“The Gift of the Commandments”
Cast your mind back, if you will, to your school days. And see if you can remember the strictest teacher you had. Remember a teacher who ruled his/her classroom with an iron fist, where the students behaved and got their work done because they knew that if they didn’t, there would be consequences. I can’t help but think of Madame Méchin, my grade eight French teacher. We called her Madame Méchant when she wasn’t around – the French word for “mean, nasty, or miserable.”
I remember her with her hair pulled very tightly back in a bun, and I don’t remember her smiling. Like the other students, I was pretty scared of Madame Méchin, though I’m not sure what I thought she would to us. But I worked really hard to make sure that my homework was done, and that I was ready to answer her questions (though I hoped she wouldn’t call on me). And I definitely wasn’t going to get caught speaking English in her class.
I certainly had other teachers over the years who chose different methods and styles of teaching (some of whom I liked very much), but Madame Méchin’s strict method definitely worked. And even though we thought she was “mean” and “nasty” she taught us well so that even those of us who didn’t keep at it and become bilingual can still “comprendre quel qu’un qui parle en francais, et souvenir assez de mots pour communiqué avec un francophone.”
At times when I’ve been in the role of the teacher myself, I’ve been much more aware of the challenges related to creating a safe and encouraging learning environment, while maintaining a level of discipline that leads to successful outcomes. I’m sure that some of the teachers in our congregation would be able to say much more about how this is done today.
But one thing is sure… there is something to be taught. Whether it consists of information, ideas, methods, or principles, there is a content to be acquired and mastered, and the teacher has the job both of highlighting what has been done well and correcting errors.
I’ve been told that it’s not proper etiquette to correct your friends’ grammatical errors on Facebook, but it is necessary that teachers correct their students’ assignments so they can continue to improve. At the risk of being called “mean” or “nasty,” teachers have the job of judging and correcting – not to make students feel bad, but to assist them in becoming more proficient.
Perhaps it goes along with a culture that rightly promotes acceptance of diversity and includes people from different backgrounds, experiences, and with different practices… but I have noticed that very often (when talking with Christians about what God is like) it’s not unusual for someone to say that God doesn’t judge us. God is loving. God is faithful. God is kind and merciful. And God doesn’t judge us.
What they may mean is that God is not judgmental. Unlike human beings, who are so often influenced by stereotypes, assumptions, and mis-information, God doesn’t judge us unfairly or reject us easily. Indeed, God is described in the Bible as slow to anger, rich in mercy, and abounding in steadfast love. But that doesn’t mean that God doesn’t judge us!
In today’s Gospel story, Jesus very clearly judges the people in the Temple in Jerusalem. To put it simply, what they were doing was breaking one of the commandments – putting other things before God. And Jesus judged them, and Jesus got angry about it, and Jesus drove them out with a whip of cords, yelling, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”
I have noticed that there is a trend in some churches today to get rid of the prayer of confession. They do prayers of praise and adoration, prayers of thanksgiving, and prayers of supplication (asking God to supply their needs and the needs of the church and the world) but they don’t like confessing their sin anymore. All this confessing gets people down, I hear them say. We don’t want people to feel bad about themselves all the time, having to confess week after week after week.
But it seems to me, if we stop confessing, we are either saying that we don’t need to confess because we’re already perfect (which is obviously not true)… or we’re saying that we’re giving up. We’re giving up on trying to live up to what God desires for us. It can’t be done.
Everything about our faith tells us that we are the beloved children of God. We are made in God’s image, and designed to live in loving relationship with each other and with God. Long before God’s amazing coming to us in Jesus and the gift of the Holy Spirit poured out to bless and keep us, God was already saving, protecting, and guiding God’s people out of slavery, through the wilderness, and into a good land and future.
Over and over, with Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David, God kept on fulfilling God’s promises of faithfulness and care, while the people weren’t as faithful, to say the least.
Now, of the various covenants, the one with Moses and the Israelites was pretty special. I read one reflection a few weeks ago that suggested that while the covenants with Abraham and David were unconditional, the covenant with Moses had conditions. God was promising the people a great deal, but they were supposed to be faithful too, and live the way God instructed them – worshipping only the one, true God, and following God’s rules.
And when they didn’t follow God’s rules, God judged them. God didn’t say, “Oh well, too bad you didn’t listen. I love you anyway. Don’t worry about it, people.” Instead God judged them and corrected them, God loved them and forgave them, and God called them back to faithfulness to the covenant.
And the commandments were not arbitrary rules designed to make life difficult for the people. The commandments were given to help them – to guide them in living peacefully and well in the community and with God.
The Reformation theologian, John Calvin, recognized what a gift the commandments are to us, and he described “three uses” for them. First, Calvin said that in showing us how we are to live before God and with our neighbour, the commandments expose our sin.
They cut through our self-deception that we really are “good” people and reveal some of the many ways in which our lives are not yet what they are supposed to be. The fact is that God is going to judge us, and the commandments give us a tool to judge ourselves, to see where and how our lives need to change to get more in line with God’s purposes for us.
Second, the Commandments serve an important civic function. Calvin understood that sin is never simply individual, but it’s also corporate, social, and institutional. And the commandments were given to the whole community (not just to individuals) to be a rule for creating and maintaining a peaceful and just society.
Finally – – and Calvin said most importantly – – the Commandments play an indispensable, positive role in Christian life. They are, as the psalmist tells us, a “lamp unto our feet.” They guide us as we journey in our life before God and our life with our neighbours. They do not show us what we must do or how we must live in order to receive God’s covenantal grace. They light our way and show us how we should live as people who have already been freely given God’s grace in Jesus Christ.
It is that conviction that leads some Christians in their worship, following the confession of sin and the declaration of pardon, to stand and recite the Ten Commandments. They recite the Commandments not in order to receive God’s forgiveness, but having already been freely forgiven, they recite the Commandments and teach them to their children in order to know how to live as God’s people.
I suppose that there were probably “ten” commandments given because ten is a number that’s easy to remember. What a great teacher God was, giving us a list of rules that we can recall by counting them out on our fingers:
- No other gods before God.
- No idols.
- Do not use the Lord’s name in vain.
- Remember the Sabbath day.
- Honour your father and mother.
- No murder.
- No adultery
- No stealing.
- No lying.
- No coveting.
The only thing that could make it easier would be if there was an easy acronym to keep them in order. But God did make it even easier for us… When Jesus was asked about the greatest commandment, he summed them all up with just two that are also found in the Torah: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and mind, and soul, and strength. And love your neighbour as yourself.
And since that was still too hard for us to catch on to, God went even further. Because he wasn’t the kind of teacher who just spouted words and drilled rules. And God wasn’t the kind of teacher who was content to let us fail. So God sent the Son into the world – not just to recite the commandments – but to show us what the commandments look like acted out, fulfilled, completed.
Jesus showed us what it is like to love God completely as he followed, obeyed, and trusted God all the way to the cross. And Jesus showed us what it is like to love our neighbours completely as he taught, healed, blessed, challenged, judged, and forgave us all the way to the cross.
We couldn’t ask for a better teacher. May we humble ourselves in this Lenten Season, opening our hearts to receive God’s judgment and correction, confessing our sins, and receiving the gracious mercy and help of Christ to amend our lives. Amen.