No Homemade Idols In My Backyard

Exodus 20:1-17 – The 3rd Sunday of Lent – for March 11, 2012

“You shall not make for yourself an idol…” (Exodus 20:4)

I experience a mix of reactions whenever I reach the 20th chapter of Exodus.

There they are again . . . The Ten Commandments.

These "idols" are not located in my backyard...

Charlton Heston invariably drifts across the far corner of my view. I’m not sure what he’s doing or saying, but he’s Hollywood handsome. I doubt he looks or sounds anything like the “real” Biblical Moses, but I can’t shake Heston’s image when re-reading Exodus. It’s probably a baby boomer curse.

I’m bored . . . oh, yeah, those old laws. On some occasions, I’ve tested myself—or others—to determine how well I remember these statements I’ve known since I was a fresh-faced, smart-mouthed kid in Sunday school. I might miss one or two, but I generally know them so well I never sweat the final grade. Ho-hum. (And I’m not one of those fools in surveys mistakenly claiming, “Love your neighbor as yourself” or “Cleanliness is next to Godliness” is a Commandment.)

Then there’s a superior attitude that slouches along with me. If the Ten Commandments are a checklist—and who doesn’t like a checklist to accurately discern the accumulation of knowledge or the increase of spiritual awareness—I’m in darn good shape.

#1 – God’s my main Divine squeeze. I’ll proudly sit in the bleachers of life, waving a foam YHWH’s #1 for all to see. (For proof, see #2.)

#2 – No homemade idols in my backyard (like those stone faces on Easter Island or a Mayan temple…in spite of this being 2012).

No Mayan temples in my backyard, either...even though there's that 2012 "prediction." Hmmm?

#3 – I keep God’s name out of my personal promises. Never once has my bank heard me declare, “I swear to God I’ll pay that mortgage.”

#4 – Maybe I’m not attending church like I once was, but I’m still well over a .500 lifetime hitter for Sabbath-keeping.

#5 – Mom and Dad never filed a lawsuit against me. I’ve known people who can’t say the same!

#6 – No murder convictions . . . and by the way, the bearded guy with the scowl who looked like me on the FBI’s “Most Wanted” . . . only a coincidence.

#7 – With adultery, sorry, I’m a bum, a louse, a loser. But Jimmy Carter’s 1976 Playboy interview is my go-to excuse: “I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times…. This is something that God recognizes, that I will do and have done, and God forgives me for it.” I’m not any better than the 39th President of the United States, but lots better than any Kardashian . . . right?

#8 – Stealing? Maybe a few hearts or smiles. Well, fine, there was that pack of cigarettes I permanently borrowed from the supermarket when I was ten. My older sister and I wanted to experiment and I volunteered for the dastardly deed. The Ten Commandments surely don’t apply to childhood misdemeanors.

#9 – Bear false witness? I’ve seen bears . . . right next to my tent. And that’s the truth!

#10 – Darn, I was doing well until #10. Wait, the Holy checklist has a sub-checklist at #10. So maybe once or twice I’ve coveted someone’s house or wife (isn’t my honesty refreshing?), but not slaves, an ox, a donkey and only a small percentage of my neighbor’s belongings. All in all, I’m above average here at #10.

And yet I’m a Christian and, truth be shouted, the good old Ten Commandments are just that: merely good and very old. As a fine, semi-upstanding Christian, I know the better way. Jesus, after all, was once asked what commandments were most important and he boiled the old ten down to the new two: Love God, love neighbor. (You can read the “long” version at Luke 10:25-28.)

Judge me as a two-timing Christian, please. With Jesus’ lean and mean version, we don’t have to quibble about whether the ancient Hebrew language translates “do not murder” vs. “do not kill” or if lust and coveting are literal or if Jimmy Carter was right. When we use Jesus’ two-for-the-price-of-ten commandments, I don’t need to show pictures of what I don’t have in my backyard.

Can’t laws become land mines? I won’t give anything away about Lent by reminding you what happens near the season’s end. Lent, even for the newbie believer, holds no surprises, no tricks up its 40-day sleeve. When Jesus was dragged away by his Jewish brothers and sisters, it’s because they claimed he broke the law. When the Nazarene staggered in front of Pilate’s ambivalent gaze, the bureaucrat first found no fault according to Roman law . . . and then later sent Jesus off to be punished in the worst way because of Roman law. Religious laws. National laws. All can be ignored, tweaked or rationalized to insure the powerful stay powerful and the weak . . . well, you know.

Do I have a mix of feelings and reactions to Exodus 20’s Top Ten? You betcha. It’s easy to be cynical, dismissive and humorous about these familiar . . . edicts, guidelines, encouragements, orders, laws, policy statements, suggestions, commandments? I’m enough of a scholar to know Biblical mandates should be cautiously approached. Simple (or complex) edicts are often far more convoluted (or obvious) when we understand the historical context. I’m enough of global citizen to be reluctant to elevate one set of laws over another. As someone who claims the Ten Commandments as part of my tradition, I don’t want to ignore lessons from my Buddhist or Hindu neighbors. I’m enough of a humble believer to be merciful when using the Bible’s “laws” to judge others or myself. On too many occasions I’ve stood before my soul’s mirror and, from first to last Commandment, felt I’d failed the “test.” Self-focused and shortsighted, I forget about God’s forgiveness.

I am grateful for the gift of “The Top Ten.” I learn something about God and myself every single blessed time I review the list. God does long for my love. God does long for me to respect neighbor and creation. The commandments were not written to trap or trick me, but to allow me to sense who I can become.

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  1. I must be losing my attentiveness with old age. I missed this when it went by on my FB scroll. Must be because of all that Limbaugh brew ha ha. But in this vein, should I ever get the chance to do a valedictory speech at my graduation, I have found the perfect “old” topic. Who could imagine that after 1 1/2 years in seminary, I am just now encountering in a serious way the sense in which Wesley was different from Calvin and Luther and all those other early European reformers. He ACTUALLY believed one could better onself. Holy Wittenburg, Batman. What would Martin have thought. Even worse, I am discovering that the offshoot of Methodism, Pentecostalism, is not only alive and well (and not the work of the devil) but becoming the second largest Christian flavor in the world. What have those Moravians been teaching me for the last 18 months? This is serious, because the Methodist connection (by the way, don’t expect me to sign up any time soon. I really think the wine in the Eucharist is important. No grape juice for me, thank you very much.) is part of the reason I could not hold onto faith after confirmation (as a Lutheran). Every Sunday night, I promised myself I would be better next week, but I never was. Was it that I didn’t really believe it, or because no one around me was on the same page. At any rate, back to graduation. What a perfect OLD topic. We have just begun to seriously learn about our faiths. If anything, seminary has taught us how to learn…. pretty wimpy, eh….. well, back to the drawing board.

    1. Thanks for the belated comments, Bruce. I understand. I seem to currently be living in a land of belatedness!

  2. Well Larry you’ve done it again! My mind is going ninety-to-nothing as my pop always said. I certainly don’t have any homemade idols in the backyard, no room by the time you take out flower beds and ponds and waterfalls. I’m not sure I want the lean mean versions of judging, and I’m far from perfect even though I do try. And two-timing is a good way to put it. I read these words this week after I’ve heard the news that a very dear friend is dying and gone back to his hometown to die. My heart is breaking and wanting to let him know that God will take care of him, even if he didn’t go to church on Sunday most of the time. I’m pretty sure God understands that we imperfect humans do what we can, and always try to do better. We continually learn and try to live a better life and as Bruce said, “back to the drawing board”. And brings me to a point that words aren’t always enough. I was originally an art education major and some times Sunday mornings have major works of art printed off to help pass the word along. We will always be a work in progress on God’s drawing board. We on this earth will never be finished. But one day God’s final drawing of each of us will be done, and we won’t have to worry about whether or not we did the list of ten things well. We tried and as you said we forget about God’s grace, wisdom and forgiveness. I think He is much more generous than we humans are. Thanks again for making me think outside my circle!

    1. Sorry to hear about your friend. Sigh. And thanks also for the notions about art . . . I do believe we’re all works in progress. Most of my days very much seem like a sketchy line drawing!! Take care, Nancy…

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