The Ten Commandments simply don't work, and other things I learned on the playground

Until the people who are playing the game change, nothing's going to solve the problem.

The Ten Commandments simply don't work, and other things I learned on the playground
Photo by Sean Foster on Unsplash

Preached at Pilgrim UCC, Fond du Lac, my home church.

Exodus 20:1-13 

Now, here's quite the lead-in to a sermon: All the available evidence suggests that the Ten Commandments simply don't work. 

Before you tar and feather me and run me out of town on a rail, allow me to explain myself. (Or at the very least, tar and feather me over something else.) When I say the "Ten Commandments don't work," I don't mean to say that there is something inherently wrong with them.

Nor do I think there's something wrong with God handing down a set of rules by which we ought to abide. The problem is simply that nobody actually knows them. Yes, I understand that many people had to memorize them in Sunday School, but you and I both know that not many people in the wider world could recite them. Even if they could, nobody lives by them. No sooner is a law set forth than it is broken. 

It is something of a paradox, when you stop to think about it. If laws worked—which is to say, if people actually did what they were supposed to do—we wouldn't need laws. We need laws precisely because people do what they're not supposed do. We need the law because people break the law, in other words. 

A few years back I was coming back from a pastoral visit and wound up with about twenty minutes before I needed to pick my son Bill up from school. Rather than go home, I decided I would drop in on his class to see how things were going. 

I had the misfortune of catching up with the third graders in the gym, where they were having a huge fight over a game of football. Two kids were yelling, one was crying, and one was pumping his fist at the air like he was going to punch someone. Later on, some of them were interrupting the teacher and talking back to her. I was disappointed in how they were behaving themselves, and didn't mind saying so. 

The bone of contention as I understood it was that they couldn't agree on the rules of the game, such that there were all sorts of allegations of "not fair" and "you cheated" flying back and forth. They all wanted their teacher to change the rules so that everybody would play fair.

Her response was pure gold. She told the kids, "You know, we've had the same problems with foursquare and with kickball and now with football. We can change the rules all you like, but until the people who are playing the game change, nothing's going to solve the problem." 


Solving the problems of life's playground

It is not wrong to think of the Ten Commandments as rules to live by—although if you say you're going to live by them you actually should—but seeing them as "just rules" to be negotiated around or simply ignored when you feel like it is really missing the point. These are not just rules, not just laws, but statements about who God intends us to be as the people of God. They are meant to change us in order to solve the problems we have been having on life's playground. 

With that in mind, let's run through them and see what we come up with? The first four talk about how we should get along with God and the last six are about how we should get along with one another. 

  1. "I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before [or 'besides'] me." We are meant to be people whose first and only allegiance is to the God of Israel. More important, we are to remember that it is that God and that God alone who frees us from every kind of slavery. 
  2. "You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments." We are to be people who acknowledge that God "cannot be controlled or put in a box." We worship a wild and free God who chooses to stay in relationship with us forever, not because he owes us anything, but out of his free will. 
  3. "You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name." You might be more familiar with this one as "You shall not take the Lord's name in vain." This isn't a prohibition against cursing so much as it is against perjury. That is, when you're before the judge, you are not to say "I swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth so help me God" and then tell a lie. We are meant to be truthful people, and for heaven's sake don't drag the name of your god into a lie. 

Because "The LORD" is the name God gives to Moses to identify godself to the Egyptians, and the name used to identify to the Hebrews who is liberating them from slavery. The LORD is quite insistent on that name and keeping its reputation good. To use God's name in perjury, then, is to smear that name — but also to call into doubt God's power to save.

  1. "Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy," because, like God, we take time to rest, trusting that creation will keep working and keep providing without our intervention. On the sabbath God's people are meant to avoid work, commerce, and worry and take time to recharge and reconnect to one another and to God. 
  2. Now we come to the items about getting along with one another. "Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you." As I like to tell my son from time to time, he's my retirement plan. We take care of our parents so that they can live to a ripe old age, and our children do the same for us. We are not meant to be the kind of people who throw their parents out because they have outlived their usefulness and their pension. 
  3. "You shall not murder." This seems fairly straightforward. Literally, it's "You shall not kill," but murder is what's in view here. There are separate laws to address capital punishment and acts of war. In any case, you heard it from me: God says don't murder anybody, or if you do, at least use the car to make it look like an accident. (This is actual advice we received from a defense attorney once.)
  4. "You shall not commit adultery." There's a little more to this one than meets the eye. It's unfaithfulness that's the problem, not lust or the sex act itself. As God is faithful to us, so we should be faithful to one another. That means to act with integrity, and to treat one another with respect, honor and loving care. Doesn't matter if you're single, doesn't matter if you're married, doesn't matter if you're straight, doesn't matter if you're something other than straight. It certainly does not matter what gender you are. Respect, honor, love and faithfulness. That is the way. 
  5. "You shall not steal." Again, pretty straightforward. Respect each other's property. Don't be thieves. The only thing I'll add here is a quote from Woody Guthrie: "Some men will rob you with a six-gun, some with a fountain pen." In Judaism, this commandment definitely applies to more than muggers. Nobody should be a thief. 
  6. "You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor." This underscores the importance of being truthful people in a society where someone giving their word was often the only way to settle a dispute. So: no perjury, no false accusations. 
  7. "You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor." Coveting means more than just really wanting somebody else's stuff. It means becoming preoccupied with the desire, or wanting so badly to keep up with the Joneses that you lose all perspective. That is so easy to do in an affluent, consumerist society where we often forget just how lucky we have it. 

Who are we?

And there you have it. Ten Commandments to shape and form who we are as people. In condensed form, the values we ought to uphold are something like loyalty, truthfulness, trust, generosity, peaceableness, faithfulness, contentment and gratitude. We may never get around to wanting to rip off our neighbor's ox or donkey, but I am fairly confident that these are all values that we would want to instill in our children. 

I am also reasonably confident that if people actually lived up to these values, we would be different people and we wouldn't have half as many problems on the playground. The trouble is that it is human nature to believe that we are upholding these values when in fact we're violating them left and right. That's the whole reason we have to have laws in the first place. 

I have no solution to the problem of self-deception. But Lent is at least a time for us to challenge ourselves on these things. That, I think, is where I would like to leave things with the Ten Commandments as well. Unless you're going to carry them around in your pocket and refer to them constantly as you make your everyday decisions, think of them less as rules than as challenges. What values do you really hold? Do you really live up to them? Are they really as important as you say they are? 

It is indeed a gift from God that we can question ourselves this way. God demonstrates love for us by giving us these tools to understand the difference between right and wrong. But then I suspect even little kids like my son and his classmates know what's right and what's wrong as well. Their trouble, and ours, is in actually applying what we know to what we do. Let us give God our thanks and praise, then, by going forth as changed people intent on solving the problem we face. Amen. 

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