Psalm 19:7-14, Exodus 20:1-17
St Mark’s, West Frankfort
So it looks like I’ve got to say something about the Ten Commandments today. It’s probably not a preacher’s favorite subject—not this preacher, at any rate. We are, after all, more and more a hang loose kind of society. Live and let live. Don’t try to force your moral standards on other people. We all recognize the need for “law and order,” but we’re not too crazy about the concept when we’re on the receiving end. And you don’t get much more “law and order” than the Ten Commandments.
But, hey, it’s Lent. So there they are, right in our faces.
The notion of law seems obvious enough. Every human society has it in one form or another. If we break the law, something bad’s going to happen to us, either now or later. If we keep the law, the presumption is that we will at least stay out of trouble, if not otherwise prosper.
But can it really be all that simple? I suspect we do well to throw out all childish misconceptions about law in general, and God’s law in particular. One of these misconceptions is that, by keeping God’s law faithfully, we can put him in our debt. By obeying God, we have earned our reward, and he’s under a moral obligation to just hand it over.
The fact is, though, every arrow we shoot toward the target of trying to earn God’s favor by keeping his law falls way short of the mark. The New Testament Greek word for “sin” is hamartia, and it literally means “falling short of the mark.” St Paul tells us in the epistle to the Romans that “all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.” Sure, some of our arrows get further on down toward the target than others, but they all fall short. So no amount of law keeping can ethically obligate God to even give us the time of day, let alone a heavenly reward.
Another misconception thinks in terms not of results, but of effort. This is certainly a more kindly view. It doesn’t matter that we hit the target, only that we try really hard, and get as close as we can. We think this might make God love us, or at least think we’re cute. We could do worse, I suppose, than to be God’s affectionately smiled-at pets, mascots of the kingdom of Heaven. But are we not selling ourselves horribly short—I mean, we are, after all, made in the very image and likeness of God, to be his friends, not his pets. But more than that, the “A for effort” view of keeping the law
betrays a paltry understanding of the purity of God’s holiness. It isn’t that God is arbitrarily mean or cosmically uptight. But by his very nature, God cannot indefinitely tolerate imperfection. He accepts me, as the song says, “just as I am,” but he does not want me to stay “just as I am”! He wants me to be able to hit the target every time, and not ever fall short. And he will not simply move the target in order to enable me to do so. That would not be fair, either to God or to me.
Now, from a negative perspective, there’s another misimpression of what it means to be law-abiding. The experience of many is that the law is a cruel joke, by which God amuses himself by watching us fail. “Oops! There they go again, those silly humans. Won’t they ever get it right?” Or, in a less cynical and more rational mode, the law is not really “from God” at all, but, rather, a projection onto God of the human need for security, for boundaries we can rely on. The courageous thing to do is to admit that all laws are man-made, and we are not ultimately accountable to any of them. The Ten Commandments are, in effect, ten “guidelines” which are good to check in with before making an ethical decision.
Now, I hope I don’t have to tell you that I believe all of these notions—that we can obligate God by keeping the law, that we can increase the chances of God liking us if we try really hard to keep the law, that the law is a cruel joke for God’s entertainment, and the that law is merely a human invention and projection—all of these notions are based on false suppositions. But there are, I would say, some fragments of truth and goodness in what is otherwise a nasty collection of falsehood and self-deception. The 19th Psalm, which is part of our prayer at this liturgy, expresses in beautiful poetry what I am trying to say through less than adequate prose:
“The law of the Lord is perfect...and revives the soul.” Far from being oppressive or authoritarian, the Psalmist sees God’s law as life-giving, refreshing and reviving to the soul, like water flowing through a desert.
He goes on to say that “the testimony of the Lord...gives wisdom”—it gives us practical aid in coping with the bewildering complexities of human relationships. “The statutes”—what more legal-sounding word is there than “statutes”?!—the “statutes of the Lord and just and rejoice the heart.” There is something beautiful about justice, just as there is in an elegantly crafted geometric pattern. Both are a joy to behold. And it is only the law that allows us to see the beauty of justice, that allows our hearts to rejoice thereby.
The Psalmist continues, “The commandment of the Lord is clear...and gives light to the eyes.” Eyes tell the story, don’t they? When someone’s heart and soul are whole and integrated, you can tell it in his or her eyes, and vice versa. It is the commandment of the Lord that reveals the integrity of the way we live, a revelation that is visible in our eyes. According to the Psalmist, the law refreshes and nourishes and strengthens. To be nourished and refreshed and strengthened are the fruits of a life lived close to the heart of God.
In fact, “keeping the law” is a practical description of what it looks like when we align ourselves with the flow of God’s loving energy. It’s not that the law is an end of itself. We don’t keep the law just for the sake of keeping the law. In fact, our aim shouldn't be “keeping the law” at all, it should be singing in harmony with God, allowing our energy to flow in the same direction in which his is flowing, letting our hearts assume the shape of God’s heart.
And how do we know how well we are accomplishing these aims? By means of the law. The law, including the Ten Commandments, is a measuring stick by which we can tell how we’re doing in the process of offering ourselves to God for the purpose of being blessed and broken and given for the life of the world. The law of the Lord is perfect and just and clear. It revives the soul and gives wisdom and joy and light.
Most of us have used a computer program. Even if there’s not an appliance in our home that we call a computer, if we drive a car that’s been built in the last 20 years, or use a cell phone, or even a microwave, we are, in fact, using a computer. Now, for everything that we use each of these “computers” for, some programer had to sit down and write what they call “lines of code”—hundreds and thousands of individual commands that tell the computer how to do what we want it to do, breaking down complex tasks into simple “Yes/No” bits of information. Of course, when we use a computer, for instance, to support a graphics program capable of creating beautiful works of visual art, most of us are not thinking about lines of code. But the lines of code—dull and technical as they are—the lines of code are essential to the creation of the poetic and artistic and transcendently beautiful output that eventually shows up on our high-definition screen. “Lines of code” describe, in effect, what it “looks like” to be able to create graphic art.
It’s the same relationship between God’s law and human moral behavior, human integrity. The law describes what it looks like to be attuned to God’s love, God’s ways.We can’t keep it perfectly. Much of the time, we can’t even keep it well. But by the grace of Christ, we can, in time, be transformed into people who keep it naturally, without even thinking about it, as part of our redeemed nature. Only then will the law, including the Ten Commandments become obsolete. They’ll be obsolete, not because we will no long keep them, but because we will no longer need them. Amen.