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Exodus 20:1-21 Part 2

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Lesson Focus: God gives us laws as a way to help us live in faithful relationship with him and with others.  All too often we fail to fulfill these commands.

Lesson Outcomes: Through this lesson students should:

  1. Understand that the nature of these commands are relational and not legalistic.

  2. Identify how these laws are applicable to us in our current context.

  3. Confess their failure to keep these commandments and subsequently seeking forgiveness and strength to remain faithful.

Catch up on the story: Last week we examined the first four of the Ten Commandments.  Before we began, we noted that the commands given here in this passage are relational commands.  That is, they are grounded, not in a sense of duty or obligation, but in the context of God’s historical relationship with Israel.  At the outset, God gives these laws because he is “the God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” Israel is called to follow the law, not to gain status as God’s people; they are already that by virtue of their exodus from Egypt.  They are called to follow the law so that they might grow and flourish as the kind of people God intends them to be.  

Those first four commands have more to do with Israel’s relationship with God than with Israel’s relationship with one another. To be sure, though, when Israel breaks these first four commands, her relationship with her fellow Israelite begins to disintegrate as well. If we are to grow into a community of faith that confesses that Jesus Christ is Lord, then we must seek to be faithful to the commands that are directly related to God as well as the commands that more profoundly affect our relationships with one another.

The Text:

The Fifth Commandment:  Care for Your Mommas and Poppas “Honor your father and your mother…”

It struck me the other day, when thinking about this particular command, that one is not excused from following it after they reach adulthood! For some time, I do not know how long, I have believed that now that I am an adult with children of my own that this command does not apply to me. It certainly applies to my children, though!

The command itself, to honor our parents, is open-ended. That is, it has no particular behavior in mind. Rather, what is recommended is that a child’s behavior brings honor and not shame to the parent. As a parent I can think of a million ways in which my children can bring me honor. They can obey me the first time I ask them to do something. They can get good grades in school. They can be calm and polite when we are out in public. They can respect others who are their friends and those who are in a position of authority. It might be safe to say that we intuitively know what it looks like for our children to honor us with their behavior. In the same way, we know when they are not honoring us!

Most of the time I think this command gets read this way, from the perspective of the parent who has children. We tell them, “Life will go better for you if you obey and honor your parents.” That is, after all, what the command promises. Israel will have a long and faithful life in the land that God will give them if they are conscious about honoring their parents.

But what does it look like for those of us who are grown adults with children of our own to honor our parents? My grandmother recently passed away. She was 90 years old and had lived a life filled with love and generosity, even in the midst of her own poverty. Toward the end her health began to degrade. She had a series of mini strokes that left her physically and cognitively impaired. It soon became apparent that she would no longer be able to live alone. She needed almost constant care. Our family decided that we would sell her house and she would move in with my Aunt Glee. Aunt Glee, at great cost to herself, lovingly cared for my grandmother until the day she died. My grandmother was truly honored by the care and support she received from my Aunt Glee.

So, while this command urges children, when they are young, to honor their parents through their behavior and by growing up into responsible and well-adjusted adults, I also believe that the command urges us to examine how we care for our parents when they reach old age. It may not always be possible to care for sick or aged parents in your home. It is possible to bring honor to our parents in their last days by ensuring that they live out their last days with the dignity that befits them as people who bear the image of God.

The Sixth Command: Taking Life… “You shall not kill.”

Much ink and words have been spilled over this command that takes up just two words in the Hebrew text. Most of the modern translations that you and I might consult translate the command, “You shall not murder.” To translate it in this way is to narrowly restrict the nature of the command. Murder carries with it the implication that the taking of a life was done in an intentional and individual way. The Hebrew word in question, however, is used in various places in the Old Testament when speaking of cases involving killings of all kinds. The Hebrew word, “rāṣaḥ applies equally to both cases of premeditated murder and killings as a result of any other circumstances, what English Common Law has called, “man slaughter.” The root also describes killing for revenge (Num 35:27, 30) and assassination (II Kgs 6:32)” (White, 869). So, it is best to translate the command as a prohibition against killing in general.

When talking about this command there will always be a pull to try and reconcile this prohibition against life taking with all of the violent deaths that take place in Israel’s narrative. We often try to make a case for the legitimization of war and capital punishment based on this diversity within the biblical text. If you are not careful, most of your group time will be eaten up discussing this command!

To best understand this command, we must examine it in light of the previous commands. Inherent in the first few commands is the idea that God is the giver and sustainer of all life. The act of creation itself, which we are called to commemorate in keeping the Sabbath, is an act of sheer grace. It is life-giving. The intent of the prohibition against killing is completely inline with God’s creative, life-giving intentions. Life is God’s to create. It is also his to take away.

Of course, there must be room for discussions about the appropriateness of a nation-state, such as our own, to engage in activities such as war and capital punishment, or to the appropriateness of allowing laws for self-defense. In those discussions, however, we must not lose sight of the fact that this command warns us “that any human killing is far from routine; it can never become some ordinary outcome of a legally constituted system of justice nor some inevitable result of a declaration of war, however justified such a war may claim to be. Because all life is in fact God’s life, we humans take life at our own peril. No killing can ever be a cause for rejoicing. Weeping may be the appropriate response whenever killing is done, no matter the circumstances” (Holbert, 77).

Perhaps the best approach to discussing this command is a positive one. We must ask these questions: what does it look like for the body of Christ, that is the church, to work to ensure that all life has the opportunity to flourish? How can we encourage forgiveness and reconciliation instead of hatred and revenge? After all, God is working in our world so that it might become a world without violence and estrangement. In Isaiah 11:6-9, the prophet paints a picture for us of the kingdom that God is seeking to establish, a kingdom that Jesus Christ has and is establishing.

6     The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. 7     The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. 8     The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. 9     They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. 

The Seventh Command: No Fooling Around… “You shall not commit adultery.” 

Once again, this command is only two words in the Hebrew text. The literal issue at stake here is the violation of the marriage relationship. Adultery, as the word here is translated, has to do with a man having a sexual relationship with a woman who is either married or engaged.

The larger issue here, I believe, is one of faithfulness. Sex was meant to be a beautiful and practical part of God’s intention for creation. Beautiful in that it connects two people together in a way that is otherwise impossible. Practical in that it provides a way for humanity to be faithful to the command to be fruitful and multiply. It is in that command that we are invited into becoming co-creators with God.

Anytime we use sex in a way that is contrary to God’s intention for it, either through pre-marital affairs, extra marital affairs, lust or pornography, we actually work against God’s invitation for us to be co-creators. It is because these forms of sexual activity actively destroy the relationships that allow us to be fruitful and multiply. Who among us has not witnessed a life or marriage destroyed because of this kind of unfaithfulness?

What does it look like for us to fulfill this command in a positive manner? Perhaps it begins with how we treat those who have been unfaithful. Instead of shaming them and casting them out of our fellowship (as we do with many who are caught in affairs, especially those in positions of authority) we should seek to remain faithful to them. This is, after all, how God has responded to our repeated unfaithfulness, with the steadfast love and self-sacrifice of Jesus. When we welcome and forgive those who have been unfaithful into our fellowship so that they might become faithful again, we positively fulfill this command.

The Eight Command: Don’t take what isn’t yours. “You shall not steal.”

As I have studied the creation narrative found in Genesis one of the things I have learned is that work was a part of God’s plan for us from the beginning. We were created to be people who derived worth and dignity from the work that we did. Just as sex is a part of our invitation to become co-creators with God by being fruitful and multiplying, so also work gives us the opportunity to create. After a day’s labor we can step back and find fulfillment in the fact that we have created something. To be sure, not all work is equally as fulfilling or equally as creative. Some of it is downright drudgery. This, we believe, is a consequence of the fall.

The fact remains, however, that work was a part of God’s plan for us. Also a part of God’s plan for us is that we would receive some of the fruit from our labor. Originally, Adam and Eve were allowed to eat the produce that the garden brought forth as they tended it. Theft, however, takes what one has not worked for, be it money, or goods, or a person’s character or reputation. In doing so it devalues both the thief and the victim. Theft is also an upraised fist in the face of God. It shouts at God, “You haven’t taken good enough care of me! So, I will take matters into my own hands!” When we steal, we fail to acknowledge that all that we have is a gift from God. Even our ability to work is a gift from God.

There are three ways in which we positively keep this command. We can go about our work with fervor and dignity, knowing that through our work God will provide for us. The second way we can positively keep this command is by working to ensure that what belongs to our neighbor is safe. We work together as a community to ensure that all of our needs are met. There is a third way as well: we fight injustices that cause people to be caught in cycles of poverty, that, at times, forces them to steal to survive. Similarly, we can actively seek to liberate people from addictions that drive them to theft.

The Ninth Command: Liar, liar!  “You shall not bear false witness…”

A friend of mine used to say; “You only have as much relationship as you have honesty in that relationship.” I have found this saying to be true. The best and longest lasting relationships I have had have been built on mutual honesty and truth-telling. One simply cannot have a good relationship when lies are a constant presence.

Truth-telling is hard. It takes courage. At times, it takes a willingness to place the needs of the other in front of our own. The temptation to lie comes from the constant pull of selfishness. Relationships, though, with God and with our neighbor do not flourish where selfish lies abound. We positively keep this command when we value the relationship with God and with others over our own selfish desires. We keep this command when confess our sins and when we seek forgiveness and commit ourselves to being a people who tell the truth to one another in love.

The Tenth Command: Don’t Covet! You shall not covet.”

The Lord’s Prayer has profoundly impacted my life. One of the lines in the prayer that I get stuck on is, “And give us this day our daily bread…” I’ve come to realize that this line has two movements to it. First, to pray it is to recognize that all I have is a gift from God. My family, my house, and the food I eat, while seemingly the fruit of my own efforts, is really the gracious gift of the God who has given me the ability to work. The air I breathe and the body I have are gifts as well. Acknowledging that all that we have is from God is not our natural mentality. At least, that is, not here in America where it is believed that we are what we make of our selves.

The second movement is tied to the first. If God has provided all that I need, then all that I have is enough. There is a freedom and a rest that comes with realizing this. Contentment comes from resting in God’s good gifts. The urge to covet, the over-grown desire for that which we do not possess, comes from not believing or trusting that God has provided sufficiently for us.

This is a constant struggle for Israel. Israel, as they journeyed from Egypt to Mt. Sinai, grumbled that God had brought them out to the wilderness to starve to death. They grumbled when heaven-sent bread was not enough. They grumbled when it seemed they had no water. At each and every turn, however, God’s provision for Israel was more than enough. Even after they wandered in the wilderness for 40 years, they had found that their clothes had not worn out.

To fulfill this command requires us to rest in what God has given to us. God calls to us in this command, “My gifts are enough for you.” I find, when I fail to believe or trust that God will provide for me, that I begin constantly repeating that line from the Lord’s Prayer, “and give us this day our daily bread…” It reminds me that I am God’s. It reminds me that God loves me and has provided for me. It gives me hope that God will continue to provide for me.

There’s a larger social component to this command too. If we are resting in what God has given us, then we are not so consumed with ourselves. This allows us to focus on the needs of others, asking how it is that we might help our neighbor resist the urge to covet and the subsequent sins that follow.

So What…? I don’t believe that it is enough for us to look at this list and check off our obedience to each command.  It is not enough for us not to be murderers.  We must find ways to work against violence and hatred so that life can flourish.  It is not enough that we are not adulterers.  We must find ways to encourage faithfulness for both those who have been unfaithful and for those who are learning and growing into the faith.  It is not enough to honor our parents as children and then be done with that command.  We must find ways to honor our parents as they age and grow close to death.  The same things can be said for stealing and coveting.  Both these sins have their roots in a lack of faith and trust that the good gifts of God are enough for us.  We must find ways of helping one another see the ways in which God has provided for us so that we might rest in it.

The Ten Commandments are more than just a list of rules that are intended to keep us from sin. The commands are intended for us so that we might flourish as the people of God, and as we flourish as the people of God, the world can be blessed through our ministry.

Critical Discussion Questions:

  1. What does God look like in this text/Who is God in this text/What is God doing in this text? 

  2. God is deeply concerned with how we act in relationship with one another. 

  3. What does holiness/salvation look like in this text?

  4. Holiness looks like working to fulfill these commands in their positive movement.  It is not enough just not to steal or lie or kill.  Our faithful fulfillment of these commands urges us to find ways to ensure that others don’t need to seek, that there is truth told, and that we work toward seeing that life flourishes in the midst of brokenness. 

  5. How does an encounter with this story shape who we are and who we should become?

  6. As a whole, the Ten Commandments help us live ethical and moral lives in response to the personal God who has saved us because of our relationship with him.  We follow these commands because we trust that the one who has freed us from slavery knows how our lives should be ordered so that we might have life and life abundantly. 

Specific Discussion Questions: Read the text aloud. Then, read the text to yourself quietly.  Read it slowly, as if you were very unfamiliar with the story.

  1. We often believe that the command to honor our parents is directed toward children while they are young. Our responsibility to honor our parents does not cease when we have children of our own. What might it look like for us to actively seek to honor our parents as adult children?

  2. We live in a culture that celebrates violence and war. Even in the Old Testament we witness a lot of killing. How do we reconcile the prohibition against killing with the rest of the Old Testament? What might it look like to actively seek to positively fulfill this command to not kill?

  3. The term the seventh commandment uses is adultery. The intention of the command is much greater than just infidelity within the marriage relationship. What are other forms of sexual unfaithfulness? Why is sexual faithfulness so important? What are some of the ways we might positively fulfill this command?

  4. Work seems to be part of God’s plan from the beginning. We are to derive meaning and worth from our work. How is stealing a violation of God’s creation? What are some of the ways we might positively fulfill this command?

  5. Respond to this statement: You only have as much relationship as you have honesty in that relationship. What do you think this statement means? What does it say about the importance of truth-telling for individual relationships? For our relationships within our community of faith?

  6. Coveting is an over-grown desire for that which we do not possess. How does coveting betray our faith in God? How does it damage our relationships with one another?

Works Cited: John C. Holbert, The Ten Commandments: A Preaching Commentary (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002).

William White, “2208 רָצַח,” ed. R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer Jr., and Bruce K. Waltke, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (Chicago: Moody Press, 1999).