Grace and Peace to you.
Then God spoke all these words: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me….”
— Exodus 20.1-3
Many people want to post the Ten Commandments on courthouse walls because “this is a Christian nation.” But wait— if we were under Old Testament commandments, wouldn’t that make this a Jewish nation? I mean, Christians don’t have Ten Commandments: we have one. Jesus was very explicit about that. We have eight Beatitudes, but only one commandment: to love others as Christ has loved us.
If this were a “Christian nation” one might reasonably expect that some of Jesus’ teachings wold have distinctly shaped the founding, history or character of America. What teaching would that be? “Love your enemies?” “Blessed are the meek?” “Do not judge?” “You must become as a child?” “Sell all you have and give to the poor?” “Deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me?” Hmm. How about Jesus’ practices, like feeding the hungry? Giving away free health care? Practicing extravagant forgiveness, associating with the lowly, or trusting in God’s abundant grace rather than our own effort? I don’t see anything distinctly Jesus-like about America. And hanging the Ten Commandments on the wall won’t change that.
But really, why bother? Of the ten commandments, we actually believe in just two: only murder and stealing are actually illegal; the other eight we don’t even believe in anyway! Idolatry, false witness, taking the Lord’s name in vain, Sabbath, coveting—who are we kidding?—breaking these commandments is part of our social and economic system!
But all this is beside the point. Sacred as they are, the Ten Commandments are not for the purpose of making people change. Listen: we have got to stop expecting other people to live out our faith by obeying our religious principles. We have to do the whole thing ourselves.
The Ten Commandments aren’t meant as secular laws that everybody ought to follow: they’re a religious practice, that sets us apart among all peoples, that makes us different. They do not apply to the whole pluralistic world, but to the people of Israel. The thing is, they are not a legal document; they’re a marriage vow. The context in which they are given is not a legal framework, but a relationship: “I am your God, who brought you out of slavery.” They express how we will be faithful to the One who has given us life and set us free.
I don’t post my marriage vows publicly. They’re not for others to obey; they’re for me, in my marriage with Beth. Similarly, the Ten Commandments don’t apply to others. They apply to us who have entered into God’s Covenant, who want to be close to God.
The commandments—both the ten and the one—are not rules: they’re a way to be faithful. Like marriage vows, they’re not something God imposes upon us, and certainly nothing we can impose on others, but a natural outflowing of our heartfelt commitment to what we care most deeply about. A rich, faithful marriage requires that we at least avoid adultery, murder, coveting, false witness and all that. But following the rules won’t create a loving relationship; it can only describe its outlines. We don’t follow God’s commandments because we “have” to. We do it because we want to stay close to God. We do it out of love.
But of course there are times when our fear threatens to overtake our love and what’s in our heart does not lead us toward God. In those times the rules do give us a starting place. They don’t make us love, but they keep us constrained in a place where we can learn to love. Obedience invites us to grow beyond acquiescence to passion.
This is why the prophets pleaded that instead of inscribing the commandments on our walls, we write them on our hearts. Rather than merely obeying the Ten Commandments, what might it be like for you to really write them on your heart, to live them, to honor the spirit and not just the letter of the law? What if they were the outpouring of your love, or at least your desire to learn to love? What if you didn’t just obey them, but practice them, more deeply every day? It’s something God would love to see.
Copyright © Steve Garnaas-Holmes