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The 10 Commandments - Trading Shame for Empathy

This Week’s Sacred Story comes from Deuteronomy 5:1-21; 6:4-9, in which God reminds the people how far they’ve come, and gives them 10 Best Ways (10 Commandments) for life together. But it all points to love and promise.

art by Jim LePage

art by Jim LePage

“The Lord OUR God made a covenant with US at Horeb. Not with our ancestors did the Lord make this covenant, but with US, who are all of us HERE alive today. The Lord spoke with YOU face to face.” It seems incredibly important to the writer to convey that these verses known to us as the Ten Commandments, sometimes referred to as part of “The Law,” are more than ancient artifacts of faith. Over and over, it is emphasized that this Covenant is made between US; it is present and active and not confined to long-gone history, not defunct. Neither are these Old Testament commands cancelled out because of New Testament Jesus. A “Testament” is just another word for Covenant after all, and so it flows (albeit in different ways) throughout the witness of scripture and time. Jesus said that the role of Christ was not to cancel but fulfill the Law. and so the author of this sacred story invites us in; reminds us that this story is not just back then, it is also now.

I wonder which of these commandments seems easiest for you to keep…

I wonder which of these commandments seems hardest for you to keep...

There are times I’ve kind of figured that the 6th commandment is like the free space in bingo. I can probably just go ahead and credit myself for obeying this one commandment because while I get the occasional flare-up of rage, I probably wouldn’t take it to a violent murderous extreme and actually murder someone. It seems relatively easy to obey. But before I prematurely pat myself on the back, I am reminded of what Martin Luther wrote about the commandments. When explaining what this commandment means, Luther writes that “We should fear and love God so that we do not hurt or harm our neighbor in their body, but help and support him in every physical need.” He articulates that our treatment of neighbor is an extension of our relationship with God. 

In the same breath that we are challenged to live into holy communion, we are first reminded of all the unearned generosity we have received. We are reminded that God has done far more than the bare minimum for us. We are created and called to be more than a bare minimum people - not only for our own sake, but for the sake of our neighbor and indeed all of creation. The commandments aren’t about us as much as they are about our relationships, empowering us to experience love, to give and receive love in community.  Luther understood this commandment to say that it’s not enough to just not murder, but to seek the well-being, wholeness, and livelihood of others.

As I recall that this sacred story is not just back then, it is also now...I am drawn to the words and ideas of Ibram Kendi, a black author and historian who proclaims that it’s not enough to simply not be racist, but that we must be anti-racist. The problem, he says with being “not racist” is that “it is a claim that signifies neutrality: ‘I am not a racist, but neither am I aggressively against racism.’ ”He adds: “One either allows racial inequities to persevere, as a racist, or confronts racial inequities, as an antiracist.” Perhaps this is what the 6th commandment sounds like in the United States in 2019. 

As I see my newsfeeds flooded primarily with accolades and awe for the brother of Botham Jean, a black man who was murdered while eating ice cream on the couch in his own home. Viral videos and commentators hail his young brother, Brandt, for speaking forgiveness and offering a hug to his family’s white murderer after her conviction and sentencing.  Meanwhile, there is little attention paid to the mother of the slain who does not rebuke the actions of her son and yet still cries out for unmet justice. Each response is valid and holy and complicated, but we are quick to uplift the one that best serves the status quo. I wonder if this is the 2019 incarnation of what it is to bear false witness against our neighbors, against our siblings of color who are not a monolith of experience that fits into a tidy rose-tinted headline, telling only the pieces of the narrative that we like or that don’t make us look or feel too bad. But we, especially white folks like myself, have an obligation to listen to the fullness of the pain and defiant hope which are often bound together in American blackness. To listen and not rebrand or correct the voices of oppression to better suit our liking. In a wider frame, perhaps this sacred command from back then, would also sound like not retweeting memes and articles that perpetuate false information or deny the dignity of another. 


Moses reminds the people of God’s commandments in a sort of “farewell sermon.”  These are the statutes and ordinances they must learn and observe. On one hand they certainly fit into the category of Law, obligation, duty, requirement.  And yet, they are something more. In Godly Play these 10 ordinances are called the 10 Best Ways. They offer a way of life that is more than a list of rules, it is also a gift - a token of love from God who promises to show steadfast love to the thousandth generation!  A god who doesn’t just say, “well, I got you out of Egypt, best of luck to you.” No! Instead, God says, “look at how far we’ve come together! Now we’re here, and this is how we’re all gonna continue on...together”

I want to read you a short section of chapter 6 that the lectionary skips over, but one that I think is crucial to our really getting this.  Here are verses 1 - 3 :

“Now this is the commandment—the statutes and the ordinances—that the Lord your God charged me to teach you to observe in the land that you are about to cross into and occupy, 2SO THAT you and your children and your children’s children may fear the Lord your God all the days of your life, and keep all his decrees and his commandments that I am commanding you, SO THAT your days may be long. 3Hear therefore, O Israel, and observe them diligently, SO THAT it may go well with you, and so that you may multiply greatly in a land flowing with milk and honey, as the Lord, the God of your ancestors, has promised you.”

Those three verses are crucial for our understanding this covenant of relationship, this law as gift, SO THAT now we can hear the last  few verses in their fullness:

Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone. 5You shall love theLORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. 6Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. 7Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise.8Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, 9and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

Yes, the commandments set expectations and call us to accountability….. and they do so in community, in relationship - they are all about cultivating relationships, relationships marked by respect and love, trust and thoughtfulness. When we start to look at it this way, this opens up a new way to view and understand law.  It’s not just rules and regulations, that we have to interpret as stringent, shaming. So what’s the opposite of shame? Brene Brown, a professor at U of H, says that the opposite of shame is empathy. Rather than judgment (which exacerbates shame), empathy conveys a simple acknowledgment, “You’re not alone.” Empathy is connection; it’s a ladder out of the shame spiral.The commandments are the structure that enables freedom, love, community.  SO THAT now we can see that this way of life as a beautiful gift - not as an impossible unattainable measuring stick, but an anchor that brings us back to our center, to the covenantal promise of what life in God is to be when all is set right.


Moses is addressing the next generation, and they’re being asked to take up the enduring saving story of God’s people.  And actually, this book of Deuteronomy is being written to generations later, living in exile, remembering the story and invited to take their place in this enduring story. The Word also addresses us, as we continue to share this sacred story now - in this place and time, among each other.  Despite the years between us, the sacred story continues. And so I wonder, what does it sound like today?

These commandments, this way of life, this relationship, this love - I don’t think it’s something we magically “get” because the preacher tells us so. It involves the community bearing them out over the years together.  It bears repeating - reminding each other of this covenant, of God’s love. We need to hear them again and again. We need to say them over and over. We learn them, know them, internalize them both by hearing them and by speaking them and by living them.  Teaching our children not only passes on the faith to another generation, but helps grown-ups articulate their own faith too. Between the busyness of meetings, deadlines, soccer practice and even the sometimes-exhaustive nature of relationship we need to hear of the gift of sabbath, of rest. As we’re inundated with ads that try and convince that we need one more thing to be happy and whole, we need the reminder that we are not reduced and resigned to the endless cycle of coveting.  Recite them when you are at home, and while you’re out and about; keep them in your heart wherever you go. When we know our story, God’s story, and we are able to consider our days in light of this story, we begin to see how the story grows larger - God’s promises extend farther, the tent grows wider, and the love given to us is far deeper and more profound, more transformative than we can recognize at the surface. Thanks be to God.

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