If a man hits a manservant or maidservant in the eye and destroys it, he must let the servant go free to compensate for the eye. And if he knocks out the tooth of a manservant or maidservant, he must let the servant go free to compensate for the tooth.
If a bull gores a man or a woman to death, the bull must be stoned to death, and its meat must not be eaten. But the owner of the bull will not be held responsible. If, however, the bull has had the habit of goring and the owner has been warned but has not kept it penned up and it kills a man or woman, the bull must be stoned and the owner also must be put to death. However, if payment is demanded of him, he may redeem his life by paying whatever is demanded.
-from Exodus 21
Do you folks remember Judge Roy Moore?
He was the chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, the one who became at least momentarily famous while losing a protracted battle to keep a statue of the Ten Commandments in his courthouse.
Having lost that battle, Moore was engaged for a while as a favorite speaker on the circuit of stops that approves of that sort of thing. And, since he was now in possession of one of the biggest conversation starters ever, he carried it with him to public appearances.
I don’t mean that he literally carried it. The monument weighs 5,280 pounds and was riding around on a flatbed truck. It took a 57-foot, five-ton crane to get it off the truck when it came home to rest, and even that crane buckled under the weight.
Make what you will about the arguments around religious icons being placed in public spaces. What stood out to me, in preparing for this sermon, was one preacher’s side note that the weight works out to “just over 500 pounds per commandment.”
That’s a lot of weight. Have you ever felt flattened by the heft of a commandment like that?
So. Having started down the Judge Roy Moore path, of course I eventually landed on a clip from Stephen Colbert. If you’re familiar with the show, it was from his “Better Know A District” segment, where he sits down with a congresscritter and more or less accosts them with political wit, charm, and absurdity. In this case, the camera was pointed at Lynn Westmoreland, a representative from the great state of Georgia who had been vocal in his support of Roy Moore’s giant art piece, and who had cosponsored a bill that would have required the display of the Ten Commandments at both the House and the Senate.
It was an interesting discussion to watch, in that Westmoreland is a Baptist, and Colbert is Catholic, and both of them take their faith very seriously. There was the gotcha question, of course – how many of the Ten Commandments can you name? Most people don’t do very well with that question. Westmoreland got three – don’t lie, don’t cheat, don’t steal – and if he managed to avoid all three of those, he was probably blinding everyone else in DC with his halo.
The more interesting part of the conversation, though, was when Colbert asked Westmoreland where else the Ten Commandments should be displayed. Westmoreland said that he couldn’t think of any better place for them than the halls of civic life, and Colbert pushed back: really, there’s no better place for religious imagery than political buildings?
Colbert didn’t argue that the Ten Commandments don’t belong in the political arena. He raised an entirely different question.
Let’s say that instead of talking about Alabama, we were talking about Wilmington, Ohio. Let’s say that we were talking about putting a 5,280 pound statue of the Ten Commandments on the corner of South and Main. The question isn’t: is the ACLU going to tear us limb from limb and feast on our entrails. The answer to that question is yes, absolutely, but set it aside for the moment.
Take for granted that the Ten Commandments are an ancient and venerable statement of our faith. Is there anywhere else, aside from the corner of South and Main, where such a statement might better be located?
If a statue of the Ten Commandments is a demonstration of piety, then why not put one in your yard? Why not put them on the grounds of a library? Why not wear a decorative decalogue around your neck?
Or might it, perhaps, be found in our places of worship? Look around; do you see any statues of the Ten Commandments?
Okay, in a Quaker meetinghouse, that’s not really a fair question. We also don’t have a cross on the wall. We’re not really big on symbols.
Surely you’ve been in other kinds of churches, though? Or you’ve seen other churches on TV?
You can find crosses, of course. In many churches, you can also find images of fire, representing Pentecost and the presence of the Holy Spirit amid the people of God. You can find images of water, reminding Christians who have experienced water baptism of the preciousness of that moment. You can find images of bread and wine, speaking to the communion we have with Christ and with each other.
What you generally cannot find, however, is a statue of the Ten Commandments. They may be on a poster somewhere in the youth room, but they’re not front and center.
In fact, I will offer you a Get Out Of Jail Free card for skipping church, if you are willing to visit churches in Wilmington looking for a symbolic representation of the Ten Commandments that means something other than “we’re the sort of Christians who support folks like Roy Moore.” I only know of one in town.
There’s a reason that some Christians push to see the Ten Commandments in the legal arena, while few of us want them on our own lawns.
See, placing the Ten Commandments exclusively in government offices represents a complete misunderstanding of the nature of the law. We want them in legislative offices because we’re all about the rules. We want them in judicial buildings because we’re all about the judgement. We catch you a-murdering, and we’re bringing down the hammer, just like Jesus said.
And if we catch you at a soccer or a football game next Saturday, on the Sabbath, you’ll be cooling your commandment-kicking heels in the pen. And if we find you working on the Sabbath (say, at the Farmer’s Market…), you’ll be sitting in the brig next to those soccer-playing hooligans. You don’t want to know what the new punishment is going to be, should we find you making eyes at your neighbor’s… donkey.
Don’t mess with me on this. I’m the descendant of Puritans. Draconian religious rules are in my DNA.
Here’s the problem, though: the Ten Commandments have nothing at all to do with draconian religious rules. In fact, they have nothing much to do with religious rules at all. Which is why a courthouse is just about the worst place imaginable to display them.
These rules are not about bringing down the gavel of judgement. They’re a bridge into new life.
Okay. I know you’ve all been waiting with bated breath for me to get to the part of the sermon that will deal with the Bible passage that I actually picked, the one about the what happens if a slave loses a tooth, and under what circumstances the owner of an ox might be put to death. That’s the kind of discussion that keeps you on the edge of your pews.
So, we’ve been walking through Exodus, piece by piece. We talked about Passover, and how the children of Israel were told to set their leftover meat on fire before they left so that they would not be tempted to return to Egypt. We talked about God pushing aside the Red Sea so that the children could cross on dry land. We talked about bread falling from heaven, and about water gushing forth from a rock.
All of this, though, came about because Moses asked that his people be allowed to go worship their God in the desert, at Mt. Sinai. And here they are, gathered together in worship in the very place. This moment, where the people are gathered to receive the law of the God who has saved and sustained them – this moment is what they were waiting for.
And so I want you to know this, Friends, before you look at any other fiddly law. I want you to know how God’s holy law begins.
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.
That’s it. That’s our foundation. This is our It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. This is our I am an invisible man. This is our Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself. Freedom is our dark and stormy night.
This God who speaks all these words – do not commit adultery, do not forget the Sabbath, do not retain a slave whose eye has been ruined, do not plant different crops in the same field, do not round the corners of your beard, and so on and so on – is the God of deliverance. All these words are premised on I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.
Which is to say: these are not words that bind. These are not words that enslave. These are words that set free.
I picked examples from the law that are a bit more unfamiliar than the Ten Commandments themselves. Look at the particular examples that the worship leader read.
Now, I don’t intend to preach a word that would support the practice of slavery in any sense. Look at that passage though- in what world does a slave have the right to say “you hit me in the mouth, and a tooth fell out, so now I’m free”? The slaves who grow our coffee and chocolate do not live in so just a world. They would pray for a world in which they were so clearly treated as human beings!
And the next example is even better! Oxen are dangerous animals, sometimes. Anyone who has worked with them knows that. So, if you have one of the bad ones, and it gores someone, put it down. Problem solved. Keep that up, and you’ll eventually breed a race of oxen that won’t be likely to gore people.
But if you knew quite well that your ox liked to gore people, and you were negligent, because it was profitable to be negligent, then it’s your own life that’s on the line. If you knew it was dangerous, and you didn’t take the necessary steps to ensure the safety of your friends and neighbors, then the fault is entirely on you.
Can you imagine how much more seriously we would take an OSHA complaint about worker safety in the workplace, if we followed this Biblical law?
Christians, are we surprised by this? When Jesus summed up the law, it wasn’t about blind obedience. It was about love. Love the Lord, we heard it read, with all your passion and with all your prayer and with all your intelligence, and love others as well as you love yourself. That’s it. That’s the whole law.
This Law is all about love.
The deepest law is the law of love, Friends. Do you remember reducing equations, back in math class? The problem begins with a slew of numbers and variables, and as you slowly shift things back and forth across the equal sign, the equation simplifies until like a good vegetable stock, it contains all and only what it needs.
Love, Friends, is all and only what we need. Love is the reduction of the law. These rules- they are not the millstone that hangs around our necks. They are not a weight to bear, and they are not a gavel to bang at another person in need of love.
The people of God, where we are in Exodus, have followed this mysterious God of columns of fire and bread from the sky and water from a rock out into the desert to see just what it plans to do with them. Here they stand, kneeknocking scared, at the base of the mountain, discovering their fate.
What they get is pages and pages of rules, all of which boil down to the Beatles standing on the mountainside singing “Love Is All You Need.”
There’s the Gospel, Friends. These laws do not belong in a courthouse, as we know it, not because they are not important, but because these laws were not given to condemn. We do not have these laws so that we might criticize a fellow traveller.
We have these laws so that we all, together, might be set free. These laws teach we-who-have-left-Egypt how to live with our freedom. We have these laws to teach us how to love God with everything that is in us, and to love our neighbors as though they were our own souls.
Love the Lord your God. Love others as well as you love yourself. These are the pegs on which the world hangs.
Frankly, nothing else matters.