The Old Testament lesson for the Third Sunday of Lent tells the story of God giving Moses the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17). These instructions on right relationship with God, family and neighbour establish the minimum standards by which God hopes we will live. They represent Israel’s part of the covenant that God made with them when God said, in Exodus 6:7, I will take you as my people, and I will be your God. By following these commandments the Israelites will live their part of the covenant…or not.
The Old Testament readings during these first weeks of Lent have featured covenants. They are an unequal agreement between God and his people. For his part God commits himself to great and miraculous works on behalf of his people, while he asks only for faithfulness to him and his commands in return. On the first Sunday of Lent, we read the story of Noah and the rainbow as a sign of the covenant that God would never again destroy the earth by flood. (In that passage, the word “covenant” appeared seven times.) The reading about God’s promise to Abraham to make him the father of many nations even though he was 99 years old was the covenantal story of the second Sunday of Lent. (In that passage the word “covenant” appeared four times.)
So it is with the reading for the Third Sunday of Lent. God reaffirms his relationship with the people of Israel and sets out his hope for their response. He promises steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments. His promised love is disproportionately greater that what he asks for in return.
The chapter before the beginning of this morning’s first reading sets the time and place for the story of the commandments.
On the third new moon after the Israelites had gone out of Egypt… they came into the wilderness of Sinai. They had journeyed from Rephidim, …and camped … in front of the mountain. Then the Lord called to Moses… saying, “Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the Israelites: You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. … you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation…”
On the … third day there was thunder and lightning, as well as a thick cloud on the mountain, and a blast of a trumpet so loud that all the people who were in the camp trembled. Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God. … Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke, because the Lord had descended upon it in fire; … the whole mountain shook violently. As the blast of the trumpet grew louder, Moses would speak and God would answer him in thunder…the Lord …said to Moses, “… warn the people not to break through to the Lord to look; … So Moses went down to the people and told them.
This preamble to the giving of the commandments to Moses confirms God’s power and majesty in the thunder, lightning, earthquake, fire and trumpets. It was an awesome spectacle.
As today’s first lesson begins, God confirms his covenant with the people of Israel to be their God. The conventional understanding was that there were many gods, each controlling different aspects of life. God’s first message to Moses was that he alone is God.
Then God spoke all these words: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, …but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.
Next God asserts how his name and person is to be used as a witness to truth. By extension, God makes the truth holy.
You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.
Third, God sets aside one day for his relationship with people. Compared to the slavery recently endured in Egypt it is a generous day of rest. It was also all-embracing, extending the benefit to women, children and slaves, who had not until this point, enjoyed the same rights as men. (It even included work animals.)
Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.
These first three commandments… shortened to ‘I am the Lord your God, you shall not have strange gods before me. You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain. Remember to keep the Sabbath day holy.’… are primarily about our relationship with God. They form part of the covenant.
At the same time there is community element in them, whether in the prohibition of community worship of idols, in use of God’s name as a witness to the truth of false events, or in the instruction that sons, daughters, male or female slaves or even animals shall not be made to work on the Sabbath.
At this point the commandments turn to life together. God’s covenant involves not only relationship with him but also relationships with one another.
Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.
You shall not murder.
You shall not commit adultery.
You shall not steal.
You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.
The commandments were not a burden but the disciplines required for a healthy community life. Following them would provide harmony and peace to the people of Israel.
- Each of us is vulnerable to different failings in our relationship with God and others. Which commandment is the hardest for you to observe?
- When you think of the commandments is it as part of a covenant relationship or is it as a unilateral set of rules issued by God? If you look at them as part of a sacred agreement for which the benefits are disproportionately greater than the cost, does that change your perspective?
- When you re-read the commandments, which one surprises you the most? Is it the inclusion of animals in the day of Sabbath rest? Is it the ‘obvious’ commandment about honouring your father and mother? What do you think God is asking you to look at in your surprise?