The Ten Commandments or the Decalogue have been important in the Jewish and Christian faiths. Moslems also have a version of them. They have been the subject of some controversy in the courts as to whether they should be displayed at government buildings; however, they do form the basis of our moral code in our country.
Ted Koppel even paid tribute to them in a 1987 commencement address to Duke University: "We have actually convinced ourselves that slogans will save us. Shoot up if you must, but use a clean needle. Enjoy sex whenever and with whomever you wish, but practice safe sex..." Then Koppel gave his sharp rebuke, "The answer is 'No.' Not because it isn't cool or smart or because you might end up in jail or dying in an AIDS Ward but because it is wrong. In its purest form, truth is not a polite tap on the shoulder, it's a howling reproach. What Moses brought down form Mt. Sinai were not the 10 Suggestions."
The Old Testament actually includes more than ten commandments; there are actually 613 and there are many books to explain the meaning of the 613, but the Ten Commandments are special to both Judaism and Christianity. The Ten Commandments are the core upon which the rest of the Law was built. It's the basics of living in harmony with God and human beings. They are concise so that even a child can commit them to memory as every Jewish child did.
The Ten Commandments are actually ten ways to express love to God. The Shema from Deuteronomy 6:5 reminds us that we shall love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. All the commandments hang on this command, Jesus said, and also to love our neighbor as ourselves. That is the second part of the Ten Commandments. It is ten ways to love God and ten ways to love our neighbor.
A farmer whose corn crop hadn't done well decided to "borrow" from his prosperous neighbor's field. With a large sack tucked under his arm, and his small son near his footsteps, he hurried to a distant corner of the field. On arrival, he peered cautiously to the left, to the right, ahead and behind, to make sure that he was not being observed. Just as he reached out a hand to pluck the first ear of corn, the boy spoke, "Daddy," he reminded, "you didn't look up!" Love of God and love of neighbor are tied together.
Some of you may have seen the Cowboy Style version of the Ten Commandments. The one I've seen didn't have them in their proper order, so I'm going to put them in their order. Maybe this version can help us remember them:
1. Just one God.
2. Put nothin' before God.
3. Watch yer mouth.
4. Git yerself to Sabbath meetin'.
5. Honor yer Ma and Pa.
6. No killin'.
7. No foolin' around with another feller's gal.
8. Don't take what ain't yers.
9. No tellin' tales or gossipin'
10. Don't be hankerin' fer yer buddy's stuff.
In looking at the first two commandments, we see why we want to be moral and ethical people. It is because it is a response to a faithful and covenant God. Exodus 20:2 sets up the basis for our standards: "I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery."
I had a friend in college who was preparing to be a pastor. As he began to study and think about things, he found he had more questions than answers and finally decided he wasn't sure that there was a God and couldn't in good faith be a pastor. He said, he wasn't sure about God, so he was going to put his faith in humans. Several years later I saw him again and he had really reached the point of despair because he decided he couldn't put his faith in humans either. He had no basis for belief or anything to build his life on.
If we lose a belief in a God to be accountable to, we're in this life simply for ourselves, why do we need to be ethical? Other than maybe worrying about ending up in prison, there's nothing really to stop us.
So, let's look at the first commandment, "You shall have no other gods before me." This is not just a passing acknowledgment of God. We may think to ourselves that this is an easy commandment to keep, after all, we're not surrounded by a bunch of pagans who worship other gods.
There was in Moses' time, belief in Baal. It was the god of winter storms and rain. Sometimes folks can get worship of God and nature mixed up, even today.
There was in Moses' time, belief in Anat, warrior-goddess. We can succumb to this temptation if we place our ultimate trust in the power of the strength of weapons or glorify war or even our country.
There was in Moses' time, belief in Astarte, the fertility god. It doesn't take much looking around to see our society's preoccupation with sex as our salvation, our goal for all of life, which is following after another god.
Certainly, people can make a god out of money or just having fun, kind of an Epicurean lifestyle, where responsibilities are not important.
Interestingly, it does not call for obedience to a human leader or ruler, which would have been common for other cultures of that time. God is the ruler, the ultimate authority.
John Wesley said this, "whatever is loved, feared, delighted in, or depended on, more than God, that we make a God of."
We want to make sure we keep the main thing, the main thing. The basis of our ethics and being comes from God. Our primary purpose is to worship God in reality and through the service of our lives.
The second commandment is, "You shall not make for yourself an image. You shall not bow down to them or worship them." The word that is used for image refers to an image carved from wood or stone but it later also included metal. The Golden Calf incident recorded in Exodus 32 definitely shows a violation of this commandment. We can break this commandment by making God into our own image, anthromorphism of God that bring God to our level.
Finally, we see tied to these commandments that we are to pass our faith to the next generation. God looks with favor upon those who do.
There is a story of two men born close to the same time. Jonathan Edwards, well-known American preacher of the 18th century, was very committed to his faith. A researcher followed his descendants. He learned that out of 1,394 descendants came 13 college presidents, 65 professors, 60 prominent lawyers, 32 noted authors, 90 physicians, 200 ministers of the Gospel and 300 good farmers.
Max Jukes, his counterpart, was the very antithesis of Rev. Edwards, for he was very notorious as a crook without principles or character. The life histories of 903 of his offspring showed there were 300 delinquents, 90 prostitutes, 285 had "evil diseases," and over 100 spent an average of 13 years in prison. It was estimated that the crimes and care of that one family cost the state of New York over $1 million while Jonathan Edwards' family made contributions of incalculable worth.
The starting point of the church, of our lives as individuals, of our morality and ethics is worship of the one true God.