SCRIPTURE LESSON: Exodus 20 (various)

On Tuesday evening, police cruisers were out in full force. One squad car even pulled up behind me as I headed west on Niagara.

I didn’t think much about this until I turned right onto Mesa, and the police car followed. When I made a left onto South 12th, it did the same. When I turned right onto Park, it did too.

Once I realized I was being followed, you can best believe I putt-putt-putted along, watching both my speedometer and my rearview mirror like a hawk. I’m no scofflaw, after all. I’m more like the friend who once confided she had a long-standing fantasy about getting pulled over—and being issued a citation for exceptional driving!

I’ll tell you what, though, on Tuesday, as I drove along, even this law-abiding Montrosean felt strangely guilty—even though I had done nothing wrong.

Tuesday’s worldly experience intersects with my faith in ways I wish it didn’t. Maybe you can relate.

Even after insisting for decades that God is only and always love, I can still occasionally fall prey to imagining that the God of the Ten Commandments is like the officer in the squad car the other night. That God is riding my tail, watching me a little too closely, and is waiting to catch me doing what thou shalt not do.

It grieves me that so many have grown up with a similar sense that God is patrolling our lives, waiting to catch us red-handed.

Just the other day, someone confided that the reason they were such an obedient child was because they were deeply afraid of what God would do if God caught them doing or saying something even mildly “illegal.”

In light of our lesson this morning, here’s my question: what are we making of the Ten Commandments? And why is God laying down these laws anyway? Does God think so poorly of us that God imagines that we won’t be able to resist making idols and bearing false witness against our neighbors?

Thou shalt not this. Thou shalt not that. Cast in the negative like this, these commandments can sound strangely accusatory. Like everyone has been busy scheming to do these things, that is, until God sent Moses down from Mt. Sinai with stone tablets and said, “Absolutely not.”

Here’s something that might help us better understand the Decalogue, the Ten Commandments. In ancient Judaism, using negative injunctions like this was how formal agreements between two parties were entered into. “I will not, you will not, we will not.” The Ten Commandments reflect this long-standing cultural practice.

To our modern ears, though, today’s inventory of thou shalt nots can sound accusatory, as I said. But to the ancient Israelites, this language would be a welcome comfort, a sign that God was serious about entering into a lasting formal agreement with them.

Just remember that the Ten Commandments are much, much more than a formal agreement.

If you have ever signed a contract, you know it doesn’t matter how you feel about the other party or how they feel about you. Formal agreements don’t require any kind of relationship other than a functional one. And that is definitely not how God rolls.

God has never been in the business of making agreements or forging contracts with humankind. Instead, God creates covenants, ones inspired by and sustained by love, fidelity, and tender care. The covenants God has made with us are meant to go both ways in the same way heartfelt wedding vows do.

God’s motivation for laying out the commandments we hear today was a love too profound to fathom. God was not forging an agreement with Israel. God was not seeking a contract with God’s children.

By asking God’s newly-freed people to live by ten do-able/don’t-able tenets, God was aiming to help God’s people stay safe and whole, available for life-giving connections with one another and with God’s own self.

Remember, these instructions for how to live, these commandments Moses carried down the mountain, were created for a people freshly liberated from bondage, from slavery. God’s Chosen Ones had just come from living under Pharaoh’s cruel thumb, just as their parents and grandparents had been forced to do for centuries.

If you have ever sent a child or grandchild off to camp or college, you know God’s huge heart here. You know how untested, unchecked freedom can easily become a young person’s downfall, sometimes even leading to most unfortunate outcomes. And you know how much you wanted to prevent the worst from happening.

Whether we are youngsters or a freshly liberated people, we all have to start somewhere. And today’s commandments are Israel’s somewhere.

Eventually, Israel would be ready for more, just as a budding musician or athlete with promise masters the basics and moves on to more advanced skills.

At the risk of sounding flip, think of the commandments as a starter kit. They’re what helped shape the people’s understanding of what it meant to be a people, a people loved and claimed by God.

As the people grew more experienced in being God’s chosen, their laws became more numerous and nuanced.

Indeed, the children of Israel would eventually have 613 laws addressing all manner of covenantal, communal life. What foods to avoid, how to harvest a field to benefit the poor, how to live in ways that would keep the people holy as God was holy.

Then when the people had long been settled in the Land of Promise, when that life had taken on a life of its own, the people grew forgetful of the laws. Neglectful even. Not just of the laws but of God and their covenanted life together.

And so God, in God’s wisdom, made a bold move. Speaking through the prophet Jeremiah, God said, “This is the covenant I will now make with the house of Israel. I will put the law in their minds and inscribe it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they will be my people.”

And isn’t this the developmental task in every age and for each of us? To go from needing explicit guidelines placed outside us—like rules posted at the public pool—to internalizing God’s laws of love, to knowing them by heart?

Don’t you find it freeing and satisfying when you know something by heart? A hymn, perhaps, or a yummy recipe? An especially lovely poem or a backroads shortcut home? Knowing something by heart means there’s no need to reach for a cookbook or a map, no need to ask Siri, no need to call the reference librarian to get the skinny on the thing we sort of knew one time a long time ago but have since forgotten.

If you have ever studied another language, you know the humbling journey of internalizing the rules and rhythms of another tongue.

First comes finding what you want to say in English and then translating it word for word mentally and not being able to communicate with much nuance or grace. Then slowly, steadily, you transition out of your beginner’s strained stiffness and into a confident flow that native speakers can readily understand.

To my mind, this is the difference between the law that exists outside us and the law that is written on our hearts. There’s no shame in being a beginner, a novice, no fault in needing the rules posted, in needing to consult the owner’s manual.

But that’s not where God wants us to stay. God would hope that we would grow into people who, like Jesus was, are so intimately connected to God’s desire for us—to love—that loving slowly and surely becomes second nature. With God’s law of love written on our hearts, we don’t need to Google what we’re supposed to do, what we’re expected to do—we just love.

And because we’re human, after all, when we don’t or can’t love or have forgotten that loving is even a choice, we take note and begin anew.

Even the most fluent speakers of a second language sometimes get the intonation or verb tense wrong. Even the most gifted athlete, after all those drills and competitions, sometimes crosses the penalty line or misses the shot.

But because God is a lover and not a police officer, not an accountant or IRS agent, not a school principal, a drill sergeant, or hard-nosed referee because God is only and always the lover of our souls, when we miss the mark, God says “Let’s try again. We’ve got this.” And we do.

Let us close in prayer:

Good and gracious God, free us to know your heart. Liberate us from any sense that you are stiff or stodgy or are afraid of what we are capable of if left to our own devices. You love us. Let us feel this in our depths. Whenever we question your love, your confidence in us, your covenant with us, call us back to you and your unfailing embrace.

Help us live wisely and well. Help us trust our best instincts so that we can take risks with you and for you. Show us, day by day, the embossing on our souls that reminds us that you are love, we are love, and here to BE love in a hurting, broken world.

All this we pray, grateful for your grace and gentleness. Amen.