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Thou Shalt Not

Watch the sermon here.


Exodus 20:12-21

I think it’s a shame what we’ve done to and with the Ten Commandments, particularly this half of them.  We took the archaic language of the King James Version with its “Thou shalt nots,” and we made it into the voice of God, like this: Thou shalt not!

We made God a bass, not a tenor, because it was more manly, and of course we assumed God is male because men have the power.  So we say “Thou shalt not” and that voice is supposed to represent God and those words are supposed to represent God and I don’t know about you, but if you tell me I “shalt not,” that is the very next thing I want to do!  For example, it never occurred to me to want to climb up into our steeple until Rich Armstrong told me I shouldn’t and now I want to.

I don’t know why we’ve turned God into a “thou shalt not” ruler.  I don’t know why we made God restrictive and prohibitive.  I mean, sure, it’s in the Bible. We didn’t just make it up.  But why is this the voice we gave to God?  Why didn’t we give God a grandma voice and use the simple translation of “Do not kill” and “Do not steal”?  Maybe because nobody listens to grandma.  Maybe because we know grandma won’t punish us. Maybe because we know our tendency to want to do what we’re told not to do, so a little yelling will surely make us afraid enough to obey.

It works with my son—sometimes.  I start with “Joshua, please stop that,” which sometimes works but often doesn’t.  Then it’s “Joshua, I said stop,” which sometimes works but not always.  “JOSHUA STOP!”  And out comes the yell because he didn’t listen when I asked nicely.  He knows the reprimand comes after the yelling. He knows I’m not likely to give consequences after he ignores the “please stop.”  We have trained each other, he and I.  I have inadvertently trained him, by not holding him accountable the first time that he doesn’t have to stop immediately.  And he has trained me, by not responding until I’m angry, that if I want him to obey, I should yell first.  It’s not healthy; it’s not good parenting; but it’s reality.  He listens more if I yell.

And then one evening he’s in the bathtub, and it has been a long day of “Joshua no!” and I rush to the yell and he looks at me and says, “Mama, you can’t yell at me for everything!”  And I almost cry because he’s right and I’m wrong and that thing about older parents having more patience is a lie and I know I don’t build the relationship I want with him or help him grow into the man I want him to be by yelling.   All I’m teaching him is that adults are allowed to yell at those smaller than them to make them do what we want.  And that is SO not the lesson I want to teach my son!

So is it any wonder that I read “Thou shalt not” and assume my heavenly parent is yelling?  The Israelites assumed it, too.  “The people shook with fear and stood at a distance. They said to Moses, ‘You speak to us, and we’ll listen.  But don’t let God speak to us, or we’ll die.’” They were afraid of the god of “Thou shalt not.”

“Thou shalt not” has come to be associated with the church as well.  Poet William Blake offered “a scathing critique of institutional religion”[1] in his poem “The Garden of Love.”

I went to the Garden of Love,

And saw what I never had seen:

A Chapel was built in the midst,

Where I used to play on the green.


And the gates of this Chapel were shut

And ‘Thou Shalt Not’ writ over the door . . .

And priests in black gowns, were walking their rounds,

And binding with briars, my joys and desires.


God and the church, the purveyors of “Thou shalt not.”  Which brings me to the question of how I’m supposed to preach on this text when it has some prohibitions that I know you have broken.  Adultery, for example.  Statistics alone tell me that some of you have had affairs in the past, and maybe even now.  How am I, as your pastor, supposed to encourage you to be faithful to your vows, to make choices that are healthy and honorable, without laying guilt on you?  I don’t know who needs to hear a call to accountability and who needs to hear forgiveness for a mistake they made years ago and have regretted every day since.  If I avoid the yelling Thou Shalt Nots, will you still hear me?  Do I skip that commandment altogether because it makes us all uncomfortable?

The others aren’t necessarily easier.  How do we honor our parents if they were horribly inadequate?  How do we keep from desiring our neighbor’s house if it comes with the hot tub and swimming pool we crave but can’t afford?  And of course we don’t steal cars or credit cards but does stealing someone’s joy count?  or their dignity?  I’m working myself into getting really nervous about these commandments, and the “thou shalt nots” are following me.

So I return to something I quoted at the end of my sermon last week, from Dr. Tom Long.  He said the Ten Commandments are “descriptions of the life that prevails in the zone of God’s liberation.  ‘Because the Lord is your God,’ the Decalogue affirms, ‘you are free not to need any other gods.  You are free to rest on the seventh day; free from the tyranny of lifeless idols; free from murder, stealing and covetousness….’  The Decalogue begins with the good news of what the liberating God has done and then describes the shape of the freedom that results.”[2]

It’s lovely, but how do the commandments give us freedom?  Another scholar says the commandments “Do not simply dictate an individual and private moralism.  Instead, they establish the basic fence-post issues that mark out a moral space within which the Israelites will live.”[3]  I think of it like a story I heard years ago about an inner city school on a busy street.  The playground didn’t have a fence around it, and the teachers were terrified that a student would chase a ball or another student out into the busy street.  So the teachers patrolled the edges of the playground, sending back any child who got remotely close.  Basically the children had to play in the center of the playground.  But then they got a fence, and suddenly they could play on the whole playground!  The fence kept them safe so they had more room.  Boundaries gave them freedom.

“The Ten Commandments are a gift to those who have been set free, showing them how they can keep their freedom.   They are not an assault course, a barrier to be overcome in order to gain freedom.  Freedom is a gift from God, not something that can be earned by years of striving.  The commandments are not a prison in which God places God’s people, a straitjacket to prevent them from getting above themselves.  God has done what Israel could not do for itself—given it freedom in the crossing of the Red Sea.  [God] now gives [the] people a second gift—the means of keeping that freedom.  In the process [God] shows them who [God] is and what freedom is. . .

The map searchings and heart searchings in the wilderness are all exploring what it means to be free….The conclusion is that to be free means to be a people who worship God.”[4]

So what if . . . we don’t have to be afraid of a deep booming voice of a God?  What if we don’t have to fear the Thou Shalt Nots?  What if our God is actually less like a tyrant and more like a grandmother?

Folk singer Holly Near has a powerful song called 1000 Grandmothers. It goes like this:

Send in a thousand grandmothers

They will surely volunteer

With their ancient wisdom flowing

They will lend a loving ear x2


First they’ll form a loving circle

Around the wounded wing

Then contain the brutal beasts of war

Sweet freedom songs they’ll sing x2


A lullaby much stronger

Than bombs and threats to kill

A force unlike we’ve ever seen

Will break the murder’s will x2


To the prisons we’ll invite them

The most violent men will weep

When a 1000 women hold them strong

And pray their souls to keep x2


Let them rock the few who steal the most

And rule with youthful charms

So they’ll see the damage that they do

And will fall into grandma’s arms

2000 loving arms


If you think these women are too soft

To face the world at hand

Then you’ve never known the power of love

And you fail to understand


An old woman holds a powerful force

When she no longer needs to please

She can cut your shallow life to bits

And bring you to your knees

We best get down on our knees


And pray for a thousand grandmothers

Will you please come volunteer

No longer tucked deep out of sight

Will you bring your power here

Will you bring your power here

We worship a grandma God, a grandpa God, a God more interested in relationship than retribution, a God who says “I know you’ve failed, and the path you’ve chosen breaks my heart, and I still love you with all my heart.  Come on home.  You’re free here.  There are cookies in the oven.”

[1] Amy Merrill Willis, “Between Moralism and Moral Vision.” Political Theology Today.

[2] https://www.christiancentury.org/article/2006-03/dancing-decalogue

[3] Willis.

[4] Wells, Samuel. “God Spoke These Words.” The Christian Century March 15, 2000.

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