A Reflection on Exodus 20:1-17: The Ten Commandments

The first reading today is from Exodus 20:1-17.

A few months ago, I brought this text to our Confirmands, asking them what they think when they hear the word “commandment.” And they said what is usually said: commandments sound a lot like laws or rules. The Ten Commandments sound like a short list of can’ts. Now we can agree that these can’ts are pretty solid and are actions we shouldn’t take. But by seeing the commandments as can’ts, we lose sight of God’s “can.” God feels like a god who cares only about rules and maybe keeping a detailed record of our behavior on some giant spreadsheet, adding up our failures and mistakes. A God who is only about can’ts is going to be a God that keeps us from doing anything because we’re afraid of what rule we might be breaking.

But I believe that verse 2 is really the point of the Ten Commandments. God reminds Moses and the people of Israel that God brought them out of Egypt, freeing them from slavery. Their prior existence was constrained. They were the property of others, with no opportunities to live in free and full relationships with each other and with God. God is reminding the people of Israel that they’re now starting on a new chapter in their lives. No longer are they people held captive by others; they are now embarking on a new journey of being God’s people. They’re building from scratch a new community and a new life. God isn’t giving the people of Israel rules just to tell them what they’re not to do. God is giving these commandments to the people of Israel to tell us this is how you live a free life. These commandments are about living in community with others. Their prior lives were lives that were limited. Now, opportunities abound. God is calling them into a new community knowing that their lives will be full when they are helping others thrive.

Jesus famously summed up the commandments in this way: they’re about loving God and loving our neighbors. Jesus didn’t see the commandments as can’ts; he saw them as what they bring forth—love. Jesus knew that when his friends, family, and neighbors thrived, he himself thrived as well. The commandments are an invitation to help us find ways to help our neighbors thrive because it’s through our relation with each other that God’s love is seen, felt, and made known.

Each week, I write a reflection on one of our scripture readings for the week. This is from Christ Lutheran Church’s Worship Bulletin for 3/8/2015.