In my faith tradition, there is a lot of talk about the Ten Commandments. My Christian background includes many encounters with people arrogant about their keeping of the commandments who zealously use them to dictate moral standards for everyone. When the big ten are portrayed as legal rules, they carry a lot of baggage for a lot of people. God’s commandments, however, include no legalism, though we project our own legalism on them. Unfortunately, the kind of obedience that springs from heartfelt gratitude to God is often overlooked. I think the commandments warrant so much more consideration than mere public display on walls of churches and courthouses. While I do not want to diminish the letter of the law, I don’t think God ever intended us to obey the Ten Commandments in a strictly legal manner. God is not a strict lawgiver or detailed lawyer drafting up legal requirements and rules of conduct but rather a gracious father who delights in relationships based in our free and loving participation.
I find that many favor a limited view of the Ten Commandments. Instead of understanding the motivation for obedience as God’s love and grace, these individuals mistakenly view the commandments as rules or legal demands that one must follow. Such obedience to law requires the difficult work of constantly checking and following legal constraints. One can read the commandments as enforced rules that must be obeyed, or one can read them as facilitating a relationship with God—as His commitment to engaging with us to help us see Him as not only our sovereign but also our savior, lover and friend.
What if the big ten were viewed as meaningful and relevant possibilities for us today—as loving obligations to God and our neighbor? What if we made the first commandment about making God our chief source of happiness, and contentment? What if we worshipped Him exclusively, excluding all false figures and concepts that violate our being? What if the second commandment were interpreted as not placing God in a box or using Him in an unthinking form or ritual by worshiping Him as a mere idol, like graven images are usually worshiped? What if we made the third commandment about avoiding using speech about God in vain as well as other acts that harm His reputation—that is, about the ways we trivialize God’s name while falsely claiming His support? What if the fourth commandment were held as obligations to love and rest, while acknowledging that everyone has value and dignity—including ourselves, the family unit, refugees, strangers, and animals—and that this value need not be earned? Rather, we should learn to rest like God does.
What if we made the fifth commandment about caring for our parents and honoring the positions of those who have come before us to place ourselves within a community and structure of authority? What if the sixth commandment were interpreted as holding life sacred, encouraging us to work for life and carry the burden of others’ well-being on our shoulders? What if we believed that the seventh commandment meant that the commitments and vows we make to others are important, that the integrity of the family unit must be upheld, and that anything that disrupts the closeness of sexual unity should be shunned? What if we made the eighth commandment about learning to be content and not measuring ourselves against others’ possessions? What if the ninth commandment were viewed as confirming that we were made for honesty and truth, indicating that the words we speak about our neighbor are important and that we should not use our speech to dishonor another or gain an unfair advantage? What if we did not fixate the tenth commandment on the property of others but viewed it as a call to reach a place where we will never covet or desire to do wrong in either thought or deed?
I consider the fourth and fifth commandment pivotal, as they both rest at the heart of the Decalog, between God and us. I subscribe to this view because the Sabbath commandment is both a reminder of God’s commitment to care for us and an act of loving liberation, indicating that God has set us free and that we must set others free for a day—as if it were a mini jubilee. It is a day to enter God’s kind of rest by unlearning practices and concepts that exploit and harm us and by coming to see one another in the fullness of our created humanity. Resting on the Sabbath is our obligation to love amid an exploitive and unrestful culture. The fifth has to do with our family relationships and then out into the world. It teaches us to honor others. Both commandments have to do with relationships, our relationship to God and our relationship to man. In short, the big ten show us how spirituality, labor, economics, relationships, family, and community are all intertwined. The big ten are not about obeying legal requirements but about a world guided by God’s love, integrity, and kindness towards others.
Craig Ashton Jr.