Rules of the Road

Exodus 20:1-17

Covenant series-Part Three: March 8, 2015

Rules of the Road

In today’s polarized political climate even the Ten Commandments become a pawn. A perennial issue is whether copies of the biblical commandments should be displayed in public buildings. Is that a violation of our Constitutional mandate for separation of church and state? Or is it a useful reminder of our most basic values? And anyway, how did copies of the Ten Commandments first get into courthouses? And isn’t this exactly the kind of idolatry condemned within the Commandments?

According to a March 3, 2005 article by Bruce Westbrook in the Houston Chronicle, Hollywood had something to do with it. In particular, the 1956 blockbuster movie The Ten Commandments, with Charlton Heston was instrumental in this uniquely American phenomena.

The article reads:

Demille…played a role in getting the granite replica of the Commandments placed outside the Texas Capitol. He skillfully avoided footing the bill for the tablets, leaving that to the Fraternal Order of Eagles. The service organization was already distributing written copies of the Commandments across America in 1951, in hopes of combatting juvenile delinquency. DeMille’s Ten Commandments premiered in 1956. Learning of the Eagles’ work — and keen to promote his film with their cause — the director encouraged the group to donate carved stone tablets like those that star Charlton Heston, as Moses, brandished in the movie.

The Eagles then donated such tablets for display at city halls, county courthouses, state capitols and public parks around the country. The group got around to Austin in 1961 when the state Legislature accepted the monument as a gift. By then, DeMille was dead, but his film still benefited. By coincidence, The Ten Commandments was reissued to theaters in 1961, when the tablets were installed only 75 feet from the Capitol rotunda. Thus DeMille gained promotional clout even from beyond the grave.

It was a mere seven weeks after leaving Egypt that the Hebrew people reached Sinai and heard God speak the thunderous words that proclaimed the sacred duties toward God and neighbor…the Ten Commandments. The Hebrews received a copy etched in stone. And 3000 years later, those commandments are etched, not in stone, but in our psyche and public consciousness. They still generate reverence and controversy. They are considered a foundational document in our Judeo-Christian ethic and can (if we choose)help us to understand what behavior is in and out of bounds. And yet when something inherently religious is accorded a place of prominence where civil law is enacted, its public display in a secular society causes sides to be drawn.

Preacher and writer Barbara Brown Taylor notes that publically advocating for display of the Ten Commandments is not the same as living them. She lives in the South, where it is commonplace for people to having plastic replicas of the stone tablets in their front yard. But as she observes, those people can often be found on the Sabbath mowing their yard around those signs! “While it is certainly possible to do both (commend the Commandments to others while following them ourselves), embodying God’s word constitutes a stronger witness to that Word than printing it in blue ink on plastic.”[1]   I bet the Hebrew people had the same problem. The rules are really pretty simple, but following them does get in the way. If I don’t mow the lawn on Sunday, when am I going to do it?

The commandments are part of the evolving covenant promise between God and God’s people. They were given by God at a time when the Hebrew people needed to survive in a hostile environment, and they only way they could do so was within a strong community with shared values. Hundreds of thousands of people wandering in the desert without an social institutions to guide and sustain them. The Commandments are about survival and identity.

They have as much to say to us today, as when they were handed down ages ago.   This covenant is intended to deepen our relationship with God, thus bringing into abundant life all of our relationships. The Hebrew word for covenant has the root of “bond” or “fetter.” A fetter is a shackle for the feet. Except in this case, we can think of ourselves being bound together with God, in this covenant. I am put in mind of the hymn “Come Thou Font of Every Blessing”:

Let thy goodness like a fetter, bind my wandering heart to thee; prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, prone to leave the one I love; here’s my heart, O, take and seal it for thy courts above.

The biblical covenants—with Noah, with Abraham and Sarah, and now the laws handed down from Sinai—are successively deepening the relationship between God and God’s people. The cheese is getting very binding indeed! But the purpose of covenant is to bind so that we do not wander, or at least, wander too far off.   J. Ellsworth Kalas, in his terrific book The Ten Commandments from the Back Side, suggests that we are a privileged people. [2] It is a privilege to be bound to God because it frees us from slavery to sin. Life is on our side if we keep the commandments; and “it is a grand ‘yes’ to our lives, and an outline for effective living.”

This covenant is not a collection of rules. Rather, it is a rule for life within the margins of what is acceptable to God, and what will keep community in harmony. Anything done outside those margins will harm the sacred relationships between God and me as well as me and my neighbor. Live within these margins and life is richer and more fulfilling. It is a privilege, not a burden, to keep this covenant. Jesus lived this way. In Jesus we learn what it means to love God with all one’s heart, and one’s neighbor as oneself.

Commandments one through four tells us how to live in right relationship with God. Then, commandments five through ten tell us how to live rightly with others.

  1. You shall have no other Gods before me. When I served as a chaplain at Hoffman Homes, it was pretty universal that a child with an abusive parent had a fearful view of God as stern and unforgiving. And what we think about God will eventually shape our view of the world. All life needs a focus, and the best focus for our life is a healthy reverence for a loving God who is the sole object of our worship.
  2. You shall not make for yourself an idol. Thou shalt not put God in a box! Don’t try to cut God down to size, to make God concrete and easy to manipulate.
  3. You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord. God is not there to be put to our use. Instead we are invited into God’s name through the power of prayer.
  4. Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. Remember when the Sabbath was a day set aside? Well for the Israelites this was a powerful reminder of what God had done for them in delivering them from bondage in Egypt. Only free people can take a day off. Slaves have to work whenever Master tells them too. We make a day holy by resting.
  5. Honor your father and mother so that your days might be long in the land the Lord is giving you. This is the only commandment that makes a promise.   Keeping this commandment ensures that tradition will be passed from generation to generation, and thus community preserved.
  6. You shall not murder.   The type of killing that is prohibited is homicide, or unnecessary killing. Obviously the Old Testament contains many instances of killing that is warranted. But all life is under God’s custody.
  7. You shall not commit adultery. As J. Ellsworth Kalas puts it, cherish the sacred in your mate because a married couple is in a contract that includes God. Since God dwells in our bodies, what we do with our bodies is not just our own concern.
  8. You shall not steal. And there are so many ways to do so! I think we basically understand this commandment in terms of theft of someone’s personal property, but it extends farther than we might think. It extends to what we don’t do, as well as what we do. For instance, by not giving our fair share, whether in time, talent or treasure–holding back because we fear there will not be enough for ourselves–we violate this commandment.  Not giving what we are able to give, when all we have has been a gift from God, is the same as stealing from God.
  9. You shall not bear false witness. This certainly means lying in a court of law, but it also means we shall not slander, gossip, misrepresent, or fail to speak up when a falsehood is being presented. It can be an innuendo that slyly characterizes someone in a particular way. All human relationships are based on trust. We shall bless and be blessed by the truth.
  10. You shall not covet. We shall not want what our neighbor has and we do not have. Instead we should rejoice in our neighbor’s good fortune. It has been said that all other sins stem from the sin of coveting what someone else has. Why else would we steal? Why else would we have an extramarital affair? Why else would we lie except to gain something we should not have? Even just the act of coveting…with no subsequent action…is a rehearsal for sin.

So, there we have the rules of the road. It has always struck me as curious that the presence or absence of a plaque, emblazoned with the Commandments, has become such political pawn. As Bill Dockery observes in our devotional for this week, the commandments should be posted in our hearts as a standard by which to judge our actions. [3] Really, isn’t it a little too late to have them posted in a courtroom, when the defendant is on trial for grand larceny? Chances are, he or she already knew the rules of the road. Recently I got a ticket for speeding in Biglerville. Now maybe doing 46 mph is a 30 zone isn’t the crime of the century, but I knew the rules of the road and didn’t follow them. The penalty was appropriate (although financially painful) because a community is healthier and safer when people obey the rules.

And that’s what these words of God are all about. God is not a traffic cop handing out tickets…God is in a loving relationship with us and wants the best for us. If we all obey God’s rules of the road, the Kingdom will come a lot sooner.


[1] Feasting on the Word, Year B vol.2, 77.

[2] Abingdon Press, 1998, pp 108-113.

[3] Disciplines, The Upper Room, 2015, 75.