In a recent sermon on the Ten Commandments our pastor stated that “Rules without relationship equals rebellion.” Without a relationship with God, we lose sight of the reasons why the Commandments are important. We fight against them and find ourselves in revolt. When we are out of relationship with God and our fellow man, the Ten Commandments appear to be very strict and confining. This is part of the reason why there has been so much flack over the Ten Commandments being displayed in courtrooms and other places. But when we are in relationship with God and with each other, it is a different story. We find them freeing and helpful. They describe how we are to live with each other within a community.
A look at the life and times in which God gave the Ten Commandments is instructive. The ancient world was in chaos. Civilization after civilization was collapsing, never to rise again. This collapse occurred over a large portion of the eastern Mediterranean world. The civilizations of modern day Cyprus and Crete were destroyed. So also were those in Greece, Bulgaria and Turkey. Along the coast, the civilizations of Syria, Palestine, and Egypt fell, as did those of Jordan and Iraq. Society after society was swept away. Life for the inhabitants of the region had become totally unpredictable.
It was in the midst of this calamity and chaos that God stepped in and gave his covenant, including the Ten Commandments. The Commandments talk first of all about what should characterize one’s relationship with God. He is the only one to whom we are to give allegiance. They go on to describe what things should characterize our lives in the midst of community. They describe how our relationship with God should be carried out in everyday life. We are to honor our parents, and avoid things like murder, stealing, lying, adultery and covetousness. For a society that followed these commandments life became more predictable again. In the midst of the chaos that was going on all around them they knew what to expect from their neighbor. If Sally had a relationship with God that told her how to live her life, and Joe had a similar relationship with the same God, both Joe and Sally had a pretty good idea of what to expect from each other. Therefore the Ten Commandments became a rallying point for a community experiencing a world of uncertainty, violence and chaos.
Ernst Lange, in his book Ten Great Freedoms says concerning the Ten Commandments, “But all begin “I, God, and you man, now we belong together. And if we are to remain together, then your life will look like this: You will have no other gods. You will honor my name. You will not run yourself to death. And you will live as a person in your family.” He goes on to speak of how following the commandments frees us from becoming enslaved to passions, vices and consuming desires. He notes that when we seek power, money, sex or status we become enslaved to them. When we constantly seek uninterrupted work or pleasure we lose the joy of life. Constant revolt against authority can be as enslaving as is slavish obedience. Continually treating others as competitors, seeking self gratification, practicing deception and envying others also destroys the joy of life and enslaves us to these passions.
Today we live in a world which has again become very unpredictable. Terrorism, corporate greed, and the breakdown of family and community are all around us. Perhaps we need the Ten Commandments again to teach us how to live. But it begins with each one of us. We must ask, “Am I enslaved by my passions and vices or have I been freed by the Commandments to truly live in community again”?