By Rev. Justin Smoot, for Wausau Pilot & Review

Rev. Justin Smoot

Rev. Justin Smoot is one of the pastors at Saint Andrew Lutheran Church in Rib Mountain. He is always on the lookout for how God’s story turns our lives upside down and draws us closer together.

There are people who are absolutely in love with the Ten Commandments. I mean there seems to be a completeness to the world when they are in the presence of these commandments. The world revolves around them, even more so than Jesus. Even Christians have this attitude.

There is the general Christian Nationalist approach which looks at the religious freedom of the First Amendment along with the general order of laws to somehow draw a direct line between the Ten Commandments and the Constitution of the United States. Using the natural overlap of the Old Testament and the Hebrew Bible, these conversations symbolically center on the Ten Commandments as the summation of God’s law. This natural overlap did serve to bring the descriptor “Judeo-Christian” into our national vocabulary. It also helped unite a “Judeo-Christian nation” against the “godless Communists” throughout the Cold War. Public displays of the Ten Commandments became a badge and a reminder of who we were and who the enemy was.

However, the general Christian attitude of Supersessionism, the idea that Christianity replaces Judaism, prevented an honest interfaith dialogue, in any area except where American Exceptionalism was concerned.

When I was a chaplain, one of my colleagues was ordained in a church whose belief and practice focused so heavily on the Ten Commandments, that they would accuse other Christian traditions of only following nine out of the Ten Commandments. We had conversations about their place in faith, talking through the various aspects of them. We never agreed, but the conversations were great! He even talked about a day when he and his church went out into the city and handed out copies of the 10 Commandments. They had these tracts about them and their importance. This tradition attended to the letter of God’s Law as a sign of their faith in Christ, and the keeping of the Sabbath Day was their perpetual sticking point in ecumenical conversations.

There are even heated debates about what the correct numbering of the Ten Commandments is. Is the Sabbath Day commandment number three or four? Is the prohibition against coveting Commandments number nine or ten, or just ten? I have to chuckle at these because debates like this overlook the fact that there are two lists of commandments:

Exodus 20:

  • #3 is Sabbath Day
  • #9, #10 are about coveting)

Deuteronomy 6

  • #4 is Sabbath Day
  • #10about coveting)

I also laugh because these debates and the public displays of the Ten Commandments overlook the promises inherent to them and the action of God that precedes them. The delivery of the commandments is prefaced by God reminding us that freedom from slavery in Egypt precedes the commandments. God acted to save the people, God is present with the people, and this is the shape of a life lived in God’s presence.

Then come the promises of showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who keep the commandments. While it is easier to envision generational punishments in smaller numbers, like third and fourth, the numerical superiority of 1,000’s is meant to overshadow the threat of punishment with the sublimity of a life with God. Less a punishment, ignore this and you’ll be no different from other humans, tripping over your own mortality, emotions, and limitations.

I have yet to see a public display that includes the action of God and the promises of God as part and parcel of the Ten Commandments. (If you have photographic evidence of one, I’d love to see it and know where it is.)

Without which, they are not truly complete, and this always unsettles me. That is because I do not love the Ten Commandments. I love God, by whose grace I live. Grace that is squeezed out when a guide for a life shaped by the saving action of God, either from slavery in Egypt through the waters of the Red Sea, or by the Cross of Christ through the waters of baptism, becomes 10 sentences in a granite display on a public building. Or, when they become a checklist of salvation – miss one and you’re out.

The most important thing overlooked when we become obsessed with the Ten Commandments is everything that is in the other 603 commandments of God in the Hebrew Bible: The Sacrificial system. We see the consequence of our sin and brokenness exacted upon another, understanding that we have done this to ourselves against the desire of God who saved us and draws up to life. Something which is too powerful to be reduced to a granite monument, or a checklist, but which calls us to respond to the depth of grace we experience.

Hopefully Christians take up this attitude.

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