by Rev. Collete Broady Grund
Exodus 19:3-7, 20:1-17
Every year when we begin confirmation classes, I ask parents to tell their students what they remember about their confirmation years, and the horror stories begin. Most of them involve memorizing of commandments and prayer petitions and creed articles, along with their explanations, sometimes in front of the whole congregation. Often parents, and grandparents, lament the fact that we don’t require kids to do much memorizing anymore.
They wonder why we go so easy on kids today, and I try to explain some of theory behind it. But beyond that, I am always careful to say that the real reason that we don’t put much emphasis on memorizing, especially of lists like the 10 Commandments, is much deeper than a change in educational method. And that reason is this: because we want to help people of faith focus less on rules, and more on relationship.
And relationship is really what these 10 commandments are about anyway. Notice how they begin: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, you shall have no other gods before me.” Before the first “rule”, God reminds the people of the relationship that undergirds it. These commandments are the skeleton of a new covenant, in which God promises to give herself to the people and asks that they give themselves to God and each other in return.
To read the 10 Commandments as a list of rules to be memorized and obeyed without question misses the point. These 10 words of God were meant to show the Israelites how to respond to the gift God had recently given them: freedom. Now that they were no longer slaves, bounded by the rules of their Egyptian oppressors, how would they act? What does freedom given by God and lived in community look like? How could they be sure they didn’t fall again into the patterns of slavery they were so used to?
The words that God spoke to them from Mount Sinai (remember, this is God speaking directly to the people, talk about relationship!), are meant to be the barest beginning of an ongoing conversation about these questions. A conversation that is had face-to-face and heart-to-heart between God and God’s people.
The same could be said about God sending Jesus. If you read what comes between Exodus and the gospels (which is a lot!), one of the major themes is that God’s people fail to understand what God is about. They want rules and rulers (which they don’t even follow) and God wants to love and be loved. The tension between these two ways of being is constant in the old testament. God sends prophet after prophet to tell the people that they’re focused on the wrong things, and need to turn around.
So finally, God sends Jesus, to see if being literally face to face with the beloved creation will finally get the point across. Maybe by coming to live among us, God will finally be able to convince us that she is all about relationship, not rules.
Well, you know as well as I do, that those who heard and saw Jesus in the flesh didn’t fully get it either. So many of them (us) want rules, which Jesus seems bent on breaking. And even if it is about relationships, Jesus is bent on developing the wrong relationships, with people we don’t think should matter. Rules, even if they’re not easy to follow, are clear. But relationships? They’re messy and emotional and require us to be vulnerable. And rules are fair, while relationships are definitely not.
But here’s the good news, while rules are easy to break, relationships are not. Especially if one of the partners in the relationship is God who simply refuses to stop loving. God breaks all the rules to maintain a relationship with us. And God hopes we will take on that way of being too, focusing more on relationships of mutuality and vulnerability than on rules that tell us who is in/out, right/wrong, righteous/sinner.