Saturday, October 27, 2007


The Ten Commandments as Grace and Law

Exodus 20:16; Psalm 15, Ephesians 4:14-16, 25-32; Matthew 15:10-20

In each of these sermons I have said that in their original form the Ten Commandments were probably only one or two words each in Hebrew, and that the words around them, together with the other 603 rabbinic laws interpreting the commandments, were written centuries later. Jesus did not equate the authority of the "Ten" with the 603 other rabbinic laws nor with the tradition of oral law that preceded them. Jesus and the early church clearly and intentionally violated or rejected some of the rabbinic laws found in the first five books of the Bible -- the kosher laws, for example, as reflected in the Matthew 15 reading.

I think it is for good reason that we have disregarded many of the rabbinic laws of the first five books of the Bible. Just because the rabbinic law approves of buying slaves just as long as you buy them from neighboring nations, that doesn't mean slavery is OK, does it? (Leviticus 25:44) Just because the rabbinic law says that a person who works on the Sabbath should be put to death, that doesn't mean that it is OK to put such people to death, does it? (Exodus 32:2) Just because the rabbinic law says that witches are to be put to death, that doesn't mean that it is OK, does it? (Exodus 22:18) Just because the rabbinic law says that eating shellfish is an abomination to God and forbidden, that doesn't mean that we should refrain from eating shrimp and king crab, does it? (Leviticus 11:10) And just because the rabbinic law condemns homosexuality as an "abomination" to God -- the same level of condemnation as for eating shellfish -- that doesn't mean that we should also condemn it, does it? (Leviticus 18:22) Are we to give equal weight to the 603 rabbinic laws as we do the Ten Commandments? The answer of Jesus seems to be a clear "No!" We have to decide these matters on grounds other than their being rabbinic laws in the Bible.

We looked at the first five commandments with a view to what they could tell us about our relationship to God, and we are looking at the last five with a view to what God expects of us in relating to our neighbors. We said that the sixth commandment, the one forbidding murder, recognized of the value of human life. We said that the seventh commandment recognized the importance of sexuality in human life. We said that the eighth commandment recognized that certain goods are necessary for life with dignity, and that the goods of another person must not be seized.

Reflecting on the command not to steal, one of you wrote to me with another dimension of "stealing." You said that we can also "steal" another person's peace of mind by a careless word, that we can "rob" another person's sense of well-being by hurtful words or gossip. I wondered if that did not lead us to the ninth commandment.

The ninth commandment—"You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor."—is an acknowledgement that viable human community depends on truth telling. Since I have not preached at Chugiak these last Sundays I wasn’t tempted to do what one pastor did when preaching on this commandment. On the Sunday before, he asked the members of the congregation to read the seventeenth chapter of the Gospel of Mark as preparation for the sermon. One week later, when he began his sermon, he asked how many people had done their assignment and had read the seventeenth chapter of the Gospel of Mark. Hands went up all over the sanctuary. Then, the pastor said, "There are only sixteen chapters of the Gospel of Mark. Today, we will talk about telling the truth."

But if I told you that the ninth commandment is not concerned with "white lies," little lies, or inconsequential lies, would you be disappointed or relieved? I think Biblical scholar, Walter Brueggemann is correct when he writes, "This commandment is not concerned with 'white lies,' but the public portrayal of reality that is not excessively skewed by self-interest or party ideology. The primary reference is the court, where witnesses speak and testimony is given."
[1] I suspect the reason for Brueggemann's conclusion is that in Hebrew there are other more common words for "lying" than the more specialized term used here, more like our legal term "perjury" -- the giving of deliberate false evidence while under oath.

Brueggemann explains further that this commandment "understands that a free, independent, and healthy judiciary system is indispensable for a viable community. The courtroom must be a place where the truth is told and where social reality is not distorted through devious manipulation or ideological perversion. It is remarkable in this list of prohibitions that concern the sanctity of human life, the mystery of sexuality, and the maintenance of property, that courts should be so prominent."
[2] That courts should so clearly figure into the Ten Commandments may be remarkable, but Brueggemann recognizes, as I think we do, "that community life is not possible unless there is an arena in which there is public confidence that social reality will be reliably described and reported."

I understand the sentiment that says one of our problems today is the lack of the public's confidence in our courts and judicial system, and that by and large the public does not believe that the courts succeed very well in distinguishing truth from falsehood. Some complain that the very laws intended to get truth while protecting the innocent result in weighting the balance in favor of the guilty. Some complain that "money" not "truth" is the final arbiter of guilt and innocence in our court system.

There is a crisis of public confidence in our judicial system today, and the way to restore that confidence is not clear. I am suspicious of simple answers for problems that are very complex. I am also suspicious because the human propensity to distort reality (the "facts") to suit our own interests is deep and pervasive. Because of that propensity, there will always be people finding ways to abuse the law and the court system. Rather than cynically accepting this reality, we can determine that if we are called as witnesses in court we will "tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth." We can decide that we will obey the ninth commandment, regardless of our vested interests.

This commandment has implications for truth telling far beyond the confines of the court system. It has to do will all the institutions of society on which we depend for information. Much more than public confidence in our court system, the real crisis of our time may be our mass culture's transformation of truth into propaganda that entertains. In 1986 Neil Postman wrote a book the title of which nearly says it all: Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business.

Postman was Chair of the Department of Culture and Communications at New York University. His study concludes that in our mass culture truth is held hostage to entertainment. This hasn't happened according to George Orwell's chilling vision of the future in his book titled, Nineteen Eighty-Four, written in 1949.
[4](4) In this book Orwell predicted that we would be overcome by externally imposed oppression, and coined the term "Big Brother." Postman says that the danger is from a slightly older, less well-known view of the future -- Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, written in 1932.[5] I suggest that both books are good reading for us in this first decade of the twenty-first century.

According to Huxley, Postman points out, no Big Brother is required to take away our freedom, our maturity and our history. Huxley said that people would come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think. Orwell feared that books would be banned. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban books, because no one would want to read them. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared that truth "would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance."

Some would say that Huxley has aptly described modern television and the Internet. What I would like to know is how did Huxley -- way back in 1932 -- so clearly anticipate television at the beginning of the twenty-first century? As one who uses the Internet regularly to find information, I can testify to the "sea of irrelevance" through which one must swim to find hard reliable data. What is true of the Internet is also true of the mass media, both print and electronic, including the main source of news for many people -- the talk shows on radio and television. While the radio talk shows I hear on local AM stations regularly castigate the news media for not telling the truth and for hiding it, they do not acknowledge that they are as much hostage to making truth entertaining as the rest of the media. Under the guise of public forums for finding truth, they are models of the way in which truth is compromised by making it entertaining. "Bearing false witness" is caricaturing those who differ with you and not telling the whole truth, and it is an indictment of our mass media. If we want truth in our time, we will have to work to get it, and not expect to be entertained by it.

Last week I reminded you how -- eight centuries before the birth of Christ -- the Hebrew prophets became the social and religious conscience of the people of Israel. When the courts and other institutions compromised truth, these prophets denounced them. That's why Jesus could talk about a tradition of "stoning the prophets." But they were just as vigilant when religious leaders succumbed to deception to advance institutional interests. The prophets' harshest condemnation is for religious leaders who say the things that the authorities and persons in power like to hear, or as the prophet Jeremiah said, religious leaders who cry "'Peace, peace,' when there is no peace." (Jeremiah 6:13-14) Such religious leaders didn't even know how to blush, said the prophet. We who say we will obey God's commandments have a special obligation not to let truth be compromised by partisan interest.

For all the failures we see to live up to it, the ninth commandment assumes a viable alternative to deceptiveness in life. That absence of deceptiveness is to be modeled in the community of faith. The apostle Paul could have been speaking directly to us in our age when he wrote the words from Ephesians read earlier: "We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people's trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ…" (Ephesians 4:14-15)

We are to speak the truth to one another. We should not have to take an oath on the witness stand for our words to be credible. Notice what Paul says, "speaking the truth IN LOVE." This brings us back to where we began today, with what one of you told me about how we can "steal" the peace of mind of another person by careless words, even words that are true. In the community of faith we are obliged not only to speak the truth, but to speak it in love, not as a weapon to hurt and embarrass.

Today, let us recommit ourselves to the honesty called for in the ninth commandment: that we will not speak falsely against our neighbor; that we will not bend the truth to serve our own self-interests; that we will not caricature those with whom we disagree; that we will speak the truth as we know it, and speak it in love.

[1] Walter Brueggemann, "Exodus," The New Interpreter's Bible, Vol. 1(Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994) p. 851.
[2] Ibid., p. 848.
[3] (New York: Penguin, 1986)
[4] Published in 1949, it is now out of print but the text of the whole book is widely available on the Internet.
[5] Brave New World (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Doran & Co. Inc., 1932.

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