. That comes later. Our passage comes during the Israelites’ first introduction to the Commandments, which isn’t through the tablets. The commandments are spoken directly to them by God.
In the midst of their forty years of wandering, the people have reached Mount Sinai. God has spoken to Moses from the mountain, telling Moses what to say to the Israelites: “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, 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 relays these words—God’s words—to the people. They respond by saying, “Everything that the Lord has spoken we will do.”
Moses reports their pledge back to God. God then announces to Moses that, in three days, God will come down and appear in the sight of all the people. God gives explicit and dire directions about how the people should prepare for this extraordinary meeting.
The third day arrives. Now imagine the scene. As the people waiting in their camp, thunder begins to roll, lightning begins to split the sky, a thick cloud surrounds the mountain, and there is a trumpet blast so loud that it makes the people tremble. Terrified, the people gather at the foot of the mountain. Now there is smoke and fire, the mountain itself is trembling, and the trumpet blasts are getting even louder. God calls Moses up for some final warnings to tell the people not to get too close. I can’t imagine they’d even want to!
Moses goes back down the mountain and then, our passage tells us, “God spoke all these words.” Sounds pretty tame. But, after hearing what has come before, I imagine that it’s anything but. Instead of a mono-tone delivery of a set of rules in a lecture hall style, I imagine God booming out these words in a voice like thunder, punctuated with bolts of lightning, as the ground trembles along with the people’s knees.
Each of the commandments is important in its own right. They outline the ways in which the people will carry out their side of the covenant between them and God. But, together, they also make a statement—a statement about who God is and what God intends to do and be to the Israelites. The first three commandments especially are a declaration of God’s greatness and exclusive sovereignty over God’s people. Yes, there are other lower-case gods out there, but none are to come before the One, True God. God is so great, so powerful, so beyond human comprehension that no image can capture who and what God is. Making an image of God is forbidden because it suggests that we can reduce God down to something we can grasp and manage and control, and God absolutely rejects this.
Even God’s name is powerful, and using it mobilizes God’s power and presence. To try to marshal this power lightly or inappropriately suggests that we can make God a means to our ends—a tool we can use to satisfy our own desires. But, the God of the Ten Commandments is not a cuddly, tamable, accommodating God. God is demanding and, here, God lays out what will be expected of God’s people.
God describes God’s own nature in our left-out verses. “I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God,” God says. Merriam Webster gives this definition of the word “jealous”: it’s to be vigilant in guarding a possession. God isn’t pulling any punches here. The Israelites have agreed to be God’s people—God’s possession, and God has pledged not only absolute fidelity to them but expects the same from them.
If they fulfill their part of the covenant—if they live in faithful fidelity to God, the rewards will be great. God says, I will show “steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.”
But, if they fail—if they begin to worship something other than God, if they try to tame God—there will be massive repercussions. God intends to guard this precious possession; allowing another god to interfere won’t be tolerated. And the repercussions won’t fall just on those who commit the infidelity against God but on their children and on their grandchildren and on their great-grandchildren.
Now we’ve reached the uncomfortable stuff. We’re OK with God blessing our descendants for our faithfulness. But, would God really be so heartless as to punish future generations for our unfaithfulness?
Let’s set aside the question about what this passage says about God for a moment and think first about what this passage says about us. This passage makes it clear that what we do today will have lasting effects far beyond our own earthly lives. If we choose to make an idol of some earthly thing, our choice will affect future generations—whether our own descendants or the descendants of others.
What do we make into idols? Once you start thinking about it, the list gets longer and longer: our jobs, our free time, our money, our status. Our favorite sports teams or political party. In some cases, a church building or traditions. Even our prejudices. Often the idol that we place ahead of our love for God is our own comfort and convenience. This idol encourages us to ignore climate change, to the peril of future generations the world over.
It encourages us to reject wearing masks and keeping a safe distance to reduce the spread of COVID under the guise of “personal freedom.” This endangers others and incurs real damage, not just to those who become sick and die today but to the children who grow up without a parent or grandparent, or whose futures are being shaped in homes suffering from COVID-related unemployment, stress, and even abuse. The idols we choose today will affect the next generation, and the next, and the next.
Does God really punish the innocent on account of the guilty? I have a hard time accepting that. But what I do accept is this: the first few commandments are more than just rules for us to follow. They are also an announcement of freedom. When God says, “You shall have no other gods before me,” God isn’t simply issuing an order. God is also saying that other gods no longer have any claim on us. “Other gods have no authority and no power to stand between you and me,” God says. Just as God begins by reminding the Israelites that God has made of them a free people, these words remind us that we have been made a free people.
The Israelites had been freed not only from Pharaoh, but from all the gods they believed had controlled their lives in the past. They were given the freedom to worship God alone. We, too, have been freed by the resurrection of Jesus Christ to live faithful lives by the power of the Holy Spirit. “All the vain things that charm us most” are drained of their self-proclaimed power and authority when we make God our only God. We have the Holy Spirit’s power to resist all the gods who insist that we should worship them, whatever or whomever they might be.
Will God punish future generations for our unfaithfulness today? I don’t know. But there’s no reason why we should have to find out. By God’s grace, through our faith in Jesus Christ, and in the power of the Holy Spirit, we can live as God’s covenant people. When we truly strive to live as a people bound in covenant to the God of all creation, when we love God and keep God’s commandments, we won’t need to worry about leaving behind a legacy of punishment. Instead, we will leave behind the legacy of God’s steadfast love to the thousandth generation. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young