This week I consider how Christians can make sense and use the 10 Commandments by looking at two important New Testament responses. Next week I’ll look at the big picture.
Matthew 5: 21-37 ; Romans 7:1-13
We’ve seen that the 10 C are given by God to Israel after God intervened and liberated the Israelites from slavery, reaffirming God’s election of Israel to be his holy people. They form the foundation of God’s covenant with Israel. Now, I usually encourage us to see our Christian faith to be in continuity with the faith of Israel; I preached about that two years ago. Christians should and do continue to honor the 10 C. But some things we hear as especially Protestant Christians make us wonder if they are still central to us. We’re saved by faith, not works, right? And aren’t the 10 C about works—what we do? Isn’t Christianity all about the Spirit, not the Law?
So for the next two weeks I’ll offer a way for Christians to understand and apply the 10 Commandments. Today we’ll look at what Jesus and Paul have to say about the commandments. Next week we’ll look at the whole picture and the relation between Christianity and the religion of our Old Testament.
The Sermon on the Mount, chapters 5 through 7 in Matthew, is Jesus’ reinterpretation of the core of the Old Testament. That’s why he announces to the disciples and any others listening that he came not to abolish the law and the prophets but to fulfill it or perfect it. His first word in this new vision is to point to God’s actions—remember from last week: God’s action comes first, our response is always second. But Jesus does not point back to God’s act of liberation and election in the past. In his opening Beatitudes, which we read and sung for our call to worship, he points forward to the dawning Kingdom of God (or Kingdom of Heaven, as Matthew puts it, to avoid over-using the name “God”). God is bringing this kingdom, and it will look like a reversal of much of the injustice we’ve come to expect out of life. Blessed are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who are persecuted. Those who are least satisfied with the world as it is and least rewarded by it shall be first in the Kingdom of God. I’ll say more about this coming reversal of justice in God’s kingdom next week.
After he has announced the blessings of God’s kingdom, Jesus reinterprets the 10 Commandments to show his disciples how to respond to God. This is not the only place he touches on them. Remember that he enjoins the last 6 commandments on the rich young man who asks Jesus how he can inherit eternal life. The young man insists he has kept the commandments, and so Jesus pushes him beyond himself, telling him to sell all his goods and follow him. On another occasion, Jesus is asked which is the greatest of the commandments, and he offers a simplified version of just two love commandments: love God with all your heart, and love your neighbor as yourself. So in these cases Jesus affirms the 10 C but calls certain people into a higher and harder form of discipleship; and he simplifies the 10 C to, love God and neighbor.
Here in the Sermon on the Mount, however, Jesus does something different. He takes a few of the commandments and makes them much more stringent and demanding. (Note that he is changing and reformulating commandments given by God, which quietly presumes a divine authority on his part.) “You have heard, ‘You shall not murder.’… But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister [that is, a fellow disciple], you will be liable to judgment….and if you say, ‘You fool!’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.” So Jesus is saying that within this new circle of disciples, who are anticipating the Kingdom of God, the rules go well beyond not murdering. There is to be no anger and reviling among you, and you must seek reconciliation whenever there is something amiss. (Are we doing that?)
He then takes the commandment not to commit adultery and ratchets it way up, for everyone apparently, not just the disciples. Whoever looks at another in lust has already committed adultery. (Made famous by Jimmy Carter.) And Jesus also revises the Mosaic law and forbids divorce.
Next Jesus takes a different version of the commandment not to misuse God’s holy name, and again extends and tightens it: Do not swear an oath at all, whether by God or Jerusalem or even your own head. Now, I’m not sure what is eating Jesus here. It seems like he’s had it with people invoking God or stand-ins for “God” as a tool to back up their word or promise. That’s a subtle way that we make religion and the language of religion serve our own purposes, rather than serving God’s purposes. So Jesus says, just say yes or no. Speak for yourself, don’t drag God into your promises. And if you are an honest person, your promises will stand on their own.
He then takes other commandments about retaliation and loving neighbors and again makes them more stringent and broader in application. We are also to love outsiders and enemies, and give freely to those who ask. And he sums this all up with what might sound like an impossible commandment: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
So what do we make of Jesus’ commentary on the 10 Commandments? Well, he is going beyond what Moses received from God. We saw the 10 Commandments are stringent when it comes to honoring God’s holiness. They set a very high bar for how we worship, invoke, and speak about God. But when it comes to how we treat others, they aim a little lower, giving us a minimum standard that we should never cross: not to murder, commit adultery, steal, bear false witness. They get a little more demanding by telling us not to covet, and to honor our elders. But mostly those last six commandments set minimal standards about what you are supposed to avoid. They don’t aim too high when it comes to going out of your way to do good.
But for Jesus’ disciples, even anger, lust, and any oath is forbidden; these lesser faults are just as serious as murder, adultery, and misusing God’s name were for Moses. I suppose Moses was appealing to the masses with rules that everyone in Israel could get on board with. But Jesus is calling a few disciples to live personal lives of total integrity and righteousness before God, together. Jesus is intensifying the holiness and justice demanded by the 10 C. A little later he counsels: “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it.” So as his followers, are we also to go far beyond the minimum required by the 10 C?
‘But I thought Jesus was more easy going than Moses. I thought he was less “legalistic.” I thought Jesus was all about mercy and forgiveness!’ Well, take a look: in the whole sermon on the mount, he never mentions being forgiven once. (He says blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.) You won’t find him teaching about forgiveness of sins when he is commenting on the 10 C. So Jesus is not all about forgiveness; nor is forgiveness lacking in the Old Testament. There’s the Day of Atonement and other rituals for forgiveness set out in the Torah, though not in the 10 C proper. There’s plenty of forgiveness in the OT. Forgiveness was not invented by Jesus. But this intense demand for holiness is new to Jesus.
When it comes to both forgiveness and the law, so much of our Christian understanding comes from Paul. Paul has his own issues with “the law” or the Torah. Remember that before he encountered the living Christ in a vision, Paul was a pious, faithful Jew who was persecuting the church. Now, nothing Moses said in fact told him that he had to persecute the church. But Paul has to figure out how he could have been such a committed Jew and yet commit such a crime against God. So he’s making sense of his own life in this confusing passage; but as a very good pastor, he’s also using his own sinful past to connect to others who have made their own mistakes, and to show how God can still redeem and use those who are very broken vessels.
Now, when Paul talks about the Law, sometimes he means the Jewish ritual laws that keep Jews separate from Gentiles, like circumcision and dietary rules. But in our reading from Romans 7, Paul is talking about the 10 C. He specifically mentions, “Thou shall not covet.” He thinks that something about the commandments didn’t work and doesn’t work. And I think he believes that because he himself was so obedient and yet sinned so much against God by persecuting the church.
Now, my opinion is that Paul is trying to make his own personal experience apply to everybody, and that’s not always helpful. There’s another great theologian who loved Paul and also drew too much on his personal experience: Martin Luther, who started the Protestant Reformation. Luther thought that the rigorous rules and practice of the church could only drive us into despair, because we can never feel good enough. We have to give up on any commandment, and rely solely on God’s grace to change us. The main purpose of the Law, which for Luther includes the Sermon on the Mount, is to make us admit we can’t do it on our own; only God can save us. A lot of Protestant attitudes toward the Law come from Luther, and I think they are distorted. Sometimes we can just follow commandments without being self-righteous. I won’t say more about Luther, who is a genius, but other Protestants didn’t completely agree with him about the Law.
Paul is even more difficult to figure out than Luther. Please don’t feel bad if you’re not sure what he means. Even scholars can’t agree about Paul. But a few things, and only a few, are clear in Romans 7. Paul can’t say that the Law is bad, because it came from God. “So the Law is holy, and the commandment is holy and just and good,” he says. The problem with the Law is that sin, like some invisible force, corrupts how we hear and use the commandments of God, and [quote] “works death in me.” Not sure exactly what he means, but he says that when I hear the commandment “do not covet” I can’t help wondering, “Hmm. What’s so bad about coveting? Maybe I should give it a go and find out!”
Now, I can imagine that happening. But surely not all sin arises because we are told not to do something, so we do it anyway. I don’t think all murders result from people being told, “Now don’t murder!” And so I doubt what Paul says, “Apart from the law, sin lies dead,” holds as a universal rule. (Just don’t give your kids any rules, and they’ll be fine!)
But Paul’s larger point is very true, and very Jewish: just because you have God’s name and God’s commandments does not mean you won’t sin. In fact, in some ways God’s gift of revelation makes sin all the more possible. That’s why Israel is so careful about using God’s name, remember? To have the name of God opens you up to more responsibility and the danger of misuse.
So let me focus on what makes more sense to me, starting in verse 5: “While we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death.” (And full disclosure, I’m going to ignore what he says in verses 22 and 23. But those aren’t in our reading anyway, so ha!) I’ve said before that the best way to translate what living “in the flesh” means for Paul is “in our egos,” in our ego-centric way of life, which doesn’t mean I love myself. It means everything is about me; I cannot get over myself. I might think that I am nothing but a screw-up and a failure; that’s just as ego-centric as thinking, I can do no wrong.
When we living in our egos hear God’s commandment, we don’t just say, “Sounds good,” and do it. We might say, “Hmm, if I obey those rules, I’ll show what a good person I am—so much more righteous than those sinners out there—and I’ll deserve some great reward.” I have a feeling that the same applies to a lot of our good, progressive lifestyle choices as well, dear to my own heart: reducing our carbon footprint; correctly naming oppressed peoples; being well informed about injustice around the globe. All of that is “holy and just and good;” but it can still be an occasion to show off what a good person I am. / Or, dwelling in our egos and full of resentment at others, we might balk at God’s commandments, saying “Why should I do good when other people haven’t been good to me? I’m looking out for myself first.”
There are many ways our egos can corrupt good law and religion when we make religion a matter of following rules and doing good works, rather than being about these questions: what is my life all about? Who am I anyway, when all is said and done? We have to put ourselves, our ego, in question; for that, death is our friend. Because the Christian answer to those questions points to the death of the ego. That is true freedom. As our ego dies, we can really be God’s, living for God and for Christ and no longer for ourselves. That is how we are “discharged from the law,” as Paul puts it, and become “dead to that which held us captive,” that is law, but also the ultimate penalty and power of the law, death and the fear of death.
Or take another of Paul’s obscure images. It’s like we’ve been in a bad marriage all our lives to our ego. Sometimes we try to please our spouse, other times we try to spite him. But everything we do is really just a reflection of this bad ball-and-chain marriage. But when our husband, the ego, dies with Christ, we are free to love and serve God and others just for their own sake, not so we can prove something to Mr. Big Shot.
Let’s be honest: Jesus’ and Paul’s takes on the 10 C are strange and confusing; they raise as many questions as they answer. I wish religion were this simple for us: just obey the 10 C. But everything wonderful, mysterious, and gloriously complicated about our Christian faith would be left out: grace and faith; our union with Christ in baptism and communion; the cross. Next Sunday we’ll step back and try to put it all together and find the right place for the 10 C amid all the glorious mysteries of our faith.