Ten Is A Gift

It’s a common criticism that we Episcopalians don’t provide adequate Bible content in the church school programs. The problems of society in general and of many of our younger people in particular are blamed on the church, which (quote) “no longer teach the basics.” (unquote). 

At a social event some years ago, a woman with a troubled adolescent daughter approached me, holding a drink that was obviously not her first of the evening. She began to lecture on the failure of the church to give proper instruction and moral guidance to the younger generation. Her strongest and most self-evident point was that children were no longer required to memorize the Ten Commandments. 

As she went on and on, I became more and more exasperated, and eventually replied, “Dyou know the Ten Commandments?” “Of course, ” she responded, somewhat insulted by the question.

“Name them!” I asked. There was a cough, a sputter, and angry look. Finally she remembered adultery and murder! The conversation terminated rather abruptly. 

The Ten Commandments have certainly received a lot of attention in recent years in controversies over where and howand when they can or cannot be publicly posted or displayed. On that issue I think The Book of Common Prayer has it just right. The response to the liturgical recitation of the Commandments is: 

Lord, have mercy upon us, 

And write all these thy laws in our heartswe beseech thee.[1]

In our hearts is the place that human morality is centered, and it’s here – within — that the commandments must be posted. Adherence to the Ten Commandments is actually an act of gratitude. God had brought his people out of slavery into freedom. This is how the commandments begin. 

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. [2]

There’s a great, big, silent therefore in that commandment. 

I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; therefore,therefore, you shall have no other gods before me. 

We don’t observe the Commandments of God in order to get God’s attention or approval. God has already given us his attention and approval. The Commandments are a grateful response to God that we make, because we’re thankful, and because we know that it pleases God, who has already befriended and liberated us. We obey the commandments because they come to us from one who loves us, and this is one of the ways that we love God back.

The folk who post the commandments along the highway with dire warnings . . . they don’t understand that God already loves us. They think that we have to obey all the rules before God will pay us any mind—that we somehow have to earn God’s love. 

They’ve got it exactly backward. It’s right there in Exodus where God lavished his people with attention, grace and freedom long before God invited Moses up to Mount Sinai to give him the stone tablets engraved with the laws.

Yesterday, our newest grandson, two days old, came home from the hospital. And the strangest thing, last night as I held him in my arms, I realized that I loved him. He didn’t have to do anything other than to exist. He is loved. I think that almost every parent, every grandparent, every family understands this. Oh, we have rules like don’t track mud in the house and speak respectfully to your parents and don’t pull the cat’s hair—but even before children are conscious, before they’re capable of disobedience—they are loved. And they are still loved, even when disobedient.

God, who is the Ground upon which we stand, who has given us life — and the ability to love — to be just — to display mercy, has gifted us lavishly. And so we, in turn, love God with all our heart, and soul, and mind, and strength. And we love our neighbors as ourselves. That’s the short version: the two-Commandment summary of the Ten.

The first four of the Ten Commandments have to do with loving God, and the next six provide detail about what it means to love one’s neighbor. Please note that the understanding of love here has nothing to do with warm fuzzies. Love has to do with actions, behavior, or restraint from certain behaviors. 

I AM God 

No other Gods 

No taking the name of the Lord your God in vain. 

Keep holy the Sabbath

Honor you father and your mother 

You shall not murder 

You shall not commit adultery 

You shall not steal 

You shall not bear false witness 

You shall not covet. 

With the Ten Commandments we find the true beginning of “Israel” (Yis-ra-el) which literally means “People of God.” Up to this point they’ve been just a bunch of runaway slaves wandering around in the desert. But with the Commandments, with the 20th chapter of Exodus, they become a covenant people. They have a covenant – an agreement – with God that goes like this. God says, “I will be your God and you will be my people – my holy people.” And Israel says, “Fine … we will be your people, and we’ll strive to do your will and to show our gratitude and love to the world.” 

The only problem with any earlier understanding is that the people didn’t know what they were contracting to do. They’d promised to be the covenant people, but no one understood what that might mean. 

Everything was vague, and there was a certain comfort in keeping it that way. It’s easy to make promises that are general and impossible to monitor. We can quickly agree that it is good to loveand bad to hate. and we can live happily with undefined principles. Then comes the specific moment when love requires definition, and we have to ask, “Who is my neighbor?” … Platitudes are easy, innocent, and comfortable. They deceive us into thinking that we can be good without cost.[3]

And so “love God and love your neighbor” is spelled out in the Ten Commandments of the Covenant. And it’s costly . . . to be a covenanted, holy people. It means giving up certain behaviors and activities that we might, out of our selfishness, engage in. 

Seen in one light, they may appear to be just a set of rules. But from another perspective, they are guides for how to live in community. Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann suggests that they are ways of making sure that we are good neighbors to one another: Honor you father and your mother, don’t murder, don’t steal your neighbor’s spouse or property, tell the truth, don’t covet what is your neighbor’s. 

Brueggemann claims that the most radical of the commandments is to keep the Sabbath– that we all get a day off from the rat race. In Pharaoh’s Egypt and later in Caesar’s Rome there was no day off – no break – no time to rest and refresh. The Sabbath is a gift to God’s servants who are weekly given time to stand down and just be—to be re-created. Again, it’s not so much a rule as it is a gift. 

I began by referring to the person who couldn’t recite the Ten Commandments. The problem is not that we be able to list off the Commandments on demand. The issue is that we so love God and our neighbor that the Commandments dwell in our hearts and are ingrained into our lives. 

Lord, have mercy upon us, 

And write all these thy laws in our hearts, we beseech thee. Amen. 


[1] The Book of Common Prayer (1979), p 318

[2] Exodus 20:1-3

[3] Beyond Moralism, Spong and Haines, p 8

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