Last summer we took a long driving trip through Montana. When we were in Kalispell, we noticed that many homes and businesses and even government buildings had large concrete “tablets” with the ten commandments written on them. Sometimes these tablets were held up by even larger cement eagles. How American! Maybe if I had the ten commandments in my front yard I would be better at following them!
Moses brought the tablets down from Mt. Sinai. These commandments eventually formed the moral foundation for Jewish, Christian and Islamic law. Since these are so foundational, let’s see how we do at remembering them. Can you name a commandment?
1. Have no other gods.
2. Have no idols.
3. Honor God's name.
4. Honor the Sabbath day.
5. Honor your parents.
6. Do not murder.
7. Do not commit adultery.
8. Do not steal.
9. Do not perjure yourself.
10. Do not covet.
Remember these laws in the context of the times. Divorce, for example, was a matter of a man just dumping his wife and leaving her without money or property. This commandment would protect women a bit. Also, worshipping other gods was a big problem of the time and these laws tried to protect against that. Today there are many who try to take the commandments literally. Jehovah’s Witnesses won’t take oaths. Orthodox Jews observe the Sabbath by not working, not cooking, not using electricity and going to synagogue. Seventh Day Adventists also observe the Sabbath. We all try to not kill anyone! My son Jeff does a great job of honoring his mother and his father.
But by the time Jesus came, many years had passed since Moses brought the original ten commandments to the people. Jesus looked around and felt the need for additional clarification. That’s how we get to today’s gospel.
Jesus is upping the ante on the ten commandments. He’s taking the old school rules and updating them to a new and more difficult standard. And he is using very colorful language to make his point.
Let’s see: ‘Thou shalt not kill’ is no longer enough of a challenge. New rules: Don’t kill your brother. Don’t even be angry with your brother, don’t insult your brother, don’t even call your brother a fool because if you do, you may burn in hell. Don’t think you can be mad at your brother and then come to church acting all holy. You’d better clear the air first, then you can come to church!
Jesus gets tougher on adultery: Old rule: don’t cheat on your spouse. New rules: If you so much as look at a woman with lust in your heart you’d better tear out your eye. If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off.
Old rules? You could divorce your wife if you gave her a certificate of divorce. New rules? If you divorce your wife then she is committing adultery. If you marry a divorced woman than you are committing adultery.
Old rules? Don’t say; “I swear to God.” New rules? Don’t swear at all. Don’t swear by heaven or by earth or by Jerusalem. Don’t even swear by your own head. Just say yes or no. No swearing.
These are harsh teachings. Tearing out eyes, cutting off hands. But think for a minute. We’ve never heard that the early followers of Jesus tended to be one eyed, one handed folks so I don’t think he meant these words to be taken literally. I think he was just trying to make a powerful point. Still, these rules seem harsh. Most of us have trouble with some of the commandments everyday. Remember that gruff old comedian WC Fields? Someone once caught him paging through the Bible. "What are you doing?" asked the person. "I’m looking for loopholes”, growled Fields.
In today’s psalm, we sing the praises of those perfect and wonderful, blameless people who walk in the law of the Lord. Happy are they who observe his decrees, who never do any wrong but always walk in his ways! (Who are these people? Do you know anybody like this?)
Phew! I don’t know about you all but I sure don’t do a very good job of living by these tough rules. I get angry at people and then I come to church without clearing the air. I am happily married to a divorced man. I don’t do a good job of observing the Sabbath, although I do at least try to come to church every Sunday. The only rule I really agree with is that if my husband looks with lust at another woman, he should have his eye torn out!
I think that if Jesus came to see us again today he would be updating the rules again. Personally, I think he would have a whole bunch of rules about media. He would thunder at parents, “Put down those cell phones and start talking to your children.” He would remind young people to stop texting, stop messing with IPods and look up, meet the eyes of people in the room with you, interact with real people face to face!” He would say to all of us, “Stop wasting your lives looking at junk on the internet and on TV!”
Jesus says that he didn’t come to abolish the law but to fulfill it. I’ve always been confused by that but today I think I understand it. He came to deepen our personal involvement with the commandments. We are to stop just checking off the rules. “Let’s see: I didn’t murder today, I didn’t worship any idols”. We are instead to try to change our daily behavior so that we are on a path to a deeply personal transformation by internalizing God’s law.
Today’s reading from Ecclesiasticus makes our behavioral choices quite clear. We can choose to try to keep the commandments and to act faithfully. Before each person are fire and water. Stretch out your hand for whichever you choose. Before each person are life and death. Reach out and choose one or the other.
So here we are, wanting to follow all of these rules and probably each of us is messing up on at least one of them every single day. Is it time to start cutting off our hands and ripping out our eyes? I don’t think so. There was an early Christian training manual called the Didache. After pointing out the choices we make in our behavior, choosing the way of life or the way of death, it concludes that, "If you are able to bear the entire yoke of the Lord, you will be perfect; but if you are not able to do this, do what you are able."
In brief, reach for the stars. Do your best. Try your hardest. Then be at peace. Even if you have failed, you have at least tried to be good. Remember that Christ also taught that when it came down to it there were really only two commandments: Love the Lord God with your whole heart, your whole mind and your whole soul. Then love your neighbor as yourself.
But maybe Jesus also brings us these tougher versions of the old commandments because he knew that we would have no chance of being able to follow them on our own. We would have to ask for help from God every day if we hoped to really live by the law.
I think that is the deal. Jesus wants us to learn to ask God for help. There is a beautiful prayer in this day by day book where we pray to be really good, really patient, really wonderful people. Then we say, ‘and I know that I cannot without any hope, do this without God”.
That’s the point Jesus wants to make today. With God’s help we can strive to be really wonderful people. With God’s help we can achieve health and happiness. I love this verse from Philippians: “I can do anything with Christ who strengthens me.” Share your life with Christ. Share your burdens. Share your yoke. Share your pain. Open your life to God and you will find that God is there with open arms to embrace you, hold you up when you are weak and tired, and strengthen you through your trials.