Friday, January 25, 2013

The Ten Commandments As An Idol

There have been lots and lots of debates in the past decade or more about the display of the Ten Commandments at courthouses and other public buildings.  I noticed yesterday that the courthouse in the closest large town, which is where we go for shopping, etc., has the Ten Commandments outside of it.  I had never noticed this before.  As you enter into town there is also a large billboard with the Ten Commandments on it (it's a very conservative area).

There are lots of problems with the displays, not the least of which is the irony that most of them were placed not as a religious basis for law, but instead as publicity for Cecil B. Demille's The Ten Commandments.  The other problem is that there is not agreement on what the ten actually are, and so to post them in any form has a specific theological bent.

But the question that hit me yesterday as I saw them and thought about the Exodus story was whether we have made these tablets into another idol?  If so it is a clear violation of the very things we are supposed to be upholding.  What made me think this was the story of the golden calf found in Exodus 32.  While Moses is up on the mountain, the people ask Aaron to make them gods for them to worship as they don't know what has happened to Moses.  When God sees what they are doing God orders Moses to go down to the people, and Moses carries with him the two stone tablets with the law on them to see what is going on.

"As soon as he came near the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, Moses' anger burned hot, and he threw the tablets from his hands and broke them at the foot of the mountain.  He took the calf that they had made, burned it with fire, ground it to powder, scattered it on the water, and made the Israelites drink it." (Ex 32:19-20 NRSV)

In response to seeing the people worshipping an idol Moses breaks the tablets!  Now it could be that he did it simply because he was so mad he just threw them down, but I also think it's possible he threw them down in anger because he realized the people might make of them an idol as well.  That because they were written "with the finger of God" that the people might begin to worship them as being God instead of as something which points to God.  Did he fear that as soon as he went back up on the mountain that they would give allegiance to the tablets, like they did to the calf, and forget about God?  Then I wonder if we haven't done the same?  Is it time to break our tablets so that we can start focusing on what is truly important, and that is the worship not of laws and things in public spaces, but of God?

As a Christian I will have to admit that I am always a little puzzled by so many other Christians getting so upset about the display of the ten commandments.  When Jesus is asked by someone which commandments he should keep Jesus says`You shall not murder; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness. Honor your father and mother. Also, you shall love your neighbor as yourself.'" (Matthew 19:17-19, NRSV, also found in Mark 10:17-23.)  This led Gregg Easterbrook to recommend a compromise positions of posting the "six commandments."  (And if you aren't reading Easterbrook's Tuesday Morning Quarterback posts on ESPN you should be.)

But even more important for me is is a later interaction in Matthew: "and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. ‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ He said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.' This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: 'You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’" (Matthew 22:34-40, NRSV)

Now I don't think we should be hanging this up in courtrooms or on the lawns, but I understand that this is what we are called to do and to be as Christians.  Someone I know was recently  the guest preacher at another church and he was asked to preach on the Ten Commandments, which he was happy to do.  But I would have asked why?  Then I would have preached on this passage and expounded on what this means, including Luke's telling of the parable of the Good Samaritan, which proceeds from the question "but who is my neighbor?"

Have we missed the heart of what is going on and made the Ten Commandments an idol?  I think we have and it's time we stopped focusing on them and instead focusing on what we have actually been called to do which is to proclaim the Kingdom, for the Spirit of the Lord is upon us, and to go into the world loving God and neighbor and making disciples for Christ, or as we United Methodists say, "Make disciples of Christ for the transformation of the world."

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