Be careful to obey all these words that I command you today, so that it may go well with you and with your children after you forever, because you will be doing what is good and right in the sight of the Lord your God.
When the Lord your God has cut off before you the nations whom you are about to enter to dispossess them, when you have dispossessed them and live in their land, take care that you are not snared into imitating them, after they have been destroyed before you: do not inquire concerning their gods, saying, “How did these nations worship their gods? I also want to do the same.” You must not do the same for the Lord your God, because every abhorrent thing that the Lord hates they have done for their gods. They would even burn their sons and their daughters in the fire to their gods. You must diligently observe everything that I command you; do not add to it or take anything from it. (NRSV)
The old phrase “curiosity kills the cat” certainly applies to the ancient Israelites concerning the pagan nations that surrounded them. The book of Deuteronomy is a re-statement of the law for a new generation of God’s people poised to enter the Promised Land. The previous generation had experienced a failure of faith and completely died out over the course of a forty-year sojourn in the desert. But now their children were ready to enter the land and receive the promises of God.
There is the healthy curiosity of seeking to understand, and then there is a bad curiosity borne from discontentment. God knew the people would be curious, in all the negative sense of that word. Today’s Old Testament lesson is a clear warning to keep away from the practices of the nations which God was about to dispossess from the land.
Now, thousands of years removed from the Old Testament, we know the end of the story. The Israelites, although possessing a remnant of people faithful and devoted to God’s law, allowed their curiosity to get the best of them and ended up not following the Lord as they were commanded.
Before becoming a Christian over forty years ago, I did not live according to God’s commands or the way of Jesus Christ. Because of that reality, I have always found it “curious” that there are believers who wonder if they are missing out on something, having always been in the church. They may even adopt some cultural practices, like offering their children on the altar of wealth or sports, serving the idols of security, or getting ahead.
Spiritual F.O.M.O. (Fear of Missing Out) is likely to lead one down a damaging path. We must all have the wisdom to identify the healthy practices of our culture consistent with God’s Word, and the unhealthy curiosity to pursue endeavors uncritically without making sound godly decisions.
Ever-present God, you have given us your gracious and holy Word to know and live by. Strengthen our knowledge and faith so that we may serve you faithfully today and always through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Moses called out to all Israel, saying to them: “Israel! Listen to the regulations and the case laws that I’m recounting in your hearing right now. Learn them and carefully do them. The Lord our God made a covenant with us at Mount Horeb. The Lord didn’t make this covenant with our ancestors but with us—all of us who are here and alive right now. The Lord spoke with you face-to-face on the mountain from the very fire itself. At that time, I was standing between the Lord and you, declaring to you the Lord’s word, because you were terrified of the fire and didn’t go up on the mountain.”
The Lord said:
I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.
You must have no other gods before me. Do not make an idol for yourself—no form whatsoever—of anything in the sky above or on the earth below or in the waters under the earth. Do not bow down to them or worship them because I, the Lord your God, am a passionate God. I punish children for their parents’ sins—even to the third and fourth generations of those who hate me. But I am loyal and gracious to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.
Do not use the Lord your God’s name as if it were of no significance; the Lord won’t forgive anyone who uses his name that way.
Keep the Sabbath day and treat it as holy, exactly as the Lord your God commanded: Six days you may work and do all your tasks, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. Don’t do any work on it—not you, your sons or daughters, your male or female servants, your oxen or donkeys or any of your animals, or the immigrant who is living among you—so that your male and female servants can rest just like you. Remember that you were a slave in Egypt, but the Lord your God brought you out of there with a strong hand and an outstretched arm. That’s why the Lord your God commands you to keep the Sabbath day.
Honor your father and your mother, exactly as the Lord your God requires, so that your life will be long and so that things will go well for you on the fertile land that the Lord your God is giving you.
Do not kill.
Do not commit adultery.
Do not steal.
Do not testify falsely against your neighbor.
Do not desire and try to take your neighbor’s wife.
Do not crave your neighbor’s house, field, male or female servant, ox, donkey, or anything else that belongs to your neighbor. (CEB)
Whenever I take my wife’s pooch to our local spacious dog park, he knows he will need to stick to just a few of my basic rules. Although he doesn’t need the leash and is free to roam, he understands not to bark at people or approach them and other dogs without my permission. Those few simple rules are for both his well-being, and others.
We as people are free to live our lives as creatures in God’s image. The Lord has just a few basic rules for us to live by to honor both divinity and humanity, as well as to protect others and ourselves. Most folks know them as “The Ten Commandments.”
The Ten Commandments (The Decalogue or The Ten Words) were given to the ancient Israelites nearly 3,500 years ago. These words have stood the test of time and continue to be understood as a universal standard of morality and relational interactions.
There are hundreds of commands in Holy Scripture – approximately 613 in the Old Testament, and 437 in the New Testament – a whopping 1,050 total commands throughout the entirety of the Bible. So, what, then, makes these Ten so special? Why do we stick to The Ten Words?
The reason The Ten Commandments have endured and continue to be learned, spoken, and adhered is that they are foundational commands. Following the Ten Words in the Old Testament are a string of specific commands from God to Moses and then to the people (Exodus 21-23 and Deuteronomy 6-26). Those commands are all a fleshing-out of how to live the basic Decalogue in the Israelites’ context of entering and being in the Promised Land.
In short, every single command of Holy Scripture can be ethically and morally tied back to The Ten Commandments in some way. Whereas many Old Testament laws were given to the Israelites in their ancient Middle Eastern socio-economic culture, The Decalogue was designed to be universal and flexible for every culture and society everywhere, for any time, and every generation.
Therefore, we need to distinguish between The Law (capital “L”) and the law (little “l”). God’s fundamental and foundational ethical Law has always existed and continues to exist – and it is encapsulated in ten short and simple commands which everyone everywhere can obey, whether they are at their jobs, at home, church, or out having fun.
In fact, these ten basic commands are so important that Jesus restated them for us in his Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). Christ got down to the heart of the commands and let everyone know what it truly means to hold, keep, and obey The Ten Words. For example, Jesus said concerning the seventh command:
“You have heard that it was said to our people long ago, ‘You must not murder anyone. Anyone who murders another will be judged.’ But I tell you, if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be judged. If you say bad things to a brother or sister, you will be judged by the council. And if you call someone a fool, you will be in danger of the fire of hell” (Matthew 5:21-22, NCV).
It had become easy over the centuries for people to think everything was jim-dandy if they didn’t physically kill anyone. Yet, Jesus knew that well before any person is murdered by another that anger has been nursed through bitter grudges toward another.
The Ten Words are the very heart of God’s desire for all humanity, and this is precisely why it is important to know and obey them in their full intent. They contain how to relate to God (Commands 1-4); and, how to relate to one another (Commands 5-10). Jesus would later say, in response to what is the greatest command of all:
“Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind. This is the first and most important command. And the second command is like the first: ‘Love your neighbor as you love yourself. All the law and the writings of the prophets depend on these two commands.” (Matthew 22:36-40, NCV)
Question and answer 115 of the Heidelberg Catechism, a Confession of Faith crafted by Protestant Reformers in the sixteenth century, addresses a significant issue:
Question: Since no one in this life can obey the Ten Commandments perfectly, why does God want them preached so pointedly? Answer: First, so that the longer we live the more we may come to know our sinfulness and the more eagerly look to Christ for forgiveness of sins and righteousness.
Second, so that we may never stop striving, and never stop praying to God for the grace of the Holy Spirit, to be renewed more and more after God’s image, until after this life we reach our goal: perfection.
When all is said and done, grace will have the last word. Yes, none of us will ever perfectly live-out and embody The Ten Words in their entirety all the time. Yet, the grace of God in Jesus Christ does for us what we cannot do for ourselves: deliver us from the realm of sin, death, and hell.
Stuff happens. We often fail to live-into the ways of God for our lives through The Decalogue. However, God, always the hound of heaven, will track us down and mercifully redeem us.
So, embrace The Ten Words. Know them, memorize them, and understand them. Post them on the wall of your office or in your house. Most of all, seek to practice them, obey them, and embody them so that you can enjoy all the freedom of God’s big world.
And you just gotta love it that Johnny Cash once sang about them…
“The king must not acquire great numbers of horses for himself or make the people return to Egypt to get more of them, for the Lord has told you, ‘You are not to go back that way again.’ He must not take many wives, or his heart will be led astray. He must not accumulate large amounts of silver and gold. When he takes the throne of his kingdom, he is to write for himself on a scroll a copy of this law, taken from that of the Levitical priests. It is to be with him, and he is to read it all the days of his life so that he may learn to revere the Lord his God and follow carefully all the words of this law and these decrees and not consider himself better than his fellow Israelites and turn from the law to the right or to the left. Then he and his descendants will reign a long time over his kingdom in Israel.” (Deuteronomy 17:14-20, NIV)
King Solomon was wildly successful. He expanded the kingdom of Israel in every way: more land; more gold; more buildings; more wealth; more wisdom; big temple; big family; more and big of everything. We do not have an account that anyone called out Solomon on his big expansive government and lifestyle.
Methinks the reason for letting King Solomon go unchecked was that he was surrounded by people who enjoyed and participated in his success. Even though he was often operating well outside of the Deuteronomic law which was right there in black and white, Solomon’s subjects only saw that he established peace, security, and a high standard of living for the nation. Solomon acquired a massive amount of horses, wives, gold, and everything the law warned against.
Solomon was very humble and wise at the beginning of his reign. He did everything his father David asked of him, and more. But his wild success as king gradually brought Solomon to acquire more stuff, more wives, and to fudge on the responsibilities and requirements of the king. Solomon established an Empire and denied himself nothing when it came to the perks of power.
There is always a dark underbelly to the outward display of power, success, and wealth. As time goes on, the Empire becomes a god and people begin supporting the system instead of the Deity who makes it all possible to begin with. Pride replaces humility. Foolish ignoring of evidence becomes the norm. Optics arises as supreme. Solomon basically enslaved a large swath of Israel’s population to get things done in the Empire. His success was on the backs of a lower class of people. But, hey, who cares, as-long-as there is no war, the borders are secure, and the nation’s coffers are getting filled beyond anybody’s wildest expectations?
When the Empire becomes supreme and brings in the money, no one questions the leader. Yes, I understand all of this happened thousands of years ago. However, even though times change, people don’t.
It doesn’t matter the context of the Empire’s power; if it exists, it operates eerily the same. Whether it’s Bill Hybels as the leader of a wildly successful megachurch; Urban Meyer as the leader of a crazy successful football program at Ohio State; or, any government leader overseeing immense wealth; the same ignoring of evidence among constituents, congregants, citizens, and fans exists. In other words, people tend to look the other way when things are going well. Whereas the leader may have once started out as wise and humble, the eventual wild success changes them.
But things are never really going that well. The dark underbelly hides realities of sexual abuse, domestic abuse, and all kinds of other abuses all in the name of maintaining the success, that is, the Empire.
Show me a wildly successful leader of an Empire, no matter what that Empire is, and I’ll show you an entire coterie of sycophants who continually look to cash-in on that success through recognition, power, and money. In the case of Hybel’s context, Willowcreek Community Church, the elder board (eventually) did the right thing in resigning – once they got clear-headed enough to see that they were complicit. Ohio State still seems to have their collective heads in the sand – not seeing the situation for what it is. Meanwhile, abuse is not squarely dealt with because the system of Empire churns along with impunity. Unquestioning support of a human leader, whether it is in sports, in church, in government, or in a business corporation because the Empire has such incredible success is a recipe for disaster. People will get hurt and abused; and, the victims will have no one to believe them on the inside. Too many other folks are benefiting from the Empire. They don’t want to see the dark underbelly.
Personally, I always come back to Jesus. He is the ultimate example. The Lord Jesus was humble, meek, gentle, loving, and always used his emotions and abilities toward the ends of healing others, not hurting them. Jesus did not build an Empire. Yes, I understand an argument could be made that the Church is an Empire (and it did exist as one in Medieval Europe). Yet, Jesus Christ purposely and deliberately eschewed Empire. He often told people to keep quiet about his good deeds of healing so that the seeds of Empire could not even germinate.
What’s more, Jesus did not surround himself with sycophants. He chose the most motley crew of people one could imagine. Christ’s original twelve disciples were such an unknown and diverse bunch of rag-tag Jewish men that nobody could mistake them as Empire building guys. They were about a movement, not an Empire. They were concerned for the kingdom of God, not the kingdom of their own making.
The people we surround ourselves with, no matter whether we’re high mucky-muck leaders or lower-class invisible persons, or anyone in-between, is vitally important. We all need loving persons around us who will tell us what we need to hear in a spirit of love and grace. Speaking the truth in love is not optional equipment for any of us. None of us do well with success unless we have humble and wise persons close to us who have the gumption and the grace to speak into our lives to help us, not hurt us. When we don’t have that, things go sideways in a hurry.
If a guy like King Solomon, who was the wisest person who ever lived, can ignore his own nation’s God and Holy Scripture to get whatever he wanted, then how much more do we, who have less wisdom, need the grace of loving people speaking truth to our hearts?
Exposing the dark underbelly of Empire will always be fraught with the risk of people not believing and, worse, not caring. That’s why the Christian New Testament liberally uses the word “light” to describe what kind of people we are to be. Just as Jesus is the Light of the World, shining himself into all the dark and shadowy places of our lives and the systems of this world, so his followers are to be his flashlights, shining in such a way that is righteously persistent and gracious.
It isn’t our job to build a great Christian Empire to ensure prayer in public schools, the Ten Commandments in every courthouse, and manger scenes everywhere at Christmas. Rather, it is our responsibility and privilege to fully embrace the status of poverty of spirit; grief, lament, and mournfulness over the sin of the world’s Empires; meekness toward others; hunger for right relationships; mercy for all; pure relations with everyone; and, peacemakers who shepherd people to the green pastures of forgiveness and harmony with God and humanity.
Today we all have the opportunity to build something greater than ourselves – a legacy which invites accountability, openness, and vulnerability which blesses the world and doesn’t seek its accolades. It’s not always how you start; its often what motivates you and how you end that matters most. Just ask Citizen Kane.
So, may you know the grace of caring relationships; the mercy of hearing hard things; the joy of being above board in everything you say and do; and, the humility to admit when you’ve gone off the rails.