Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9,12-20 – The 16th Sunday of Ordinary Time – for October 2, 2011
“Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.” (Exodus 20:12)
In Mel Brooks’ History of the World-Part 1 Moses departs the mountain with three stone tablets. He announces the event with, “The Lord Jehovah has given us fifteen–”
He dropped a tablet. Shattered. Hmmm?
“God has given us ten commandments!”
Once, at my United Methodist annual conference, with a thousand clergy and laity in tense debate over the values of faith, a pastor stood and declared all churches should have the Ten Commandments posted in the sanctuary. Every person, every Sunday, would be reminded of God’s laws. “It should be exactly as the Bible said!”
Another colleague took the floor and wondered if that meant the commandments would be written in Hebrew. After all, the English version of the commandments is rather Johnny-come-lately.
What commandment do you struggle with?
A character in a novel I’ve written, contemplating assisted suicide, mutters about a daughter-in-law who told him he would break the Ten Commandments if he acted out his wishes. She . . . “lectured me that the Ten Commandments said Thou Shalt Not Kill. With her finger wagging at me, she said, ‘That means you killing yourself!’ He chuckled again, this time with a grimace. “I told her, ‘Which of the three versions of the Commandments is that?’ And I said, because I wanted to be a nasty geezer, ‘I prefer the Exodus 34 version where the last divine command is You Shall Not Boil A Kid In Its Mother’s Milk.’”
In a church I served, someone left a Bible in a classroom. No name anywhere. Week after week, it remained. Abandoned. I finally grabbed it and stayed alert to anyone who might claim his or her missing Bible. Eventually the Bible became part of my personal library. One of the first times I used it for sermon preparation, I discovered an odd thing.
A singular thin page was missing. Didn’t look torn, as if it had been one of those coupon inserts in a magazine. Was it a printer’s error? I flipped through the pages. Only one seemed AWOL.
The absent page included Exodus 20. Ah, the Ten Commandments.
Or, as my fictional character mused, one of the three versions. If you haven’t looked recently at Exodus 34—on a page that was still intact in that odd Bible—it’s most interesting.
In the familiar Exodus 20:17, the final and tenth command was to not covet your neighbor’s possessions.
In Exodus 34:26, the final and tenth command cautioned not to boil a kid in milk. I assume this commandment referred to a “goat kid” rather than your neighbor’s sweet-faced third grader? I hope so!
Regardless of which Ten Commandments I read (Deuteronomy 5 also contains a version), they are radical statements. Let’s choose a commandment to demonstrate . . .
How do I best honor my parents? My 95-year old father has dementia. My mother is often overwhelmed with caregiving and decision-making, along with her own health concerns. As a child, wasn’t doing what they told me to do (most of the time) sufficient for parental honor? The commandment remains; how I interpret it changes. Now it’s tough for my sisters and me to parent our parents. Now, too much of the time, no one knows what to do. Should my mother sell the house? Is my father in the best place to care for his illness? In her literally bittersweet memoir (THE BITTERSWEET SEASON), Jane Gross writes about caring for parents:
How do we know when, logistically and financially, we must break our solemn promise not to “put them away” (and how do we forgive ourselves for doing it, if we must)? How do we know when the time for heroics has passed? Our parents may have escaped earlier threats to their health—strokes, cardiac events, cancer—and lived longer than any generation before them, but eventually some things are just going to wear out.
The questions multiply and have the potential to divide parent and child or siblings or . . . all of us. “To honor” is a simple phrase; it’s rarely a simple action and never the same from situation to situation.
The commandments radically demand honest relationships with God, self and others. They call us to impossible tasks and yet, most of the time, to the only tasks worth undertaking.
Occasionally I play a game with my missing-one-page Bible. I turn to Exodus 20. Nothing! Can I list all ten without help? I usually can. But sometimes it’s only nine or eight and it drives me crazy because I can’t recall which ones I’ve forgotten.
Or I pretend to be Mel Brooks’ Moses—oops!—and let a commandment slip from my grasp and break because following it is too achingly hard, too personal . . . say, for example, the one about honoring parents.
I don’t need the commandments displayed in a sanctuary. Honest to God, I experience them in nearly every important event in my life.