I’d like to start by congratulating all you who have braved the snow to be here this morning, and especially those responsible for clearing the parking lot. Twenty centimeters of snow is not to be sneezed at!
Our first lesson today gave us the text of the Ten Commandments—the very essence of the Jewish law of the Old Testament, delivered by Moses to the people of Israel in the wilderness of Sinai after their flight out of Egypt. It raises the question that we all in the church have to face—how far do these commandments of the Jewish Law bind us in the Christian church, three and a half thousand years later?
It’s an important question, because some of the commandments of that Law seem out of place in the modern world. If we listen to all the Laws of Moses, we cannot wear clothes of two different types of cloth. There are many foods we are not allowed to eat—including pork, blood and animal fat. There are elaborate rules about inheritance, marriage and sexual relationships, debt forgiveness and slavery, as well as a slew of religious ceremonies and sacrifices that seem completely out of date in this modern world.
Matters are made more difficult for us by those who thump the Bible and say that every word therein is indeed a commandment that we have to obey, particularly when it comes to sex. Fortunately, if you look in our Book of Common Prayer, you will find towards the end of it the Thirty Nine Articles, which deal with questions of faith from an Anglican point of view. In Article VII, dealing with the Old Testament, we do have a rational answer.
This Article divides the Old Testament Law into three categories:
First is that of sacrifices, rites and ceremonies. Following the teaching of the Letter to the Hebrews, it is held that these sacrifices of the Old Testament were only “shadows of things to come”, and have been replaced by the perfect self-sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross. They are of historical and symbolic interest only.
A second is that of political organization and civil law. Inheritance, marriage, landholding, debt forgiveness, Sabbath observance, criminal law, employment, civil remedies, sanitation, public health, food safety and a whole lot of other things—these are all matters that any government has to deal with. We can look to these for guidance, but in our own society, we do not slavishly have to follow the organizational pattern of a different culture and civilization.
Thirdly, though, there are ‘those commandments called moral’—covering the way we behave towards God, our families and our neighbours, summed up most clearly in these Ten Commandments, and particularly the last five of them. Those, we are expected to observe.
It reminds me a little of the rules we have for playing games. When our children were little, we could pass the time with a game of Tic-Tac-Toe. A crosshatch pattern was drawn on paper, and each player placed X’s and O’s alternately in the nine spaces so created, until one player won by placing three of his symbols in a line. At first, a child doesn’t find it important where the X’s and O’s are placed, but it doesn’t take long to realize that if you start in the middle of an outside row, you may well be beaten: if you start in the middle, the player who then goes into a corner can force you to a draw, while if you start in a corner, and the other player doesn’t go to the middle square, you can probably win. What seems like a great choice of options, in fact, very quickly turns into a very limited one if we wish to have any chance of success. “Broad is the road that leads to destruction … narrow is the road that leads to life.”
It’s a bit the same in a game like hockey. All sorts of matters are set out in the rules of the game set down by the NHL—size of rink, size of goal, numbers of players on the ice, length of periods, size of goals and goal pads, offences like roughness, high sticking, boarding, fighting and so on, and the penalties for each. The NHL even provides referees and linesmen to see that all these rules are observed. But your poor hockey player is not finished yet. He has also to listen to his coach, who teaches him not so much the rules of the game, as the strategies he needs to win it. How to do a two on one, or a three on two. How to defend the net. How to play different lines at different times.
Now we don’t necessarily all play hockey, or Tic-Tac-Toe. But we are all playing the game of life. A lot of the setup, such as physical laws and laws of government, is pretty well completely beyond our control—that’s a given. So we need those Ten Commandments, because they give us the strategy by which we are able to win that game, no matter what the cultural ground rules may be.
Jesus adopts these Ten Commandments, but he does so in a most interesting way. He puts them in the form of a prayer.
The first commandment says “No other Gods but me”. Jesus tells us to pray “Our father”.
The second tells us not to make images of God, or worship any created thing. Jesus reminds us that the God we pray is in the spiritual world: “who art in heaven”.
The third commandment tells us not to despise God’s “name”—God’s loving and merciful character. Jesus says “Hallowed be thy name”.
The fourth commandment deals with our lifestyle. Not 24 hour full employment seven days a week, but including a day of rest with time for God in worship—the Sabbath. Similarly, Jesus teaches us to pray “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.”
Next, we are told to honour our parents “that thy days may be long in the land the Lord thy God giveth thee.” Children must care for their parents, especially as these require care and feeding when they are no longer able to work. So that when those children grow old, their own children will be there to look after them. Jesus tells us to ask God to “Give us this day our daily bread.”
Commandments six to nine are those that we can call ‘moral,’ and are very brief. They prohibit murder, adultery, theft and false witness. Jesus here introduces a difference which gives us a key to the difference between Old and New Testaments. On the one hand, his Sermon on the Mount sets a standard of conduct that we sinful humans cannot expect to achieve—not just no murder, but not even to swear at our siblings. Not just no adultery, but no lecherous eyeing of the opposite sex. Not just no false witness, but “swear not at all.”
Secondly, we are told to ask God to “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us,” and Jesus reinforces this instruction by commenting at the end of the prayer that our forgiveness from God depends on our forgiveness of those who sin against us—a new style of life that replaces punishment with forgiveness, making peace and healing a possibility in a world where nobody other than Christ has obtained one hundred percent sinlessness.
The final command is “Thou shalt not covet.” Not to desire things that don’t belong to us. We often say “Deliver us from evil,” but Jesus’s actual words are “Deliver us from the evil one.” That reminds us that in this game of life, we have an Adversary.
The Evil One—who goes by many names, ‘the Devil,’ ‘the Tempter,’ ‘Satan,’ ‘Lucifer,’ ‘the Ruler of this world,’ ‘an Evil Spirit’—has at his heart a commitment to oppose God by making us worship the things of this world: to “worship the creature” in whatever material form this may be made attractive to us, and ignore the Creator, whose love brought all of this into being. It is the story of Faust, the man who sold his soul to the Devil for the sake of earthly pleasures, and came to an unpleasant end. And Satan’s technique is to offer to us things that belong only to God—Kingdom, Power and Glory—as if he were their owner. Jesus faced this in his Lenten fast. The way the Evil One works is to foster the very behaviour forbidden in the Commandments—promoting the godlessness, the violence, the immorality, the greed and the lies that we see all around us in the world today, and are sold to us all the time by politicians, the gutter press and the advertising industry as the keys to pleasure, self-fulfilment and success.
Whether we realize it or not, our souls are a battleground wherein is fought this war between the Spirit of this world, and the Holy Spirit—God’s presence that is always on call to help us.
So let me sum up.
The commandments still have their value. Some, dealing with ritual and ceremonial, may not be relevant today, but they give us some sense of the importance of sacrifice, and of Christ’s sacrifice of himself for mankind.
Others, dealing with the rules for the administration of the Israelite people, give valuable insight into the elements that any community has to look after, and the principles of law that are needed to provide all of the community with peace, order, good government and a resulting prosperity in which all can take part.
The moral commandments, however, are for us, and cannot be ignored or done away with, and in the Christian way of life, they are supplemented by a command to forgive “up to seventy times seven” times those who do us wrong.
Twice now, and maybe more, since I lost my daughter to a homicide, I have been asked if this terrible event had destroyed my faith in God. My answer has been that it has not so much destroyed it, as changed it and deepened it. It is very easy to drift in one’s religion, thinking that all we have to do is to keep the commandments to the best of our ability—God will surely overlook a few errors here or there—and gain a seat for ourselves in heaven, because we’re surely better than a great number of other people we know. That is the religion of the Pharisee.
Two stories from the Old Testament on which I had to preach at the time of that loss took me out of that attitude. One was that of Absalom—David’s vain son who thought that his aging father had passed his best before date (as we might think of some politicians today), and so staged a rebellion to push him off the throne. David fled for his life and gathered his army to restore law and order. But he gave strict instructions that Absalom’s life should be spared. Nonetheless, Absalom’s life was taken by David’s general, Joab, and David was heartbroken—“Absalom, my son, my son, Would I had died for you, Absalom my son.” David’s grief over a son who had tried to depose and kill him was to me an eye-opener on the degree to which God loves even his enemies who rebel against him. The other was the well-known story of Job—a man who was incredibly attentive to all the duties of religion, and enjoyed great riches and blessings from God. But the question arose—is Job a faithful supporter just for what he gets out of it? In a very New Testament way, he was made to realize that God was not obliged to give Job prosperity just because he was so religious. And when Job came to the point of confessing that God’s ways were more wonderful that this kind of coin-in-the-slot religion, God and Job were reconciled, and prosperity could return again.
Our Gospel today talks about Jesus cleansing the Temple from moneychangers, folks who had turned religion into a commercial enterprise. It also talks about the Temple, the place of worship established under the Old Covenant, being replaced by Christ’s body, raised up in three days rather than forty six years. St. Peter and St. Paul both tell us that our bodies are intended also to be “Temples of the Holy Spirit.” Can we be so filled with that Spirit that for us also, the desire for wealth and the good things of this life take second place to our love of the God who has forgiven us, and of his commandments? Can we be so thankful for God’s forgiveness and goodness towards us (as Peter was, who led the early church even after he had betrayed his Master, or Paul, the dedicated evangelist who before his conversion had been a persecutor of the church) that we feel the call to spread this good news to others, through our speech, our own forgiveness, and through our service to others? That is the way in which the war against evil can be won.
– Text of a sermon delivered in March 2006