When we think about the Ten Commandments today, we often think about the battles across our nation about whether or not they should be erected inside our courthouses or on our courthouse grounds. We think about Christians who think that showing their faith means fighting for a marble display of these commands in public spaces. Clearly, we’ve gotten horribly off-track when it comes to really wrestling with the Ten Commandments and taking them seriously as people of faith, and the culture wars about these commandments continue. Just this past June, less than a day after a monument of the Ten Commandments was installed outside the Arkansas State Capitol in Little Rock, a man smashed his car into the statue, destroying it. While accelerating toward the statue, the man used his cell phone to video himself crashing into it, all while yelling, “Oh my goodness. Freedom!” It was after gaining freedom, freedom of a very different kind than what this man speaks of, that the Israelites received these Ten Commandments from God. It is ironic, however, that just after receiving freedom from slavery, freedom from Pharaoh’s rules, freedom from Egypt’s back-breaking labor, the Israelites receive a list of binding commandments from God.
This is the only direct, unmediated address directly from God to the people of Israel. It’s the only time the Israelites hear God speak without mediation. God reveals who God is, how God is in relationship with them, and how this community of liberated slaves are to practice their relationship with God. God says, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” All else hinges upon this relationship and this act of deliverance. Because God brought them out of Egypt, because God freed them from slavery, because of the exodus event, God wants all other loyalties displaced. God wants full devotion. They have been freed from all other loyalties in order to live an alternative life, a life of being devoted to Yahweh and Yahweh alone. This is not freedom to live or act however one wants. It’s freedom to be in relationship with the one who is ultimate.
All the rest of the commandments flow from and relate back to the first two: “You shall have no other gods before me” and “You shall not make for yourself an idol.” Yahweh does not insist that there are no other gods; Yahweh insists that no other gods shall hold any sway over the people of Israel, that the people of Israel are to be loyal only to Yahweh. The phrase “before me” means “before my face, sanctuary, presence, altar, or shrine.” The Israelites are to carefully order their worship so that they are worshipping God alone; they cannot compromise by giving any allegiance to the gods of culture. They shall not make for themselves idols, more accurately translated “images,” images that detract from Yahweh or images of Yahweh that are false, images that try to control or domesticate Yahweh. They are not to make Yahweh more “digestable” or “user-friendly.” They are to be in relationship with a jealous God who demands loyalty and who will be unwaveringly faithful to the people who are willing to enter into covenant. They are not to abuse Yahweh’s name by calling on Yahweh to do something that is outside of Yahweh’s character or desires. They cannot make Yahweh a means for their ends; they are not to ask for Yahweh’s power or presence in ways that distort Yahweh.
The fourth command of remembering the Sabbath and keeping it holy connects the first three commands to the last six commands. If they are loyal to God and God alone, they will remember and practice the Sabbath, and practicing Sabbath will remind them of who their God is and how they are to be in relationship with other people. They are to remember the Sabbath because they are no longer slaves to Egypt. They can rest because they are not what they produce; they can rest because God is in control; they can rest because God will provide. They are not captive to the work demands of Pharaoh anymore; instead they are to follow God’s command of remembering and practicing Sabbath, of proclaiming publicly that they cannot control their lives by their work. As Walter Brueggemann says, “The reason Miriam and the other women can sing and dance at the end of the exodus narrative is emergence of a new social reality in which the life of the Israelite economy is no longer determined and compelled by the insatiable production quotas of Egypt and its gods.”[i] By practicing Sabbath and allowing all people in society to rest, to be released from work, they demonstrate a different economy, the economy of God, an economy that is not determined by insatiable production but an economy that relies upon the generosity of God.
If the people of Israel are immersed in the practice of Sabbath, then it will help them to follow the last six commandments because they are all about right relationships with others. Children are to honor their parents; the only way children will know the story of their God and their liberation is to hear the story from the parents. Being people who follow Yahweh will mean that they will honor human life, that they will not act out desires that are destructive of others. Truth shall be told in their communities. All of their systems, including their economic systems, shall reflect and honor who they are as God’s people. They will not engage in acts of uncurbed power. Their life together is not to be guided by the myth of scarcity; their life together is to be grounded in God’s abundance, providence, and generosity.
When the people of Israel witness this demanding presence of God, this cry for loyalty, they tremble and stand at a distance. They are afraid of being punished, but Moses, agreeing to be their mediator, tells them not to be afraid but that God has come to test them. They have a decision upon them. Will they, having been freed from slavery by Yahweh, now live a life loyal to God alone? They’ve been through a lot during their days in Egypt. It’s only because the Hebrew midwives and other women resisted the master that they are alive today. It’s only because Moses dared to finally approach holy ground that they had someone to lead them through their trials. It’s only because of the great intervention of Yahweh in the parting of the Red Sea that they were able to flee their captor. They have finally escaped the empire, but now they have a decision to make. Will they live like they’ve escaped the empire or will they continue to live as if they’re enslaved to it? Will they continue to live under Pharaoh’s life of production and consumption? Will they keep acting as if they have to depend on themselves or their work or security in worldly goods? Or will they rely on God’s generosity? Will they choose to live under God’s commands and be loyal only to God?
It’s the question always before us too: will we live lives loyal to God and God alone? How well are we following the Ten Commandments? Do we worship God alone? As followers of Jesus, these commandments should be a baseline. When Jesus comes and tells his disciples to go, to sell all they have, and come follow him, he assumes that they are steeped in a life that takes the Ten Commandments seriously. Can we say that we are a community that embraces and practices these commands? Can we say that we obey God’s demand for complete loyalty? We live in a world of amazing options, a world of endless choices. There are so many journeys one can choose that will give meaning and purpose. There are lots of things to give your life to that will give you happiness and security. There are lots of compelling gods. Just by simply living in our world we give our lives to so many things other than God. Our loyalties are divided, and the only way to give our loyalty to God and God alone is to practice together God’s alternative, to withdraw from the world of Pharaoh long enough to even begin to imagine what it might be like to live in God’s world.
It is in the practice of Sabbath that we can learn how to not invest our lives in other gods. It is in the practice of Sabbath that we can learn how not to worship idols or distort God’s image. It is in the practice of Sabbath that we learn God’s fidelity and steadfast love. It is in the practice of Sabbath that we can learn how to be people who honor father and mother, to have right relationships, to tell the truth, and to be satisfied with the gifts we have. Stopping, being, resting and not doing, going, preparing, or fitting yet another chore or errand in goes against everything we know. It goes against how we’ve learned to survive in our world. It’s scary to step off the hamster wheel of our routines because we are afraid the hamster wheel might smack us right in the face. It can make us feel obsolete; it can make us feel like we are going to waste away and never catch up. I know this sounds like an old, obscure, archaic, Christian practice that no longer fits into our society today. You may be wondering why can’t we just get rid of this Sabbath thing? To that I’d ask, “Aren’t you tired?”
Barbara Brown Taylor talks about how jarring it can feel when one first starts to practice Sabbath. She refers to Rabbi Michael Lerner, who in his book Jewish Renewal, says that “anyone engaging in the practice of [Sabbath] can expect a rough ride for a couple of years at least. This is because Sabbath involves pleasure, rest, freedom, and slowness, none of which comes naturally to North Americans. Most of us are so sold on speed, so invested in productivity, so convinced that multitasking is the way of life that stopping for one whole day can feel at first like a kind of death. As you do no work, you can wonder if you are running a temperature since being sick is the only way that you ever get out of work. As time billows out in front of you, you can have a little panic attack at how much of it you are wasting since time is not only money but also the clock ticking on your life.”[ii] Taylor talks about how long it took her to really be able to engage in Sabbath practice. She said that she finally got to the point that at the very end of the Sabbath day, she “stopped seeing the dust balls, the bills and the laundry. They were still there, but they had lost their power over me. One day each week I lived as if all my work were done. I lived as if the kingdom had come.”[iii]
Sabbath is about teaching you to see that you are not what you produce or consume, that you are not your work, that you are not to rely on yourself. It’s a hard lesson to learn. Many days I can be found in my office, yelling, “Oh my goodness, I haven’t gotten anything done today!” You can hear Stephen yelling back from down the hall, “Pastor, you are not your productivity!” But it’s not just about us as individuals. Sabbath is supposed to be a community practice, a practice that teaches us how to resist the world of Pharaoh together, a practice that teaches us how to right the wrongs of our world, a practice that teaches us to treat everyone like beloved children of God. If we are going to be children of God that we’ve been talking about the last couple of weeks, the children of God who resist the master and who help the oppressed of our world flee their captors, we have to be able to imagine a world where Pharaoh has no dominion over humans or creation. We have to be able to learn together how to resist Pharaoh’s life of production. As Taylor says, “Where there is money to be made, there is no rest for the land, nor for those who live in it. Developers bulldoze the laurels by the river where the raccoons taught their babies how to fish. An entire pine forest comes down to produce the paper for this week’s Eddie Bauer catalog. People who have already run out of closet space work overtime to pay the interest on their average $9,000 credit card debts…. No resistance to such ravenousness will come from those who are heavily invested in its revenue. The resistance will have to come from elsewhere, from those who live by a different rhythm because they worship a different God. To remember the Sabbath is to remember what it means to be made in God’s image and, when the Sabbath ends, to join God in the holy work of mending the world.”[iv]
Pharaoh’s commands are in the air we breathe. Worship as many gods as you like; follow whichever ones make you happy. Worshipping God is like a hike or a sunset or a wave crashing on the beach. Do whatever makes you feel good. God has no commands. Keep on keeping on. Hard work pays off. The early bird gets the worm. You can sleep when you’re dead. You are indispensable. No one can get the job done like you. You matter because of what you can produce. You are judged by what you consume. Murder when necessary, you know, for the larger good. It’s okay to bend the truth. Do what you need to do to get what you want. Pharaoh is alive and well. He’s harder to identify these days because his way of life lives on in all of us. We are enamored by the life of Pharaoh’s production. We keep running at brick-making speed. But God invites us to resist the ways of Pharaoh. God invites us to cease our brick-making. God invites us into a different way. The Lord is our God who brought the people of Israel out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. Jesus has come and freed all of us from our bondage to the ways of this world and invited us to be a part of the people of God, to live lives loyal to God, to worship God and God alone. God invites us to practice Sabbath so that we can learn to dance and sing and live out God’s alternative kingdom, so that all of God’s children can escape the empires of this world.
[i] Walter Brueggemann, Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now, 5.