The lectionary text for this week is Exodus 20:1-20, which is the entirety of what we call the Ten Commandments, also called the Decalogue. But I’m not going to try to preach on all ten today so I’m only going to read the first few verses, from the Common English Bible translation.
Then God spoke all these words:
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.
If you haven’t studied the Ten Commandments, you might think they are pretty straight forward. They are commandments. There are ten of them. What else do you need to know?
Well, for starters, there are two versions of the Ten Commandments—one in Exodus and one in Deuteronomy—and there are slight differences between them. More significantly, there are three different numbering systems. Different faiths and denominations don’t agree on how they are numbered. So there is the Jewish way; the Orthodox, Catholic, and Lutheran way; and the Reformed, Anglican, and other Protestant way.
The first difference is right at the beginning. Most Protestants say that the first commandment is “You shall have no other gods before me.” Catholics and Lutherans say the first commandment also includes the next line: “You shall have no other gods before me [and] you shall not make for yourself an idol.” But in Judaism, the first commandment is this: I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.
Now, you might be thinking, “How is that a commandment?” And I’m sure that was the thought of the Christians who numbered them. But the scripture doesn’t actually say “Then God spoke these commandments.” It says “Then God spoke these words.” But whether we count that statement as the first “commandment” or whether we count those words as the prelude to the list, either way it’s important to remember that we start with relationship—I am the Lord your God. “The Ten Commandments do not begin with a command, but with a claim.” I am the Lord YOUR God.
You may remember the culture wars around the Ten Commandments and Roy Moore, then Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Alabama. In 2001 he had a monument made out of marble that was 3 feet wide, 3 feet deep, and 4 feet high. On the top were two tablets bearing the words of the Ten Commandments. After several court battles he was ordered to remove the monument, and he was also removed from the court for the second time. Then Judge Moore began having the monument loaded onto a flatbed truck and hauled around to public gatherings. Joshua Green, writing in the Atlantic Monthly, notes that whenever the truck returns to Alabama, “a 57-foot yellow I-beam crane that spans the ceiling of the Clark Memorials warehouse drops down to retrieve the Rock from its chariot, and even this one—a five-ton crane!—buckles visibly under the weight.”
One of my favorite preachers writes: “I know that Jesus once scolded the Pharisees for neglecting the weightier matters of the law, but somehow this I-beam-bending version of the Decalogue seems way out of proportion. In the popular religious consciousness, the Ten Commandments have somehow become burdens, weights and heavy obligations. For many, the commandments are encumbrances placed on personal behavior. Most people cannot name all ten, but they are persuaded that at the center of each one is a finger-wagging “thou shalt not.” For others, the commandments are heavy yokes to be publicly placed on the necks of a rebellious society. For such an understanding of the Decalogue, a two-and-a-half-ton rock sitting on the bed of a truck is a perfect symbol….
Understanding the Decalogue as a set of burdens overlooks something essential, namely that they are prefaced not by an order—“Here are ten rules. Obey them!”— but instead by a breathtaking announcement of freedom:
I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.
We will probably always refer to the declarations as the “Ten Commandments,” but we can also think of them as 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 as ways to establish yourself in the land.’ The Decalogue begins with the good news of what the liberating God has done and then describes the shape of the freedom that results….The commandments are not weights, but wings that enable our hearts to catch the wind of God’s Spirit and to soar.”
So it starts with relationship, grounded in freedom, and only then are any requests or expectations stated.
Don’t have any gods before me.
Don’t make any idols.
Don’t bow down to anything or worship anything other than me.
But of course we do it time and time again.
We worship at the altar of our own desires.
We bow down to expectations and perfectionism.
We make idols of money, power, fame.
But you know what? Those are the obvious ones. Those are the ones you could have named off the tops of your heads. What other things do we put before God? What else do we worship?
Scholar Terence E. Fretheim points out: “Less well remembered is that idolatry includes the language one uses to speak of God. Might the problem of idolatry for us often be verbal images? Our ideas about God and the verbal images we use for God can be idolatrous; they often have as high a standing in our thinking/speaking about God as does God [him/her/theirselves]. Or, we can reduce God to a set of fixed propositions and make God into a settled, unchanging God. Is that not to break the first commandment? And negatively affect the way in which the other commandments are kept?” In other words, our ideas about God can be idols.
So can the Bible. Before I read scripture we typically have the Prayer for Illumination, asking God to help us listen. But in some churches people are asked to raise their Bibles and quote a pledge of allegiance to the Bible. I’ll admit that scares me a little because although I love and revere our scriptures, my allegiance is not to a book. We can make even a book an idol.
We can make anything an idol. When we make the flag itself more important than what it represents, we have turned the flag into an idol. When we insist that everybody talk nicely instead of everybody speak their truth, we can make politeness an idol. When we insist on our political views even though they are NOT consistent with Christ’s teachings, we have turned our political views into an idol. When we insist that our country comes first, when we give into nationalism instead of patriotism, we have made our country our idol.
When I started seminary umpteen years ago, the school suggested that all first year students begin with OT501: Interpretation of the Old Testament. My professor was the nationally esteemed Carol Newsom. Since the class met at 8 a.m. she knew on the first day of the semester that many of the students were sitting in their first seminary level class. It was a United Methodist school, but we had students from many different denominations; and this was the South. And so on the first day of class she said, “When you left home to come to seminary, some of you may have been told by people in your home church: ‘Don’t let them steal your faith. Don’t let all the book learning shatter your faith in God.’” I looked around and saw some of those good old southern boys nodding their heads. Dr. Newsom said, “I’m here to tell you: if it shatters, it’s an idol.” It was quite the way to start wrestling with our own beliefs, quite the start to what would become for many of us a dismantling of everything we believe and starting again from the ground up.
If it shatters, it’s an idol. Sometimes we have to let things shatter. Sometimes we have to let things break open. Only then can we worship the Lord our God, who brought us out of slavery. Only then can we unite at the table of communion with people around the world.
God claimed us. God freed us. Come, let us worship our one true God.
 Thomas G. Long, “Dancing the Decalogue.” The Christian Century March 7, 2006.