Third Sunday in Lent
March 7, 2021
The Rev’d Charles W. Everson
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
Hearing the Ten Commandments read elicits some strong memories and emotions in my heart. My family moved to Texas when I was 11, and a friend invited me to join him at a youth group event at a Baptist church. As I got more and more involved, I became aware that most of the other kids had memorized so much scripture at church camps over the years and I felt woefully behind the curve. One of the first things I memorized was the Ten Commandments (also called the Decalogue), and I remember thinking, “Good Lord, it’s so easy to follow these. I’ve never been tempted to murder someone, or worship another god, or steal. I mean, the whole “honor thy father and mother” might be difficult from time to time, but otherwise, I think I’ve got this.”
Fast forward a decade when I was preparing for the Sacrament of Confirmation in the Roman Catholic Church at the age of 24. It is customary to go to confession before being confirmed, and in preparation for my first confession, the priest advised me to use the Ten Commandments as a guide in examining my conscience. Suddenly, the Ten Commandments became much more than a list of rules to follow. Each one suddenly exploded with meaning: “You shall have no other gods before me” was like a seed, that when watered, grew into a list of questions. What other gods am I worshipping? Money? Power? Sex? Myself? Alcohol?
While I still think that using the Ten Commandments as a guide examining one’s conscience is helpful, the traditional interpretation of the decalogue as a list of rules might be a bit misguided. Rather than a series of rules, the Ten Commandments is a proclamation by God’s own mouth of who God is and how God should be “practiced” by this community of liberated slaves.
The commandments were given to the Hebrew people just as they had been liberated from slavery in Egypt and set out into the wilderness. The people were hungry and thirsty, and God has provided sweet water and manna from heaven to sustain them. They had been attacked and came out victorious, and they have finally reached Mount Sinai. There, in the chapter before this one, God makes a covenant with Israel: Israel will be God’s treasured possession, a priestly kingdom and a holy nation, if the people keep their end of the covenant. Unlike the previous covenants with Noah and Abraham, a mutual covenant is established: Israel must follow God’s commands if they are to remain God’s people.
The Decalogue is the listing of these commands. The commandments are arranged in two groups, the first of which is about our relationship with God. One commentator notes that the formulation of the first commandment is not “Though shalt not,” but rather “there will not be to you.” The verb used isn’t an imperative command, but rather an indicative, whereby God, in light of the Exodus, declares the banishment of all other Gods. In other words, this is less of a commandment than it is a declaration of theological emancipation in which God proclaims Israel’s freedom to love and serve their God without compromise. “You shall have no other gods before me” is not a command to follow, but a joyful declaration that God has triumphed over evil and set them free. The second group of commandments is about our relationship with our neighbors. Murder, adultery, stealing, lying, and coveting are forbidden as God wants the Hebrews to trust one another, whether that be with words, relationships, or possessions.
Despite the rather obvious groupings of the ten commandments in two, they are very much intertwined. Our relationship with God shapes the way we treat others. In other words, good theology leads to good ethics. For example, having “no other gods before me” means that by God’s help, we are to choose not to allow money, power, and sex to control us and thus exploit others. Not bearing false witness means that we should build up the community by speaking truthfully of our neighbors. “Not taking the Lord’s name in vain” invites an attitude of praise and thanksgiving toward God, rather than anger and cynicism.
When asked about the greatest commandment, Jesus summarizes the law by uniting the love of God and the love of neighbor: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all they heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. And thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.”
The Decalogue provides healthy boundaries for our relationship with God, and our relationships with our neighbors. When we worship idols, or covet our neighbor’s fancy car, or cheat on our partner, or tell a lie, the foundation of our relationship with God and one another is shaken. As the Ten Commandments were given to the Hebrew people to joyfully proclaim that God has set them free, Lent gives us an opportunity to delve into the freedom God has for us. At our baptism, we were set free from the bonds of sin by Christ’s death and resurrection. Each time we encounter Christ in the Sacraments of the Church, we are given the grace we need to resist evil, and whenever we fall into sin, to repent and return to the Lord.
When I hear the Ten Commandments today, I am less confident than I was in my teens that “I’ve got this.” I still think that reflecting on them to examine one’s conscience is a good and holy thing. In fact, I encourage you to take your service leaflet home with you or open up your Bibles this week to Exodus chapter 20, and sit down in silence for a few minutes and do just that. But as you’re examining your conscience, rejoice in the freedom you were given at your baptism. For just as the Hebrews were set free from captivity in Egypt, so too have we been freed from our captivity to sin in Jesus Christ. Rejoice that God has freed you to be in relationship with him and with your fellow human beings within the healthy bounds of the Ten Commandments, and ask God for the grace to build strong spiritual habits during this Lenten sojourn in the wilderness. Amen.
 New Interpreter’s Bible 841.
 Much of this paragraph is from https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/third-sunday-in-lent-2/commentary-on-exodus-201-17.
 David Lyon Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 72.
 Mark 12:29-31 as printed in the 1979 BCP on page 319.
The sermons preached at St. Mary's Episcopal Church, Kansas City, are posted here!