Sunday, March 11, 2012
Words Of Life
A college student, discovering that he needed a Bible for a religion course, wrote home asking that his Bible be sent to him. His mother wrapped it carefully and took it to the post office. The clerk took the package and shook it. “Anything in here that can be broken?”, he asked. With a wry smile, the mother replied: “Only the 10 Commandments!”
The Hebrew expression for what we call the commandments = Asereth ha-D’bharim or Ashereth ha Dibroth means literally the ten words/sayings/matters. For me they recall how, as seminarians at St. Joseph’s College in Indiana, we were allowed to go off-campus one Sunday to see Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 classic movie, The Ten Commandments, starring Charlton Heston, whose commanding presence riveted us to the screen. Who could forget those magnificent special effects when God parted the Red Sea, and when God engraved the Ten Words of the Law on stone tablets?!
What you see, of course, especially when Hollywood is involved, isn’t always what you get! The film’s 1923 version, also directed by DeMille, included Exodus scenes filmed at Nipomo Dunes, near Pismo Beach in southern CA. The famous scene of the parting of the Red Sea for the Israelites to pass through was originally shot at Seal Beach, CA, and was accomplished with a slab of Jell-O which was sliced in two and filmed close up as it jiggled. This shot, then combined with live-action footage of Israelites walking into the distance, created a near-perfect illusion. Though the 1956 film won the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects, DeMille was reluctant to discuss the technical details of how the film was made. It was eventually revealed that footage of the Red Sea had been spliced with film footage, run in reverse, of water pouring from large U-shaped trip-tanks set up in the studio back lot.
Not long after seeing The Ten Commandments, my enthusiasm was somewhat dampened upon reading a negative review of the movie. Referring particularly to the “orgy scene”, while Moses was busy up on the mountaintop, the review critic tersely dismissed the film with, what I suppose, was an accurate assessment: “Dancing girls and dogma don’t mix.”
Thinking about our lives during Lent reminds us how easily we ignore or rationalize God’s expectations of us. The command- ments, in fact, involve, more than anything else, with our relationships: with ourselves, with God and with one another. Experience confirms how fragile can relationships be: how easily damaged and broken through careless actions and words. Israel’s ancient laws make it clear that God expects people to be faithful, not only in worship, but most importantly in their relationships.
The Book of Common Prayer, on pp. 847-848, clearly notes that the first four commandments have to do with recognizing that God alone is worthy of worship. God is to be the focus of one’s belief and trust. The remaining six commandments describe human relationships and how we’re responsible for the way in which we treat one another. Sin has been defined as “treating people like things and things like people”, and in the sacred words given to Moses on the mountain there’s a firm warning against confusing such priorities. When things become idols, relationships invariably suffer.
It’s not uncommon to read the commandments and to conclude, just as Paul did, in one of his more memorable passages: “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it...I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” (Romans 7:18-19) Most of us can readily identify with Paul’s sense of human weakness and frustration. In the letter to the Romans he describes a kind of civil war which takes place inside us. The sense that “I can will, but I cannot do” articulates that inner conflict between desire and power, raging within human beings ever since the Fall. Agnes Rogers Allen humorously quips:
“I should be better, brighter, thinner
And more intelligent at dinner.
I should reform and take pains,
Improve my person, use my brains.
There’s lots that I could do about it,
But will I?...Honestly, I doubt it.”
Are the commandments even still possible for followers of Jesus trying to serve God faithfully in modern times, so radically different from Moses’? The BCP asks, on p. 848: “Since we do not fully obey them, are they useful at all?” It answers: “Since we do not fully obey them, we see more clearly our sin and our need for redemption.”
It’s easy for us to forget that the commandments are part of a much larger narrative, namely, the whole story of the Exodus of God’s people from Egypt and their children’s wandering in the desert wilderness for many years. Note the words prefacing the commandments in the Hebrew Scriptures: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” The Law is given to people who have been released from slavery. The salvation of God’s people isn’t earned through their obedience to a code of law. God’s action came first. Observance of the Law is their appropriate human response to what God has already done.
On any given day you and I find it difficult to observe God’s words, keeping both the letter and the spirit of what God asks of us. The commandments’ specific details help to graphically remind us that we’re selfish, sinful, and that we need redemption. The various commandments emphasize God’s absolute claim on the totality of our life. But in conscientiously trying to observe the commandments, we need to remember that they’re given to us as people whom God has already saved. It’s also important to be aware that, because God’s words describe God’s claim on our lives in terms of specific things to do, we can easily become distracted from God and focussed in on “requirements”.
As he himself grew spiritually, Paul began to understand the problem resulting from attempts to earn God’s approval merely by “keeping” the commandments. He came to recognize that the Law is different from legalism. Paul wrote to the Philippian community that he’d been keeping the Law, but for entirely the wrong reasons: “If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” (Philippians 3:4-11)
Before his life-changing encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus, Paul had been living as if he could, according to C. K. Barrett, “gain control of God by paying his fee”. Paul acknowledged that the law, indeed, sets out God’s holy expectations of the way we should act towards God and each other. Yet the very way in which it redirects our attention and focus towards our activity and away from God’s is the law’s weakness. In and of itself the law can’t lead to life. It doesn’t resolve the inner conflict, the civil war, in the soul.
This insufficiency of the Law is a real issue in Jesus’ ministry and teaching. Jesus is a controversial teacher in John’s Gospel. Today’s Gospel narrative of how Jesus enters the Temple and chases out the money-changers and the animal-sellers is a good example. (2:13-22) The confrontation between Jesus and the merchants is really a conflict over priorities. Who Jesus is (the Son of his Father) and what he represents (the living God), clashes with the values espoused by the religious institutional leaders. Jesus challenges them. After chasing out those who had set up their businesses in the immediate Temple area, Jesus makes a mysterious reference to the destruction of the Temple and to its being “raised” up again. Generations later, you and I understand Jesus’ words to be an image of his own death and resurrection, whereas the Jewish authorities think he literally means the Jerusalem Temple. And that offends them! Remember just how sacred the Temple building was in Jewish religious life. It was the external witness to God, and the place where people drew most near to God. Holy and unique, it stood at the center of Jewish faith. Yet Jesus saw that this human construction had become the object of devotion: an idol, an end in itself, rather than the living God. Despite all the good things which the Temple was supposed to represent for the Jews, Jesus knew that, in their misplaced devotion to a building, people had let their focus be redirected away from the divine to the human. Despite the Temple’s importance, people were giving to their rites, customs, holy places, even to their laws, the special devotion due only to God. They missed entirely the spirit of the first commandment: “You shall have no other gods before me.”
Our religious practices and preferences, too, can, and often do, become lesser gods, idols, for us if we make them the chief objects of our devotion. The universal temptation is to become so preoccupied with the desire to excel and to succeed as “Christians” that we begin to focus on what we think we should do, rather than on the fact that, as Paul says, “...Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:24-25) has already spelled it out for us through his death and resurrection.
The commandments are important words about what God intends for us. We and the society in which we live need to take them much more seriously than we usually do. That being said, the reality is that Christian faith and practice entails far more than rules and regulations. It has to do primarily with relationships. William Barclay writes that, while morality is knowledge of what to do (a code), Christianity is the knowledge of Jesus Christ (a person). Paul understood that clearly: “...we proclaim Christ crucified.” (1 Corinthians 1:23) Important as the commandments are, we don’t secure God’s favor simply by observing them. A narrow focus on mere things, rituals, rules, and appearances doesn’t resolve the civil war within ourselves. “Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?”
“Wretched man that I am!” exclaims Paul, “Who will free me from this body of death?” His answer: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Romans 7:24-25) Only by being centered and focussed on Jesus, crucified and risen, can we find the wisdom and grace to do what we know we ought to do.