Tuesday, March 17, 2009

10 Words - A Sermon

I saw a cartoon recently where there was a picture of a man all burned up from a bolt of lightning, and a voice balloon coming from the sky saying, “Now if I had called them the 10 Suggestions, I might have gone a little easier on you.”

You hear that sometimes, “They’re the 10 Commandments, not the 10 Suggestions!”  Well, here’s the funny part.  They’re not the ten commandments.  Even though we rehearse them together every Sunday in Lent, and even though we always say, “You shall / shall not…” the truth is, that’s not what it says.

Well, not exactly.

In the Hebrew, they are called the Ten Words or Ten Sayings.

In fact, if you go to literally translating the words, it doesn’t REALLY say “You shall…” either.  A literal translation of “You shall have no other gods but me,” is “Other gods will not exist over my face.”  Even more literal: “No exists to you gods other above/over/before my face/presence.” 

And you might say, “So?  What difference does that make?  It’s just words, just semantics.”

True, but sometimes the WAY you say something is important.  Now, understand that the 10 Words are still part of the Jewish Law, but isn’t it interesting that Jewish Law starts with sayings rather than commands?

Think of it in terms of your family.  Though we all tend to lay down the law every now and then, especially with our kids, fact is, it has a more lasting and positive impact when we phrase things in terms of identity.  “In our family, we do things this way.”  “We’re Kramers, we don’t do that…”  That sort of thing.

That is at the heart of what’s happening in these 10 Sayings.  “We don’t kill,” “We keep the sabbath holy,” “We honor our mother and father.”  In these early days of the people of Israel, when their identity is being formed, these  statements form the core -- the very heart -- of who they will be.

Not that this is all warm and fuzzy.  These are clear categories of behavioral expectations, and as we see throughout the old testament, God does not mess around with those who don’t take it seriously.  You’ll get a sample of that next week.  

In fact, you get a foretaste of it in today’s Gospel with -- of all people -- Jesus Christ.  In one of his rare outbursts of righteous anger, Jesus makes a whip of cords, overturns the moneychangers’ tables and says, “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”  

You might be surprised by this outburst, yet it happens in all four of the Gospels -- a rare event -- so it’s important.  What could lie behind such vehemence?

How about a total disregard for the heart of Israel, the law itself?  Sure the money changers were changing money for the worshipers from Roman denarius to temple money so  they could pay the temple tax and yet have no graven image enter the temple.  Sure, the sellers of doves were providing the animals needed for sacrifice to those who could not afford to raise their own.

But serving others was not their main motivation.  Neither was worship of God.  No, each passage makes clear that their interest was making easy money on the backs of those who could least afford it.  Because the rich did not have to resort to money changers.  They had currency in various forms at their desposal.  They owned their own sacrificial animals.

The poor or regular folks needed these vendors, and just like today, the poor paid the most for the simplest services.  Money changers charged exorbitant rates these pilgrims could not afford.  But they had no choice if they wanted to enter the temple.  The animal sellers sold their doves for far more than they were worth, but if you have nowhere else to go, you pay.

To add insult to injury, these vendors were parked in what was called the court of the gentiles - the only place where God-fearing gentiles could come to worship.  They weren’t allowed inside.  It was the most crowded part of the temple because everyone passed through to get to the inner parts -- so these vendors were taking up space from those who were there to worship.

Taken altogether, these merchants violated the very spirit of the 10 Sayings about who Israelites were as a people.  They did not honor God, because they were using worship of him as a mere excuse for doing business, and they did not honor their fellow humans because they saw them only as a means to making money.  

What Jesus was saying is quite simple.  “This is not who we are.”

So whether you want to call them commandments or sayings or words, they are statements of our identity.  This is who we are, this is how we live together because of how we relate with God.

When you look at them during this lenten season -- and I do hope you will give them more consideration than the brief rehearsal we offer each Sunday -- trying saying it like this, “We’re members of God’s family.  We have only one God, we don’t make images of God to contain him, we don’t abuse his name …”  

You will find this makes them so much more than mere commands.  Amen.