It's Not a Contract
Passage: Exodus 20:1-21
Date: October 27, 2019
Preacher: Guest Preacher
Guest Preacher: Rev. Eileen Parfrey
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Last Monday and Tuesday, I attended the presbytery’s preaching seminar at Menucha. When I told my colleagues I was preaching on the Ten Commandments today, the news was universally greeted with groans. Maybe it was sympathy, but most of my colleagues either had never preached on the Commandments, or they had done it as part of a whole series. When Beth put this text into the preaching cycle, she didn’t do it out of a concern that we might not know what they prohibited. It was about their place in the great narrative and thematic arcs of the Bible.
I have seen any number of ten commandments—for golf, for the classroom, for writing the detective novel, for the Irish. You get the picture. These parodies are pulled together for purposes other than what we read today. When I taught a fourth-grade Sunday school class one year, we rewrote them as a Bill of Rights, to help the kids unpack them. “You have a right to a day off ... to parents worthy of respect … to keep your own stuff.” While I agree that an update on some of the language might be called for, that’s not where we’re going today.
Let’s talk covenant. Covenant is a major theme in the Bible, and, if you want to pass your ordination exams, you might want to know how to drop that phrase into a few of your answers. As Reformed Christians, we think of ourselves as “covenant people,” so it helps to know that a covenant is not a contract. A contract exchanges one thing of value for another of equal value. A contract is legally binding, whereas a covenant can’t be enforced by law and remains in effect even if one of the parties breaks it. The relationship between God and the people of God is always covenant. Even when we don’t live up to our end of the bargain, God does. Most of the Biblical covenants show up in the Hebrew scripture. The rainbow covenant promises God will never again destroy creation with a flood. The Abrahamic covenant takes male circumcision as its tangible sign. Jeremiah proclaims God’s covenant promise to place the law in the hearts of the people. At the Last Supper, Jesus announces the New Covenant sealed in his blood. Today’s covenant lists ten things the people of God do or do not do, and it’s all about relationship.
David Brooks, in his book The Second Mountain, uses a story to explain the difference between covenant and contract. Six daycare centers in Haifa were having trouble with staff needing to stay late because parents were arriving late to pick up their children.To address this, the daycares began charging parents a late pick-up fee. The practice backfired when the incidence of late parents doubled. Before the centers began assessing a late fee, a timely arrival was part of an implicit relational covenant between parents and staff—it was about consideration and thoughtfulness. Once a late fee was assessed, pick up times became a transaction, a contract. “I pay you money, you take care of my children.” The distinction is important because, in Brooks’ words, contracts are about exchange; covenants are about transformation
If this covenant is about transformation, we should ask from what to what? The dramatic high point of the Exodus, it comes as Israel is freed from slavery in Egypt, so the easy answer may be “from slavery to freedom.” But that’s only the first answer. These laws are unusual, more than a mere list of dos and don’ts. They also give the motivation for following them. In other words, God wants Israel to know that freedom from human domination means freedom for God’s presence and leading, freedom to liberate others. It has always been about relationship.
Have you ever trained a dog? The books tell you that it’s about more than teaching your pet to do something in hopes of a cookie. Effective training teaches the dog to want to do the expected behavior. Because of your relationship. Israel has been freed, not from restrictions, but freed to find the right ones. It’s not that the Commandments are given to form the community (that happens over forty years of wandering). They’re given to protect that community, to set boundaries and expectations. The next few chapters of Exodus are a passionate set of rules about how to ensure the marginalized are not oppressed, sort of a commentary on the Ten Words. When God tells Israel these are “so that you may not sin,” it isn’t about sinlessness or that the law would never be broken. It’s about living lives that are in accord with the relationship God intends. Obey, in other words, not because if you don’t, the bark collar will go off, but out of reverence and being deeply centered on God.
The quirky thing about the Ten Commandments is that they are so easily weaponized. Which is weird, given their liberating purpose. Their radical assertion is the incomparable value of human life, a concern for the victim of oppression. But what if you’re a slave hearing them? What if these are the words of Massah’s religion? What if your experience of “law” comes with a lash? Is this part of a counter-ethic to those bent on total control of others? Womanist theologian Cheryl Kirk-Duggan likes to read the Exodus story as an inspiration for other non-oppressive options in the world, a covenant where abused, violated, oppressed people become agents of their own stories, accountable for their own futures, where these Commandments are a “model of divine desire” for all oppressed people. Is this still true? Can we still read them this way? Can we understand them as what underlies God’s desire for all creation, not as weaponized rules used to control, nor as a mere avoidance of crime?
If only I had a whole sermon series to unpack each one, so that we could work out an answer! Or we could just stay until sometime Wednesday afternoon… Naw. Let’s just look at one commandment, the one about keeping the Sabbath holy. The Commandments are addressed in the second person singular, so I think it’s safe to assume that when God (through Moses) says, “YOU!” this means the men of Israel are being addressed, since they are the ones most likely to be present in the sanctuary. In Deuteronomy, the commandment to keep Sabbath is because God brought Israel out of slavery. Implicit in that is the understanding that slaves don’t get a day of rest. In Exodus, Sabbath is commanded because even God rested on the seventh day. The writer takes great pains to list sons and daughters, male and female slaves, immigrants, every animal. Sabbath is not a burden, it’s a divine gift, a religious act with cosmic implications. Only when this sacred rhythm is observed is all of creation what God intended it to be. Sabbath-keeping becomes an act of creation-keeping. People who have taken up Sabbath keeping say it takes a long time to transition into. It took Barbara Brown Taylor a whole year. I’ve heard that when wagon trains traveled the Oregon Trail, the ones that trudged on seven days a week took just as long to make it across the continent as the ones that stopped one day a week to rest.
How would our lives and culture change if we reverted to a rhythm of work and rest? Would it be transformative? What if, instead of seeing the Ten Commandments as the way to earn God’s love or the way to keep other people in line, put them out on the courthouse lawn, what if we saw the Ten Commandments as the basis for truthful and loving relationships? Richard Rohr likes to sum up human spiritual transformation as “wake up, clean up, grow up.” If we rewrote this commandment today, what would it be like? Since the Commandments were expanded in subsequent chapters of Exodus, some scholars believe they can still be amplified. If they deserve a rewriting to fit our current times and places, what would you add? The motivation the current ones assert is in reverence to “the Lord YOUR God.” To obey these commands is to be what you were created to be.
In the book Unsettling the Word: Biblical Experiments in Decolonization, the ten have been expanded to fifteen. In this rewriting, the commandment to rest includes machines of all kinds. This reflects the practice of our Orthodox Jewish brothers and sisters as they keep Sabbath. They do not turn on the stove or electric lights or cars. Unsettling the Word invites the inclusion of factories and machines in Sabbath rest; it includes prohibitions of exploitation and enslavement of not just humans but animals and the Earth itself. How would our culture be transformed if our motivations were focused on relationship with God?
It’s not a contract, friends. It’s a covenant, which means that it’s not about legal enforcement, and even if we fail at it—especially if we fail, which we will—even if we fail, the Covenant Maker still faithfully keeps covenant with us.
The Ten Commandments are about more than what is or is not on the courthouse lawn. It’s about how we treat each other. For God’s sake. One writer says the way a nation exercises its political power cannot be removed from its spiritual life, which is not at all the same as requiring everyone to belong to the same denomination or religion. The Ten Commandments reveal a covenant-making God who expects us “to seek loving justice through our actions in the public sphere.” That’s spiritual life integrated with political power. It’s wake up, clean up, grow up.It’s motivated by transformative hope. Hope that things can still change.
It behooves us these days to find the courage to hope. To discover ways to respond to the darkness of these times. To actively bring hope to those who despair, who are oppressed, who are not free of whatever their demons are. Maybe it’s as simple as helping fund “Bucks for Butts” or coaching kids who study the U.S. Constitution or serving as a silent witness to ensure justice or voting when elections come around or doing business with integrity or welcoming immigrants. This is the basis of the great liberation underlying the Ten Commandments. When we dare to live as people still in covenant with God—however we see that covenant impinging on us—we are focusing on God and remembering the One in whom our hope has always been grounded.