“So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred and fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn.” —John 21:11
ve been preaching for 30 years, and I’ve never preached a sermon series on The Ten Commandments, so I thought I’d better get around to it before they take my ordination away.
But there’s a better reason to preach a sermon series on The Ten Commandments. Does it seem as if individuals and institutions in our contemporary world are a bit unmoored or adrift these days? Up for grabs?
I’m thinking of Volkswagen’s cheating engineers, and Mylan’s overpriced epi-pens and double-talking CEO, and World Soccer’s for-sale officials, and Russia’s doped-up Olympians, and the mud-path of Brazilian politics, and two presidential candidates most Americans distrust.
You’re tempted to think it’s worse today than it ever was. It’s probably not. Human beings and their institutions have always been ignoring The Ten Commandments. Every generation thinks it’s the worse that has ever been.
Maybe you’ve heard the story of the faithful parish pastor who was retiring from his church after a successful 15-year ministry. After his last sermon the whole congregation paraded past to shake his hand and thank him for his service and wish him well in whatever was next. Many of them were in tears, including ancient Mrs. Barnstable. “Oh, Reverend MacKenzie, I’m going to miss you so much. Whatever will we do without you?”
And the pastor said, “Oh, Mary, you needn’t worry; my successor will shepherd this flock at least as well as I did.” And Mrs. Barnstable says, “Oh no, he won’t, Reverend; I’m sure of it.” “And how can you be so sure that the next pastor won’t be wonderful, Mary?” asked the pastor. And Mary says, “Because, Reverend, I’ve been here for 50 years through four different ministers, and each one has been worse than the last.”
For some reason, we love to spin narratives of decline. We are seduced by the siren song of nostalgia, but nostalgia is a mistake and a lie. We are no worse than those who have gone before.
Still, we need The Ten Commandments, at least as much as the generations which have gone before these last 3,000 years. A couple of fascinating things about them that you might not have noticed before. Well, they’re fascinating to me; perhaps they will be of at least mild interest to you.
First of all, notice how integral The Ten Commandments are to the history of God with God’s people. There are no more important words than these in the Hebrew Bible. Notice how the passage begins: “Then God spoke all these words.” Straight to the people. From God’s mouth to Israel’s ears, the only time in the Hebrew Bible where God speaks to God’s people without a spokesman, without an agent, without a PR point person, without a press secretary like Jay Carney.
The people are so terrified to hear God’s very voice that they beg Moses never to have to hear it again, and Moses capitulates; the Hebrews themselves will never hear God’s voice again directly. For all those smaller, more specific instructions that are to follow in the Hebrew Bible, God will speak them to Moses, and Moses will then deliver them to the people. These Big Ten, though, God wants to speak to God’s people Godself.
And the importance of The Ten Commandments is reinforced when Exodus tells us that those truths are etched in stone. They are lasting. They are permanent. They will never go away. We are still paying attention to them 3,000 years later. This is the origin of the cliché: ‘etched in stone’ means it is durable, it is lasting, it is immutable.
Every other medium is ephemeral. Paper crumbles, cloth disintegrates, plastic rots. I have this wonderful sprawling library of Books on Tape; I can’t use it, because I can’t find a cassette player. If you had some crucial information on a floppy disk from the 80’s, you’d be up a creek without a paddle because nothing reads those quaint things anymore. Soon Compact Discs will be obsolete, and in a thousand or maybe a hundred years, future generations will be unable to decipher all the information we’ve so painstakingly compiled on contemporary computers and devices unless they translate it into some new, comprehensible medium. But stone, stone lasts nearly forever. This must be important.
Secondly, it’s important, as far as Kenilworth Union Church is concerned, to note that The Ten Commandments are binary, or duplex. Every image of The Ten Commandments you’ve ever seen, including Cecille B. Demille’s, shows two solid, arched, etched tablets of stone. I’ve abbreviated and modernized them for you in your bulletins.
The first tablet instructs us on how to behave toward God, and the second tablet instructs us how to behave toward each other. There’s a God Tablet, and a Neighbor Tablet. If nothing else, the Ten Commandments are shapely in their symmetry and admirable in their brevity, and as if they weren’t already lean enough in Moses’ original version, Jesus, in his famously terse précis, reduces them to a tiny but powerful distillation: Love God above all, and your neighbor as yourself. All Ten Commandments in nine words. It’s beautiful!
And this is important especially for us at Kenilworth Union is concerned because that is our congregation’s Mission Statement, right? As if you didn’t know! You’re probably sick to death of hearing it. To her eternal credit, Katie will take any and every feeble excuse to repeat it to you yet again. Love God above all and your neighbor yourself, Love God above all, and your neighbor as yourself, Love God above all, and your neighbor… We’re going to drill it into you.
That’s Jesus’ summary of The Ten Commandments. It’s simple and it’s shapely. The God Tablet is the vertical dimension of life; The Neighbor Tablet is the horizontal dimension of life. If you ever forget, just look at a Christian Cross, and you’ll see it there. Vertical Post: to God and Heaven. Horizontal Beam: to earth and neighbor.
Here’s another fun thing to notice about The Ten Commandments: only 2½ of the ten have become part of the legal code. With the other 7½, if you transgress them, it’s not illegal; you can’t break the law.
This is our most fundamental, enduring ethical code, and almost none of it gets repeated in our civil laws. But here’s something to think about while you’re figuring out which 2½ are part of our legal code: shouldn’t the seventh commandment be part of our legal code? Why is it okay, or at least not against the law, to shatter a civil and religious covenant? Good question: discuss amongst yourselves. At coffee hour, not now.
Here’s something else very important about The Ten Commandments: ‘Commandments’ is probably not the best way to talk about them. Do you know what the Greek Bible calls The Ten Commandments? It’s ‘The Ten Words.’ That’s why you’ll often hear Bible students referring to this material as The Decalogue, which in Greek is literally, ‘The Ten Words,’ for deka–which is ten, as in ‘decade’–and logos, which is ‘word,’ as in ‘Captain’s Log, Star Date 4317,’ Captain’s Word; logos as in bioLOGY or psychoLOGY: The Ten Words, or The Ten Instructions, or, as Hector Barbossa might put it in Pirates of the Caribbean: the code is not really RULES; it’s more like ‘GUIDELINES.’
Some of you, kids and parents will know that our Sunday School curriculum refers to the Decalogue as ‘The Ten Best Ways,’ and I love the way that language reframes our understanding of the Decalogue. They’re not restrictions, they’re gifts.
Sometimes you hear people say, “I don’t like religion because it’s too constricting, it’s too binding, it’s too suffocating, all those negatives, all those ‘Thou Shalt Not’s’.” And they’ve got a point: on first reading the Decalogue can seem a little negative; eight of the ten words are ‘Not’s’ or ‘Don’t’s’ or Negatives.
But when you stop to think about it, The Decalogue is not constricting, but liberating. What God is saying from the smoke and fire and thunder and trembling on Mount Sinai is “You are my children; I want you to flourish. Here’s how. These are The Ten Best Ways.”
It’s so spare; it’s so small; it’s so lean. There is a vast, sprawling panoply of human endeavor and behavior and activity and relationship and pleasure that is unremarked upon. Except for these ten things, we get to make up the rest on our own.
The origin and destiny of the Decalogue is not restriction but liberation, not narrowness but spaciousness, not confinement but freedom.
Did you notice how God introduces Godself at the beginning of The Ten Best Ways? God says, “I am the Lord your God who brought you up out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” That is God’s singular and most prominent self-identification in the Hebrew Scriptures: I am God the Freedom Fighter, I am God the Chain-Breaker, I am the God who is always on the side of the Slaves, not the Taskmaster. Not God the Creator, but God the Liberator. Not the God who gives you life, but the God makes you free.
Freedom is both origin and destiny for the Decalogue. The Ten Best Ways both come from and lead toward freedom. “I am the Lord your God,” cries Yahweh from the smoke and thunder of Mount Sinai, “I am the Lord your God who brought you up out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You were slaves mixing straw with mud to build Pharaoh’s pyramids and palaces. Now you are free. Will you follow me as free men and women? Here’s how to flourish in freedom. Here are The Ten Best Ways.”
The Ten Best Ways are—choose your metaphor: the solid yellow lines on the state highway that tell you where it is safe to drive; the buoys marking the shipping lanes so that you do not wreck your vessel on the shoals of error; the handrails on a swaying rope bridge over the dangerous gorge of life; the painted lines on the gym floor telling you what is out of bounds. Without them, life is impossible.
You see how these guides lead to freedom rather than to constriction? If we were all free to drive in any lane we felt like it on I-94, and all of us made use of that choice, that would not feel like freedom, would it? That would just be chaos and mortality.
You can always tell when a life is shaped by God’s Ways. On September 11, 2001, the offices of the investment bank Sandler O’Neill were on the 104th floor of the South Tower at the World Trade Center. On that morning, 83 of Sandler O’Neill’s 171 employees were in their offices when the plane hit; 17 made it out; 66 were killed.
Jimmy Dunne was one of the Managing Partners who survived 9/11; he is obsessed with golf; he has a 1-Handicap and some years plays 200 rounds of golf; he was playing in Westchester County when his firm was devastated by the terror attack.
If you ever met Jimmy Dunne, you would see instantly that he is an intense Irish Catholic from Long Island with an explosive temper and a quick laugh; he’s not an easy guy to work for.
In the 48 hours after the attacks, Jimmy Dunne and the other surviving managing partners had two decisions to make: do we stay in business? And how do we take care of the families left behind?
The answer to the second question determined the answer to the first question. There were 100 parents who lost their children; 46 widows and widowers; 71 children who lost a parent. Someone had to take care of them. So, that’s why they stayed in business: to take care of those families left behind.
When the Stock Exchange opened six days after 9/11, Sandler O’Neill was making trades from borrowed offices, and borrowed computers, and borrowed phones.
Sandler O’Neill paid the salaries and bonuses of the lost through the end of the year as if they were still working there, and they made sure that the bonuses were equivalent to the employee’s best year.
They continued benefits to the families for the next five years; in 2006, when that terminus was reached, they continued the benefits for three more. Post-9/11, one-third of Sandler O’Neill’s capital went to the families of victims.
And this is why, says Jimmy Dunne: “In twenty years, my kid will be working at a bank, or going to law school, or teaching, or doing something somewhere. And my son is going to meet another young person in the training program, or in the classroom, or at this bank, and they’re going to get to talking, and they’re going to find out that they’re both from the New York area, and then my son will say, ‘My father worked on Wall Street,’ and the other kid is going to say, ‘So did my dad. Where did your dad work?’ And my son is going to say, ‘My Dad worked for Sandler O’Neill.’ And the other kid is going to say, ‘My father worked there too, and he was killed on 9/11.’
“Okay? Now what that kid says to my son, that will be the definition of how we’ve done. That’s it, and what we’ve gotta think about is, what do we want that child to tell our kids? ‘Cause that’s all that matters. We didn’t ask for it, we didn’t look for it, we surely never dreamed we’d be in the middle of it, but we are squarely in the middle. Now what we’re going to do, is every decision we make is going to be based on that.”
It’s the strangest thing: when you feel constrained by these guidelines, when you feel obligated by a voice from the mountain to do the right thing, and only the right thing, and nothing else, it’s the strangest thing. Living with these constraints, you will feel more free and live more fully than you ever dared to dream.
I probably owe this story to one of my fellow preachers, but I cannot remember to whom I am obligated. My apologies to the original author.
Chris Hedges pointed this out in Losing Moses on the Freeway (NewYork: Free Press, 2005), 1.
David Miller, “A Conversation with Jimmy Dunne: A Catholic Perspective on Ethics in the Executive Suite, Senior Managing Partner, Sandler O’Neill,” Faith & Work Initiative, McCormick Hall, Princeton University, recorded March 30, 2011.