O God, may we know you as eternal life, and may we serve you as perfect freedom.
Have you ever heard of Judge Roy Moore? He made national headlines a few years ago when he was removed as Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court after insisting on displaying a replica of the Ten Commandments in his courthouse. As I looked over the reading from the Hebrew Scripture this week on the Ten Commandments, I went back and re-read Judge Moore’s story, and it seems that this practice of his went back a long way. When he was a circuit judge, travelling to his various local courts, apparently he would carry this replica on the back of a flat bed truck.
The thing weighed 5,280 pounds – just over ¼ ton per commandment! It required a yellow 57 – foot steel I – beam crane just to lift and place it into position each time. As I read, I thought – that’s how so many people see the Ten Commandments today; as either just so much historical dead weight or, if we take them seriously, like the heaviest burden of our lives.
Maybe they’d be easier if they weren’t so… well, specific! Most of us do all right with the “Don’t murder” part, but it gets pretty dicey after that. So how about we each do what folks in A. A. call “taking a fearless moral inventory?” How do each of us do in living out the Ten Commandments? Ready?
First there’s, “I’m God and you’re you – don’t get seduced by all those glitzy substitutes.” Or, “If you have to curse, fine, just don’t drag my name into it.” Or, “Take a full day off, every week, and really and truly rest, regardless of how that affects your career prospects, or your chance of getting into the best graduate school.”
Hmmm, how are we doing so far? How about, “Stay connected to your parents, no matter how difficult they can be?” Or, “Don’t sleep around – physically or emotionally – no matter how empty you feel, or how attractive the alternatives.” Or, “Don’t steal, even if it’s legal.” Or, “Don’t lie, even when it really makes you look good… or if it gets you a really big tax refund.” And how about, “Don’t envy other people for what they have, that you don’t?”
Now let’s be clear. We don’t do this inventory to feel guilty, but to remember, that what all of these commandments have in common is our human inclination to worship idols instead of God. The Ten Commandments just describe the most popular ones.
There are obvious idols – like accumulating wealth at other people’s expense; using other people for our own pleasure; or misusing God’s creation. And more subtle ones – like spending most of our waking hours thinking about our own happiness.
Either way, they all eventually fail us – either in some dramatic “crash and burn”, or simply in that dull ache in our stomachs that they can never quite fill. Whatever the outcome, idols do a pretty good job of distracting us from God. Remember the Volvo commercial that promised, “a car that will save your soul?”
The sad truth about idols is that they force us to work harder and harder first to acquire them, and once we do, to hold on to them. In the process, they keep us numb, moving too fast to think, and if we are able to feel anything, feeling isolated, both from ourselves and from those around us. And they affect more than us.
Chris Hedges, in his book on the Ten Commandments, Losing Moses on the Freeway,1 explains that idols keep us disconnected from the larger world, which cries out for our attention. He says, “Our idols are typically built around exclusive communities of people just like us – whether that means race, or class, or sexual orientation, or religion, or even nation – and they inevitably carry within them the denigration of others whom we exclude. They divide us from the rest of God’s children. That’s why the more we listen to ourselves, the more we create God in our own image, until God becomes an idol that looks and speaks just like one of us. But, the good news,” Hedges concludes, “is that the more we listen to the voices of others, voices unlike our own, the more we experience God trying to save us from idolatry.”
He tells this story to illustrate. “It was 1983 and I was visiting a United Nations camp in Honduras for Guatemalan refugees who had fled the awful violence in their country. Most had lost family members. When I arrived on a dreary January day, the people were decorating their tents and wooden warehouses with colored paper, to celebrate the flight of Mary, Joseph and the infant Jesus into Egypt, to escape Herod’s slaughter. ‘Why,’ I asked one of the men, ‘is this such an important day?’ He answered, ‘It was on this day that Christ became a refugee.’ And though I knew this Bible passage by heart,” Hedges confessed, “it was only in that refugee camp, so far from home, listening to a man who couldn’t even read, that I finally understood what it meant.”2
That’s why, before we get too hung up on how hard it is to resist idols and be faithful to this laundry list of commandments, I suggest we relax and listen again to how this Exodus passage begins. God says, “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.”
Somehow, I don’t think God, who goes to all the trouble of liberating us from physical and spiritual slavery, is about to turn around and enslave us once again with a finger-wagging set of rules and regulations that control every aspect of our lives. Instead, I believe God is in the business of freeing us from whatever slavery we imprison ourselves in.
If you think, like I do, that God practices truth in advertising, you just might imagine God saying, “Here’s the deal I’m offering you. With one hand, I give you complete freedom. With the other, I offer you a set of guidelines on how to live with me, and with each other. It’s these guidelines that will keep you from becoming enslaved once again, but this time by your own freedom.”
The real question the Ten Commandments asks then, is, “How are we to live faithfully together?” And St. Augustine gives us a wonderful answer. “In the end,” he says, “…human love is always directed toward God, or toward the self. There are simply no other choices.”
1- Chris Hedges (2005). Losing Moses on the Freeway: The 10 Commandments in America. New York: Free Press.
2- Op. cit., p. 5.