Today is the Tenth Day of Christmas. As we begin to look toward the end of the Christmas season, we receive Ten Lords A-Leaping. The Ten Lords remind us of the Ten Commandments. Traditionally, the Ten Commandments are listed in Exodus 20:1-17.
- You shall not have any other gods before God. (Anything that would prevent God from being first in your life.)
- You shall not make any graven images. (Presumably this means for the purpose of worship, as this could be rather stringent if taken literally.)
- You shall not use the Lord's name in vain. (This would include any use of the Lord's name without proper respect and awe as well as claiming to be a follower of God yet not attentive to the call of God on our lives.)
- Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy. (The word Sabbath in Hebrew literally means, "to cease, to rest.")
- Honor your father and mother. (This is the only commandment that includes a promise. Paul expounds on this commandment in Ephesians 6:1-4.)
- You shall not kill. (This is obvious or is it? We assume this refers to people. Does the prohibition include those who have killed? The unborn? The aged? The terminally ill? Jesus discusses this further in Matthew 5:21-22. This is an application of Leviticus 19:17. John addresses the issue again in his first epistle, 1 John 3:15.
- You shall not commit adultery. (Again, this is obvious. Jesus addresses this commandment too in Matthew 5:27-28.)
- You shall not steal. (According to the Code of Conduct for the United States Military Academy, if it doesn't belong to you, and you take it, it is stealing. Therefore, even to pick up a penny on the sidewalk is stealing. Cadets have been discharged from the Virginia Military Institute for such an infraction. What do you think?)
- You shall not lie about your neighbor. (Generally, this is universally applied as a "do not lie, period" commandment.)
- You shall not covet. (To covet is to have an inordinate desire for something that belongs to another. It is closely related to the definition of the word envy. Well, there goes the American work ethic.)
The first four commandments outline our relationship with God. The final six outline our relationships with others. The Early Church Fathers suggested that the fullness of the Law is found in the teachings of Jesus, who said, "And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these." (Mark 12:30-31 ESV)
Again, we are confronted with how we love God and how we love our neighbor. One Early Church Father, Irenaeus, a second century bishop in Gaul (modern day France), answered the question of how we love God by simply quoting Moses. "And now, Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you, but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul..." (Deuteronomy 10:12 ESV) The Prophet Micah reminds us again of what the Lord requires of us but to do justice, love kindness or mercy and to walk humbly with our God (Micah 6:8). It is not a matter of experience or emotional validation that shows our love to God, but rather a clear admonition that sometimes it is just as simple as acting justly, loving mercy and being humble.
How might we love our neighbor? Augustine, a 5th century Bishop in North Africa, wrote, "'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' You love yourself best when you love God better than yourself. What you aim for yourself you must aim at in your neighbor, that is, that your neighbor may love God with a perfect affection. For you do not love your neighbor as yourself unless you invite him to the same good that you are pursuing. For this is the one good that all have room to pursue along with you. From this precept comes the duties of human society." (my paraphrase, Augustine, Of the Morals of the Universal Church, chapter 26)
After the Reformation, especially in England, it was required that the Ten Commandments be read at the start of every worship service. I like this! However, we need to be cautious at relegating the Ten Commandments to only a list of rules that we raise as a standard of a just society. Across the United States the debate of whether or not the Ten Commandments should be posted in courthouses or schools rages on. I agree that the Ten Commandments are important concepts that were integral in framing our culture's understanding of justice. Consider for a moment that perhaps our application of the Commandments have been misappropriated. As a colleague of mine, who was once a lawyer and is now a preacher, pointed out, American jurisprudence assumes that one party is telling the truth and the other is lying. In criminal law, the effort is to discern one's guilt or innocence and if guilt is proven, a punishment is applied that fits the crime. The context of the Ten Commandments, Jesus' teachings and the writings of the Early Church Fathers gives us another perspective. Perhaps God's Law is not so concerned with who is right and who is wrong, but about relationships.
What re-establishes relationships that have been broken? As the Mosaic Law continues to be outlined, it is often understood as a complex outline of proper punishment for particular sins. What if the Law is an outline of how relationships might be healed? The healing of our relationship with God began with Jesus Christ and is professed by our confession and openness to His transforming Spirit.
Our relationships with others are made right when the effort on behalf of the offender to rectify the wrong is coupled with the victim's call to show mercy. True justice among the human race will never be truly known through punishment and recompense. Only when mercy and kindness are as aggressively applied as punishments will the fruits of the final six commandments be known. I am thankful that the only thing that is greater than God's justice and holiness is God's mercy freely given. Let us live into God's vision for our relationship with Him and with others.