By Rev. Dr. Rodney Kennedy
Exodus 20:1-17; John 2: 15-22
The Ten Commandments and Jesus chasing the moneychangers from the Temple – the odd couple? What gives?
The Ten Commandments suffer from bad reviews: Judgmental, moralistic, old-fogey rules, a huge burden. It’s like a film getting a horrible review but wins the Oscar. The Ten Commandments are actually God’s greatest revelation to Israel. “The tablets were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, engraved upon the tablets.”
Trivialization is a good word for what has happened to the “Ten Commandments.” We now have the Ten Commandments for almost everything. I went to Amazon, typed in Ten Commandments, and got a hundred pages of books. One was called A Better Ten Commandments and it’s about taking nothing on faith. There’s the Ten Commandments of Marriage, Dating, Money, Parenting, and the Ten Commandments for 21st century leaders, for business failure, of damage control, of working in a hostile environment, The Ten Commandments of Propaganda, Lifting Weights, Self-Esteem, The Ten Commandments of ouzo, phlebotomy, yoga.
The most obvious trivialization of the Ten Commandments is the movement to post them in our courtrooms and on the grounds of federal buildings. Judge Roy Moore has made a second career out of attempting to publicly display the Ten Commandments. The now twice-removed chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court has a granite slab with the 10 Commandments chiseled on them and he lugs this monster around on the back of a flatbed truck. It weighs 5,280 pounds, or just over 500 pounds per commandment.
I have a first cousin, a national weight-lifting champion, who can bench press 660 pounds. He could easily pick up a 528 pound commandment, but for most of us this would be a huge burden. Judge Moore makes the commandments a burden, exactly what they are not supposed to be. See him hauling around tons of dreary obligation. The Ten Words are not a millstone around our necks. Thomas Long says, “The commandments are not weights, but wings that enable our hearts to catch the wind of God’s Spirit and to soar.” The Ten Commandments belong in the hearts of a people who belong to God.
The Decalogue means liberation. We are free to rest; we are free to live honorably and peacefully with our families; we are free to be a people that does not exploit or murder or steal. We are free to become one another’s friends, and the friends of God. Free at last! Thank God almighty we are free at last!
Our culture thumbs its nose at the Ten Words, replacing them with aggressive, ambitious, self-advancement and the Church has work to do in reclaiming the Ten Words. Guided by the 10 words, we are to live faithful lives as an alternative to the distortions of our culture.
If you look closely you will find these ten words overlaid in scene after scene of Scripture. God has always had them there as our North Star guiding us in the path to greatness. They are always there when God’s people get sidetracked.
The Ten Words keep expanding in meaning. A study of the development of the Ten Words over the centuries shows how they determined the ongoing theological imagination of God’s people. So the words to not steal are, a few verses later, expanded to prohibit the kidnapping of people. Later on the words about Sabbath expand to extend beyond Sabbath to include sabbaticals for the land and a Jubilee. Strict constructionists will need a pill at this point. Sabbath, in God’s economy, becomes a Jubilee. Every 50th year all property is to be returned to original owners and all debts forgiven. We are not a Jubilee people. People are expected to pay their debts, earn their way, even if they are victims of a violent economics that creates a few winners and millions on the bottom rung of the ladder. People are expected to pull themselves up by their boot straps when they have no boots, climb the ladder of success when there’s no ladder in their community. No wonder so many Christians are so angry when they sense that somebody somewhere is getting something for what they think is nothing. Isn’t it ironic that the idea of getting something for nothing is so despised by good Christians, affluent Christians, but when they go to the casino, they fall for the illusion of getting something for nothing or winning the Mega Lottery?
The witness of the ten words also keeps showing up to demonstrate what happens when people, especially rulers, ignore commandments. Here’s David coveting his neighbor’s wife. And Ahab conniving to steal his poor neighbor’s vineyard. I know a man who owned 86 McDonald’s. Someone opened a small burger place that only had drive-in service. The McDonald’s owner raged about this little burger joint. He couldn’t sleep until he found a way to run that guy out of business.
Read some more and you will find that Israel and Judah produced a line of kings who did not do what was right in the sight of the Lord. They disobeyed the Ten Words. See them limping into captivity under the grueling watch of pagan rulers. See the flag dragging in the dust. See the captives sitting by a river in Babylon, unable to sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land. This is the outcome for a people who trivialize and ignore the Ten Words of God. They are always there written on the wall. Rulers think they are above the laws of God. No nation has ever become great by disobeying the Ten Words.
Look if you want to make America great again, I’m all for it. I’m with you brothers and sisters, but if you think it will happen by dehumanizing women, empowering white supremacy, cheating and depriving people, bullying people, treating our neighbors as enemies, acting violently in the world, and stomping around shouting “USA! We’re #1,” we need to talk.
Never take your eyes off the Ten Words scribbled on every wall. One day one of the great kings of the earth saw the handwriting of God on the wall. Then the king’s face turned pale, and his thoughts terrified him. His limbs gave way, and his knees knocked together. The king cried aloud to bring in the enchanters, the Chaldeans, and the diviners; and the king said to the wise men of Babylon, ‘Whoever can read this writing and tell me its interpretation shall be clothed in purple, have a chain of gold around his neck, and rank third in the kingdom.’ Then all the king’s wise men came in, but they could not read the writing or tell the king the interpretation.
The enchanters: Now, these are the political consultants and the campaign advisors. The Chaldeans: These are the members of Congress. The diviners: These are the inner circle, the cabinet members, and the super-rich. None of them can read the handwriting of God.
No one ever really notices when a Temple, a church, a nation slips away from the Ten Commandments. The incremental changes go unnoticed year after year until there’s almost total distortion. Spiritual blindness creeps in and the Ten Words are still there on the wall but scheming, cheating, taking advantage, leveraging power all become acceptable practices right under the writing to not steal, covet, or dishonor.
The bar of expectation for integrity, honesty, uprightness has been systematically lowered to the point that everyone thinks they are God’s good people. What once would have been seen as hypocrisy now counts as righteousness. What once would have been condemned as sin now counts as good strategy. What once would have been the cause of shame is now explained away as normal behavior in a new age.
America doesn’t need economic advice, trade advice, foreign policy advice, or educational advice. America needs spiritual guides, women and men of God who can read God’s handwriting. America doesn’t need a new Cyrus or a new Nebuchadrezzar; America needs a new Daniel.
Daniel was asked to interpret the writing on the wall: mene, mene, tekel, and parsin. This is the interpretation of the matter: mene, God has numbered the days of your kingdom and brought it to an end; tekel, you have been weighed on the scales and found wanting; peres, your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians.’ Even kings have to face the handwriting on the wall and always in the background are the Ten Words.
These same Ten Words are written on Temple walls when Jesus shows up at the Temple, and beneath those words the preachers and politicians go about the business of robbing the people. When the Temple co-opts the practices of pagan kings, we are in real trouble. This is the thread that ties our two readings to one another. Commandments and a Temple clash with one another.
The Temple has become a deeply distorted house of God. The house of prayer has become a den of thieves. The Temple represents our entire religious, political mess today, because we live in a deeply distorted society. The church has to learn again to be faithful to God.
Among the ten words we are told there is to be “no use of God’s name in vain.” This is not about cuss words even if you want it to be. It’s about something far more diabolical. Taking God’s name in vain means using God’s name but the Devil’s means. The money changers, money makers, and money worshipers have disgraced the house of God. They use the name of God to promote greed, selfishness, profit, evil. This is taking God’s name in vain. They are using God for their pet money-making project, reducing God to their preferred notions of good, forgetting that God is holy and beyond the reach of their ideology. God refuses to be used as pious cover for illegal actions. God is not a patron of our nation or our war or our church or our morality or our race or our economic system. Turns out almost everyone wants to use God, from Presidents mouthing, “God bless America” and asking God to bless our wars to television evangelists conning people out of millions of dollars to preachers insisting they have the right to endorse politicians from the pulpit.
In the Temple, in the holy place of God the big shots had turned God into a support for greedy, exploitative religion. Temple leaders taking God’s name in vain to make a profit is a far cry from Temple leaders proclaiming the mercy and justice of God.
Then there’s the word that insists that we not covet our neighbor’s goods. This is not about petty envy but big economic commitments of acquisitiveness: more property, bigger houses, better, faster cars, more trips, more cruises, more investments that consist in taking from others by sharp dealing, tax and mortgage arrangements that increase the gulf between the haves and the have nots. No wonder God says, “Do not covet.” Do not reduce your life to the economic rat race against which Jesus protests.
These two commands deal with what Jesus confronted in the Temple. The Temple, a place of holy worship, was now wholly converted into a trading floor, an aggressive commodities market where transactions made the rich richer and the poor poorer. The religious and political authorities made a deal to enrich the Temple coffers by charging exorbitant rates for the sacrificial animals purchased by the poor foreigners visiting Jerusalem on pilgrimage. It’s one thing to visit the Alamo and discover a gift shop around every corner, but the Temple of the living God – a tourist trap? The rich and the powerful get richer and more powerful at the expense of people “who are not from here?”
Jesus’ symbolic protest at the Temple is a clarion call for us to be the Ten Commandments in a distorted culture. Cleaning the Temple is washing the dirt and grime off the wall once again revealing the Ten Words. This is our calling to engage with Jesus in a cleaning project that shows clearly the power of the Decalogue. What an enormous call God has given us: to work as the alternative to a social system gone mad.
God is calling to us to be the public display of the Ten Words. When we live by these words, we expose the false ways of the world organized around wealth, power, and status. The wisdom of this world does not teach us how to live. The power of this world does not guarantee our security. The wealth of this world does not ease our anxiety or make us happy. Only God’s liberating words, the ten words, can do all that. It sounds like a good start on the road to greatness.