Episcopalians and the Ten Commandments do not seem to be concepts that naturally belong together. I am reminded of a cartoon I saw of a church. The sign in front said, “The Lite [L-I-T-E] Church – five minute sermons, 45 minute services, and only eight commandments – your choice”. That’s the way many think of the Episcopal Church—heavy on pomp and ceremony but rather light on the commandments.
When I say “Episcopalian” what comes to your mind first? Sherry? Prep school? Trust fund? And yet there is a long and intimate association between Anglicans and the Ten Commandments. When Henry VIII’s son, Edward VI, came to the throne of England in 1547, he ordered that the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Ten Commandments should be painted on the walls of every church in his realm. We might question his interior decorating skills, but theologically he had it right. From the earliest days of the Christian church every newly baptized person was taught the creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Ten Commandments before they were taught anything else. Furthermore, from 1552 to 1979 every service of Holy Eucharist began either with a recitation of the Ten Commandments or with Jesus’ summary of them: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength, and your neighbor as yourself”.
Now when I say “Ten Commandments” what pops into your mind? People of my generation and older may well think of Cecil B. deMille or Charlton Heston, but more than likely when we think of the Ten Commandments we think of them as negative and restrictive. After all, eight out of ten are phrased in the negative, “thou shalt not” and only two are phrased positively. There is something in the very words “law” and “commandment” that gets our backs up. Do you know the story of the little girl who said, “Mother, when you say ‘You must’, I feel ‘I won’t’ all over”.
One of the first things we need to understand about the Ten Commandments is that most of them are phrased negatively for a good reason. It is impossible to legislate for every contingency. The commandments say “You shall not commit murder” rather than saying, “You shall protect and preserve human life by driving the speed limit, not polluting the atmosphere, using firearms carefully or not at all, wearing your seat belt...” and so on. The list would be endless. So by phrasing the commandments in the negative, God gives scope to human freedom. God trusts us to use our reason, guided by scripture and the church, to decide how to apply the commandments, for we encounter situations which the ancient Israelites could not have envisioned. And yet these ten ancient admonitions have guided humankind from an age of camels and caravans to an age of cloning and computers.
Another issue we face as we begin to consider the Ten Commandments is whether or not they are to be understood as absolutes which can never be set aside or modified. One of the most important Anglican theologians of the 20th century was Joseph Fletcher. Fletcher wrote the enormously popular and influential book Situation Ethics. His position is easily summarized: The only law that applies to followers of Jesus is the law of love: “Love God with all your being and love your neighbor as yourself”. We can know what to do in every situation simply by asking ourselves “What is the loving thing to do now?” There is a vast gulf between the Ten Commandments and Fletcher’s situation ethics. I think we can close or at least narrow the gap this way. The commandments are absolutes but some are more important than others. For example, it is more important to preserve life than to tell the truth, so we may lie if it is necessary to save a life. There is finally no conflict between the commandments and the law of love. The Ten Commandments are practical applications of the law of love.
The 16th century French Protestant leader John Calvin said that every negative commandment implies a positive. In other words, “Thou shalt not kill” implies that we are to cherish, nurture, and preserve life. “Thou shalt not steal” means that we are to respect the property of others. There is no doubt that he was right. The commandments lay down the minimum standards that are necessary for human life to flourish. The commandments establish a perimeter within which humans are free to be fully human. Daily we fail to do things that cherish and preserve life and fail to respect the property of others, but at a minimum we must not murder or steal or else a truly human life will be impossible.
The Ten Commandments begin not with a law but with a story: “I am the Lord your God who brought you up out of Egypt, out of the house of bondage...” From the very beginning this clears up a misunderstanding about the commandments. Notice that no punishments are attached to the commandments. The commandments say, “You shall not commit murder” but do not add, “or you will suffer the same fate”. There is no “or else” attached to the commandments. The commandments are given to us not as a precondition for pleasing God, much less as something we must do in order to be saved. The commandments begin with the announcement that God has already redeemed us, brought us up out of Egypt, delivered us from bondage. That is just as true for Christians as it was for Israel. You have been baptized, redeemed, named as God’s own; you are “forgiven, loved, and free”. The commandments are our response to God’s love and care not things we must do to merit God’s favor.
So, if the commandments are not requirements we must fulfill in order to be accepted, why should we pay any attention to them at all? The commandments are important because they are the conditions for living a fully human life. If we go through the commandments one by one, we find that each one establishes a condition that allows human life to flourish. For example, a fully human life is one that acknowledges the God who has created and redeemed us; honors the sacredness of other lives; and reverences the truth without which communication is impossible.
The commandments begin at the very beginning. “You shall have no other gods before me”. Acknowledge and honor the God who has created and redeemed us. Why is this important? Is it not possible to live a fully human life without acknowledging and honoring God? All of us know very fine people who are agnostics or even atheists, and sometimes their ethics and integrity put Christians to shame. Rabbi Harold Kushner said something wise about this: "...the difference between a person who relies only on himself and a person who has learned to turn to God for help... is not that one will do bad things while the other will do good things. The self-reliant atheist may be a fine, upstanding person. The difference is the atheist is like a bush growing in a desert. If he has only himself to rely on, when he exhausts his internal resources he runs the risk of running dry and withering. But the man or woman who turns to God is like a tree planted by a stream. What they share with the world is replenished from a source beyond themselves, so they never run dry."
In light of the opening words of the commandments, we may wonder how Israel could possibly give honor to any other gods. The Holy One had delivered them from slavery in Egypt, inflicted plagues and disasters upon their Egyptian masters, parted the Red Sea, and given them food and water in the wilderness. And yet at the first opportunity, they made a golden calf and worshiped it. Later, Israel’s rulers would set up the statues of pagan gods in the very Temple itself. And we are no different. In his sermon on the first commandment, the 16th century German Reformer Martin Luther says that “To whatever you give your heart and entrust your being, that, I say, is really your God.” (Luther’s Large Catechism, Samuel Janzow, trans., St. Louis: Concordia (1978), p. 13)
To what have we given our hearts? In what or in whom do we entrust our being? It has become commonplace to point out that all too often we worship financial success or professional achievement or physical pleasure rather than the God who redeemed us from bondage. Now if I were playing devil’s advocate I might point out that those who worship financial success and professional achievement are very often rewarded by their gods. They become rich, famous, and successful. But do we want to put our trust in wealth, success, and celebrity? Will they sustain us when the world comes crashing down around us (and eventually the world comes crashing down around all of us)?
The post 9/11 world makes the question more acute. On a beautiful morning in the very heart of American economic and political power, a small band of fanatics demonstrated that no amount of political or economic or military power can protect us. It is a lesson we should have known, a lesson as old as the Ten Commandments. “I am the Lord your God who brought you up out of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before me,” says the Holy One of Sinai. It is a word every age needs to hear, because daily the demigods of wealth, power, and pleasure invite us to worship at their altars and put our trust in them. But there is only One in whom we can entrust our being, the One who spoke long ago upon Sinai: “I am the Lord your God... you shall have no other gods before me”.
“You shall not make for yourself a graven image”. Look around you. Christianity is a religion rich in images. There is the cross, the dove, the eagle-shaped lectern we see in many Episcopal churches. There are these magnificent windows portraying Christ the Good Shepherd, his birth, and his death and resurrection. Even Judaism understood this commandment primarily in terms of not making any images of God. Jewish art is full of portrayals of Old Testament scenes and Jewish life. When Islam began to grow and spread in the seventh century, Muslims reacted against the images they saw in Christian churches and completely forbade the making of images of any human or animal.
How, then, do we reconcile the visual richness of Christian worship with the stark absoluteness of the second commandment? “you shall not make for yourself a graven image”.
First, we must distinguish between idol and icon. The second commandment is a prohibition of idols. The peoples of the ancient near east (and most other civilizations, for that matter) made idols of wood and gold, stone and precious jewels. These idols were (and are) thought to have power in and of themselves. An icon is quite different. An icon is an image that points beyond itself to a transcendent reality. The Eastern Orthodox churches have a far more sophisticated understanding of icons than we do. The icons in Orthodox churches are highly stylized, even distorted images. The eyes are larger than normal to show that the person portrayed in the icon is looking upon heavenly things. The Orthodox do not speak of painting icons but of writing them. They don’t merely look upon icons; they read them. An icon always tells a story, always refers beyond itself to heavenly realities.
Secondly, the Christian understanding of icons is founded upon our experience of God in Christ. Exodus tells us that when God spoke from Sinai the mountain was surrounded by thick clouds and smoke. Of course, this meant that God was too holy to look upon. Indeed, the Old Testament says that no one may look upon God and live. But the Christian faith tells us that in Christ God stepped out of the clouds for a brief period. As the New Testament says “we have seen...” [1 John] The invisible God of Sinai became visible in Jesus. While we must never confuse image with reality, the God who became flesh in Jesus is appropriately imaged in visual art. We worship a visible God, a God with a history. Christian art rightly portrays God’s history in scenes from the life of Jesus.
Finally, the commandment not to make any graven images reminds us that God cannot be contained or controlled. If we have an image of God (and this is as true of Christians as anyone else), there is the temptation to believe that we can make God do our bidding. God can neither be captured in an image nor harnessed to human purposes. The God of the Ten Commandments is radically free.
We ignore the commandments at our peril, not because God is ready to hurl thunderbolts at us if we step out of line, but because the Ten Commandments give us the outline of a fully human life.
Make no mistake: the Ten Commandments set the bar high and daily we fall short. Our hearts and lives are fragmented and we put our trust in many things besides God. But the God who spoke from Sinai still speaks, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you up out of Egypt, out of the house of bondage”. But even in our disobedience, God seeks us out, saying, “You are mine and I have redeemed you”.