Lately, I’ve been trying to follow some advice Eugene Peterson gave about giving the Sabbath a proper centrality for the week. He suggests breaking your week into three tasks: anticipating, celebrating, and remembering. Thursday through Saturday, look towards Sunday. Prepare for Sunday by reading the passages that you will read with others on the Sabbath. Then on Sunday, celebrate being together. Celebrate the Word, both written and living. Pray together. Play together. Then Monday through Wednesday, remember. Reread. Reconsider. Reflect.
One of the reasons that I like using the lectionary – in churches and personally – because when I am preparing for Sunday, I can imagine people in churches far and wide turning to these same words and passages and mull them over with me. This weekly pattern reinforces that connection. So, I think that Peterson’s is a great idea – but I have been finding it tricky,
At least keeping up on the text work. During the upheaval of our recent move, I’ve been having a hard time staying on track. My reading seems to be confined to fiction (and cookbooks.) But last week, I spent some time looking at the readings for the next few Sundays, seeing what our friends the lectionarians have lined up for the fall. And October 2nd popped out.
Exodus 20: 1-20. Ten Commandments.
How can you write about parenting and dodge the big discussion about rules?
So, Exodus 20, here we come. Rule time.
But the passage doesn’t begin with a list. Instead, it begins like this: God spoke all these words. Those are five words that you could spend weeks on. That simple introduction sets this biblical moment right up there with the moment of creation itself. God spoke. And then God speaks a reminder: I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt. The rules that follow come from that narrative foundation. God proclaims to the people: remember who I am. Remember who you are. We have a foundation. We have been through the waters, and now we are on dry land. We need to build from here. If you forget the narrative, you will slide back into slavery. These laws are the path into freedom.
Put that way, it makes sense that Jesus should teach us to call God Father. This is parental wisdom. God wants to people to be free – to live whole lives – and to do this, the people need to know the path. In much the same way that we want our children to be wise and strong and connected to those around them in healthy, hopeful ways, so God wants the Israelites to grow up into a strong and faithful people. And so, here in Exodus 20, there’s a map, calling us into maturity.
Of course, we do come across a lot of other rules as we read through Exodus and friends, but this passage is the indisputable core. It isn’t circumstantial; it is the absolute map that will guide the people as they become the nation God calls them to be.
The first five commandments direct them to be God-focussed. Focus on God. Stay close to God. Rest well with God. Don’t get distracted. Remember that God brought you out of slavery and living with God is living in freedom.
Next five are direct the gaze to life with others. Do no evil – not murder, not adultery, not theft, false witness, or envy. Don’t block each other’s way. Be good to each other. Live together well. Because God-focussed living is not isolated from others. When we hurt others, God takes it seriously. That’s a good thing, isn’t it? Just like it’s a good thing when we stop our kids thwacking each other.
These commandments are delivered in dramatic circumstances. Thunder, blasts of trumpets, smoking mountain tops. And the people are scared. This all must have looked like anger. They have seen how dangerous God can be, and they think that all these dramatics must mean that they are already on God’s bad side. So, they keep their distance from the mountain and they rely on Moses instead. They tell him that they will listen to whatever words he speaks, but they don’t want to hear God’s own voice.
Moses says: don’t be afraid – for God has come only to test you so that the fear of God will be with you so that you do not sin.
Reassurance and a great turn around there: don’t be afraid – God puts fear upon you so that you will not sin. Moses sounds like all the New Testament angels put together, saying Do Not Fear.
Fear is only a fence.
The fence is there because how we live is important. These are serious rules – God has a vision for the shape human life should rightly take. But the purpose of the rules isn’t to induce fear. The fear is there to keep you on the path. These rules are there to inspire you to live differently. To be with God and with each other. To be against evil, to stand out, to be holy.
The rules are there that we might start to be salt and light for the world.
Not bad for a list from the Old Testament.