3rd SUNDAY OF LENT B
The Ten Commandments are part of a story, a story of slaves being set free and learning, or not learning, to live like free people. Often, during their time in the wilderness, the people of Israel complained about the food or the shortage of it, about the water or the lack of it, about the threats from enemies, real or imagined. And often the complaint ended with the cry, “Things were better for us in Egypt”. For those who wanted a comfortable and settled life, God had done them no favours by calling them out of slavery in Egypt and into a challenging freedom. Because a slave doesn’t have a choice – only routines dictated by someone else. To be free is to have the chance to make decisions, to grow, to fail, to flourish. There’s more room in the wilderness, and more risk. But the wilderness itself is only a stage of a journey: a journey to a promised land, to a place which they will possess and where they will live in relationship with God and with others. And in that word “possess” lurks a problem. What we possess can come to possess us. Possessions can breed paranoia. The Ten Commandments are about freedom from that kind of paranoia.
The Ten Commandments are so often misunderstood as a definite list, firstly of things we cannot do; we cannot have other Gods; we cannot take God’s name in vain; we cannot kill; we cannot lie; we cannot commit adultery; we cannot steal or covet. And even the “to do’s”, we must keep holy the Sabbath, we must honour our parents, can seem so definite as to be almost simple. No wonder over the ages we have checked them off and decided we’re pretty good. We haven’t stolen, well maybe a pencil. And we haven’t taken the Lord’s name in vain, except once in a while when we get frustrated something might slip out. And of course we don’t kill! And so when we measure ourselves against the Ten Commandments we usually can come out pretty good.
We say that there is only one God but that means that we not only eliminate the concrete Gods that the ancients worshipped but also the ones that throughout the ages people have attempted to fit into the relationship, the many ways in which we imply that this God is not enough, that we need more tangible power. We say that we will not carve idols; we will not try to contain and picture this God; we will not put God up on a shelf so that we can go about our business. We must find time for our relationship with God, just as we need to have time for our relationships with one another. In the idea of the Lord’s Day, the Sabbath, what God insists upon in our relationship is that we have sacred time with our God, that we need to realise that every moment we have is a gift from God and it is only fitting that we make time for him. The commandments that we are given recognize that not only do we need to revere our God and nurture our relationship with him but we also have to revere the others with whom God has a relationship.
And perhaps what riles Jesus so much in the Gospel today is that he sees that a relationship with God has been replaced with ritual and actions and not by an experience of God’s power and presence. Maybe it is not really the moneychangers themselves that upset him so much as it is the whole attitude that they represent. To be religious had become merely an event of sacrificing an animal or burning some incense. To be faithful meant only to show up at the Temple and do what was required by the law. Jesus’ ministry was to do more than turn the tables over.
And yet we can wonder how far we’ve come! So we don’t sell oxen and sheep and doves; we don’t sacrifice animals for worship. But too often we revere the ritual actions and can forget the relationship ourselves. There is always the discussion of how we should do ritual – should we kneel or stand – should we ring bells – who should be allowed to receive Holy Communion. There are those who debate whether it’s OK to receive the host in the hand and those who argue about the language our worship should be in.
But the fact is that these things are not the essentials. Our worship, our ritual, our actions and our gathering have only one purpose; they are to remind us and focus us on the relationship with our God and what that means. And if they hinder that focusing then we need to turn them over and drive them out.
When we hear commandments or rules we get all negative. We don’t like others telling us what we can and can’t do. We feel that in some way our freedom is being restricted. We like to think of ourselves as independent people who are capable of looking after ourselves. And besides, we live in a society where there are fewer and fewer absolutes. Who can say what is right and wrong for us? We will determine what is right and wrong for us all by ourselves. So every day we jump out of bed and begin acting as if it is up to us to make up the rules as we go along. We believe that it’s up to us to decide what is right and what is wrong.
If a woman is pregnant and it isn’t convenient for her to give birth – she can deal with that problem by terminating the life of her unborn child. If money is needed to support a drug habit – an addict can invade a home and take whatever is needed. If someone believes they are being unfairly treated or not being given a fair go, it’s acceptable to be abusive, use bad language, even resort to violence. If someone cuts us off on the road, it’s our right to retaliate. If life becomes too difficult to live, then we can end it all through suicide or euthanasia.
If we took the time to reflect on the commandments we would soon realise that we are hopeless at keeping them as God demands. We steal something, goods or money, from the big corporations and justify it by saying that after all they are ripping us off in so many ways. We shun and disrespect another and justify it by saying that we are just protecting ourselves from harm. We take the life of a child through abortion and justify it by saying that we were only thinking of the horrible future that child would have if he lived. We lust after another person and simply say we’re only human. And we aim missiles at our enemies and say but look what they have done or will do or might do and we’re making the whole world safer and more peaceful by this violence.
But it is not just our actions that are judged, but our attitudes, not just our hands but also our hearts, not just our words and works, but our thoughts, desires, imaginations, and motivations. Our attitudes and values reflect that we do not love God with all our heart soul and mind and we do not love others as we love ourselves. We should ask ourselves – what is God in our life? What do we set our heart on? On what do we spend our time and money? What do we live for? What do we put first in our daily life? In whom or what do we trust? What idols do we have in our homes? To whom do we turn for comfort and help? What is it that we bow down to? God’s commandments claim and convict us, calling us to live differently to the world’s cultures around us, that of worship and trust in fake gods. Lent is a good time for us to reflect on that.
A world in which lying, cheating and adultery have become tolerated is an undesirable place to live. A world which ignores God and the rights of others and in which nothing is regarded as sacred is hostile to the deepest aspirations of human nature. Like Israel, we too have been rescued from slavery and death, Jesus has lifted us up out of sin and death. Like the Israelites passing through the Red Sea, in our baptism, our walking through the waters, we have passed from death to freedom. We have been called by God to be his people, called to represent him in the world.
If Jesus walked into our church, or our workplace, or our homes, which tables would he overturn? With whom would he be angry?