Saturday, October 13, 2007


The Ten Commandments as Grace and Law

Note: This is not a sermon I will be preaching in Chugiak on Sunday. For health reasons, I have had to return to our home in Bend, Oregon. I will continue to prepare and post (not preach) the rest of the sermons in this series. My plan is to post them on Saturdays as I have in the past. I encourage you to read the Scripture texts before you read the sermons.

Exodus 20:14; Matthew 5:27-32; John 8:2-11

We looked at the first five commandments with an eye for seeing what they tell us about our relationship to God. We are looking at the last five with an eye for what God expects of us in our relationships with each other. And as we considered the first of these—the sixth commandment, "You shall not murder"—we considered how actions that result in the death of another person are in a special category. Of all the things we can do to each other, there is finality about murder that is different from the other four. Once a life has been taken it cannot be given back, no matter how great the sorrow, no matter how great the punishment. But I also suggested that perhaps commandments six and seven were in the places they were because "murder" and "adultery" may be unique in the amount of destruction they do to individual lives, families and communities.

Just as the sixth commandment points to the value of human life, the seventh commandment points to the place of sexuality in human life. Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann writes of this commandment, sexuality is "enormously wondrous, and enormously dangerous. The wonder of sexuality is available in a community only if it is practiced respectfully and under discipline. The danger of sexuality is that it is capable of evoking desires that are destructive of persons and of communal relations."

When the ancient Israelites interpreted the commandment about adultery, they understood it in a very limited sense: it was a prohibition against sexual relations with the wife of another man. It was not understood to prohibit sexual promiscuity on the part of the husband, unless of course the husband became involved with the wife of another man. Women were understood to be the property and trust of men. This violation of another man's wife was viewed so seriously that it was a capital offense. Leviticus 20:10 reads, "If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death."

This old patriarchal understanding of the seventh commandment has continued to have its supporters even into the modern age. When I was growing up in Texas, I learned that there was a "certain understanding" in the courts that a husband who killed his wife, or a man suspected of committing adultery with his wife, would never be convicted of the crime in a Texas court. It was said to be an adoption from Mexican common law, but I'm not sure if that was the case. I do know that it was a common understanding about a husband's rights. That "common understanding" did not include a wife's rights to shoot her philandering husband and partner. Please understand me; I am not an authority on Texas law. I am speaking of “an understanding" common when I was growing up. I have a suspicion that Texas was not the only place where such views were held. That understanding, wherever held, was a legacy of the old patriarchal view of the seventh commandment, not necessarily of the commandment itself.

The patriarchal understanding of the commandment did not go four thousand years unchallenged. In Jewish and Christian communities it was later broadened to include men as well as women. That development may have happened because of Jesus. In the Gospel text Jesus said, "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall not commit adultery.' But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart." (Matthew 5:27) Remember what I said about Jesus' view of the commandment not to murder. He was not talking so much about the sixth commandment itself but its interpretation over the centuries. He was not equating "murder" with "anger," but pointing out that one could not take refuge in the system of laws interpreting the commandments. One might not be legally culpable for "verbal abuse," but Jesus said that we were accountable to God however we hurt other each other.

In discussing the seventh commandment, Jesus addressed his comments to men. He was not warning women about the sin of adultery, but men. Jesus was objecting to the sexual injustice that had been codified in law. In the matter of divorce, which Jesus also addressed, in his day a man could obtain a get, or a "writ of dismissal," for such a trivial reason as bad cooking. But there were no grounds under which a woman could obtain a get against her husband.
[2] Jesus said that the one legitimate cause for a man to divorce his wife was adultery.

But what did Jesus mean about adultery? Did he really intend to equate the act of adultery with lust? In his book on Jesus, Thomas Cahill facetiously writes, "Earth to Jesus: Hello!" but then goes on to explain that what Jesus was objecting to was not "spontaneous arousal but sexual oppression—the ease with which any man of the ancient world, especially a well-connected one, could arrange to satisfy himself on any woman he wished, her wishes in the matter being beside the point."
[3] I think Cahill is right. Jesus was not equating the act of adultery with lust, but was contesting the authority of the legal codes interpreting the commandments, which legitimized sexual injustice toward women. What do you think?

Jesus' criticism of the accepted pattern of discrimination against women is made even clearer in the story of the woman charged with adultery in the eighth chapter of John. Recall the story. A woman is brought before Jesus. She was caught in the act of adultery. The text makes clear that this is a trap for Jesus. They make her stand in front of Jesus and the assembled crowd. The scribes and Pharisees reminded Jesus that the penalty for committing adultery was death by stoning. They wanted to know what Jesus would say. He said nothing to the accusers. He did not argue the law with them -- the one from Leviticus we read earlier that sets death as the penalty for a wife and her lover guilty of adultery. Nor did he ask the accusers the obvious question: "How can you catch a woman in the act without catching her male partner?" He didn't say that. Instead, the text says that he bent down and wrote with his fingers on the ground. I wonder what he wrote.

The accusers probably assumed that his non-response meant that he could say nothing. Thinking they had Jesus where they wanted him, they persist in demanding a response. Then the text says, "He straightened up" and said ‘Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.' And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground." He had gone straight to the heart of the matter: the guilty consciences of each of the men present. The accusers knew that they were guilty of bringing only the woman for punishment, not the male partner. They sought to trap him, but Jesus trapped them in their hypocrisy. They had no option but to drop their stones and walk away.

But the story does not end there. The woman is still there. She had not said anything. No one asked her anything. She was simply a pawn in a game to trap Jesus. She had witnessed the hypocrisy of the failure to bring her male partner. She had no rights. She could not contest anything. She was more sinned against, than sinner. Then again, the text says that Jesus "straightened up" and spoke to the woman. Jesus looked up at her and said, "Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?" And for the first time, she speaks, "No one, sir." Then Jesus said to her,
"Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again."

Sexuality is a wondrous gift. The seventh commandment is a warning not to use this gift outside of a committed relationship. Remember what one of you said to me some weeks ago, "The commandment says, 'Thou shalt NOT." Jesus' teaching about the commandment warns that it applies to men and women alike, and that committed relationships are ones of authentic mutuality without abusive behavior. Jesus' teaching is also a warning about our temptation to be hypocrites in judging others, and that God expects more of us than the letter of the law.

Finally, the story of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery contain two words that many of us need to hear: First, some are so filled with guilt about their own violations of this commandment that they need to hear, "neither do I condemn you." This is not the permissive "you do your thing and I'll do mine" creed popular in our society. It is the promise of God's willingness to forgive us for our sin, and it is indissolubly linked to the second, "Go your way, and from now on do not sin again." This is the good news from God: God forgives you. Get on with your life. Don't do it again.

Contemporary hymn writer, Ruth Duck, has written lyrics based in part on the story of Jesus and the woman. Will you make it your prayer?

God, how can we forgive when bonds of love are torn?
How can we rise and start anew, our trust reborn?
When human loving fails and every hope is gone,
Your love gives strength beyond our own to face the dawn.

When we have missed the mark, and tears of anguish flow,
How can you still release our guilt, the debt we owe?
The ocean depth of grace surpasses all our needs.
A priest who shares our human pain, Christ intercedes.

Who dares to throw the stone to damn another’s sin,
When you, while knowing all our past, forgive again?
No more we play the judge, for by your grace we live.
As you, O God, forgive our sin, may we forgive.

[1] The New Interpreter's Bible, Vol. 1, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994) p. 848.
[2] Thomas Cahill, Desire of the Everlasting Hills: The World Before and After Jesus (New York: Nan A. Talese Doubleday, 1999) p. 82.
[3] Ibid., p. 83.
[4] Words by Ruth Duck, Hebrew Melody, Words©1996 The Pilgrim Press. Reprinted from The Faith We Sing, # 2169

1 comment:

Jackie Holmquist said...

Your writing has expanded my view of the commandments. They are not simple "rules" telling us what to do or not do. They have depth and a far wider application. If we could all see this and follow these ten--our world would be like heaven.