Let’s do a little exercise. Let’s see how long it takes us to name all the Ten Commandments. Starting now. (let the congregation call out the ten commandments). When I was in seminary, I would often eat lunch with the students of the rabbinical school next door and one day conversation turned to the Ten Commandments. I won’t lie, between the 7 of us it took close to 45 minutes to come up with all of the Ten Commandments. If anyone is going to be able to name them, it should have been the seven of us. It was a little embarrassing.
But this says something about all of us. As children, we learn the Ten Commandments and some of us even memorize them. But as we age and we spend less time thinking about those earliest of laws on human behavior, we begin to forget. They are not an everyday part of our lives, even though we unconsciously follow many of the rules and regulations and are at times too quick to point out when others have not followed these rules.
These laws are what many of our societal norms and rules are based on. Thou shall not murder, thou shall not bear false witness, thou shall not commit adultery, thou shall not steal, etc. We think of these rules and regulations particularly when someone has done wrong or crossed these lines and desire retribution and justice. Calvin Coolidge was fond of saying, “I sometimes wish that people would put a little more emphasis upon the observance of the law than they do upon its enforcement”. When I came across this quote this week, it struck me. That the laws of God are very rarely actually thought about outside of justice and punishment. What does it really mean to observe the law? In Hebrew tradition the laws are an expression of God’s character and will. Does this change our understanding of observing or honoring the law?
To observe and honor something, we need to determine the purpose of the words, whether those words are scriptures or rules and regulations. These laws were not meant just to restrict people. These laws reveal something about God. So listen to these passages again, listening for what is being said about God and humanity? (read passages again) The law is fundamentally about relationship; relations between person and person and person and God. They are about living with respect and peacefully with the world around you.
God gave us these laws not so we can focus upon their enforcement, though law enforcement is necessary. But rather he gave these laws to guide our hearts, to our guide our lives, so that we can live peacefully and happily with one another. So we can have help reining in the emotions that sometimes cause us to lose control; to maintain a meaningful life together.
This week we have been reminded yet again of the violence that this world is capable of with the shootings in Las Vegas. We are reminded that when we don’t have respect, love, and peace as the focus in life that hate prevails and violence brings an end to innocence. In the wake of all that tragedy, there will be tears, heartbreak, bitterness, and lives torn apart. God wrote these laws to bring such actions to an end. To help people live together, instead of allowing for the violence of humanity to take control. I fear that we have lost sight of the respect and love intended by God in our live as a society.
But how do we combat this? How do we remind people of the lessons hidden in the texts of the 10 commandments? Do we stand on the street corners calling out to all will listen? Do we stand in judgment of those who break the laws? We are called to think about how we each can best live into the love that is embodied in these rules. We are called to help others feel that love helping each individual to find direction in their lives. We are called to teach one another and to try to correct the environment of violence that seems to have taken hold in our world. We can lead by example.
So which of the Ten Commandments is the most important? I argue that it is the first one “You shall have no other gods before me”. For if we truly begin to place God in the position of respect, honor, and love that this commandment calls for then all the rest of the laws should more easily fall into place. If we can place God back into the number one spot reigning in our sometimes egocentric world then maybe we each will see that God’s only requirement on us is to care, to care with such passion that nothing else truly matters in life.
So I ask you to go forth into the world to meditate on what you think is truly important about the Ten Commandments? Can you speak to it and does it hold the proper place of focus and importance in your lives and in the lives of others? Is there more that we could each be doing to help bring about the peace that is inherently promised in these passages, the peace God is trying to get humanity to embrace? Then go forth and do the work that is needed to bring love alive in a world that is overrun with hate, fear, violence, and pain.
 Calvin Coolidge, 20th century president.
 Exodus 20:3, NRSV.
(Based on Exodus 20: 1-4, 7-9, 12-20)