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Monday, March 12, 2012

Ten Commandments for the 99%.


Exodus 20:1-17

I.
            In the book of Exodus, the children of Israel escape from slavery in Egypt.  God intends to make of them a new nation, even a new kind of nation.  That nation is going to be the opposite, the alternative, to the kind of regime under which they had suffered so much in Egypt.
            God knows, and the Bible says as much repeatedly, that if people are left alone and free to do as they please, what invariably happens is that the strong, the wealthy, the lucky, the attractive, the healthy, and the smart gradually rise to the top.  They use their endowments to get increasingly rich and powerful.  Society starts developing different strata of classes.  Eventually you end up with a regime like that of Egypt: Pharaoh and his lackeys at the top controlling all the wealth and power, and at the bottom a class of oppressed slaves who do all the work. 
            This system works very well for the people at the top, and they see nothing wrong with it.  They will even convince themselves that the slaves have a good life because of their beneficence.  But for the people at the bottom it is a comprehensive disaster.  And the Bible is always written by and for the people at the bottom.
            God wants to prevent the Israelites from becoming anything like the Egyptians.  In other words, the Israelites did not escape from Egypt so they could set up their own oppressive regime like Pharaoh’s.  No.  The Israelites have experienced the horror of slavery, and they don’t want that to happen to themselves or anyone else.  God will instruct them how to live together in a completely different and contrary way. 
            They will not be adopting and implementing the corrupt and violent ways of Pharaoh.  Instead, God will give them a divine law to govern their society.  Even wealthy and powerful people will be subject to this law.  The purpose of this law is to prevent wealth and power from accumulating among only a few.  This law makes everyone equally subject to God.
            The heart of this law is the Ten Commandments.  God gives the people the Ten Commandments with the purpose of preventing them from becoming an oppressive regime of wide social and economic inequalities like Egypt.  The Ten Commandments give us a society of equality, mutual accountability, justice, and a common subjection to a higher power: God.
            Every single one of these commandments is a brake on the power of the powerful.  Each one rejects some specific tactic that people like Pharaoh use to consolidate, implement, and increase their own power.  Each one intentionally directs our attention away from the powerful, and turns it to God who is above all.  The Ten Commandments are a regulatory regime designed to inject balance into society by bringing down the powerful and lifting up the weak.

II.
            Like the entire Bible, the Ten Commandments are not given primarily to individuals, but to a community.  When Moses comes down from the mountain he doesn’t give every individual their own Xeroxed copy to go home with and study on their own.  No.  He reads the Commandments aloud to the whole assembly.  These are not just private or personal moral choices.  The Commandments represent the shape of a whole community’s life.  They are addressed to the nation of the Israelites and by extension to God’s people generally.
            The first three commandments have to do with our relationship to God and the prohibition of idolatry.  Injustice and inequality are always based on idolatry.  Idolatry is the lifting up of some created thing and worshiping and serving it as divine.  Religious idolatry has always gone hand in hand with the social idolatry in which some people are lifted up as special, divine, and worthy of obedience, some people are the source of ultimate authority, some people are entitled to have all the wealth and power.  Hence the social expression of idolatry is injustice: one class oppressing another.
            The prohibition of idolatry means that God is above all this, and everything down here is of relatively equal value compared to God.  The difference between gold and basalt is negligible, compared to God.  So is the difference between Bill Gates and some guy living in a homeless shelter.  The Commandments have us focus on God in order to relativize and place on the same level every earthly thing and person.
            Pharaoh claimed to be a god.  Medieval kings claimed to rule by divine right.  A few months ago, the head of Citibank actually said he thinks he’s an instrument of God’s will!  To this hubris and idolatry the Commandments categorically say, “Absolutely not.  From God’s point of view none of us is any better than any other.”  We are all under God.  We are all subject to God.
            This means that we are all accountable to God and required to keep this law.  No one is above it.  In this life the same rules apply to all.  And whenever you get the wealthy and powerful making one set of laws for themselves, and a different set of laws for everyone else, then you have idolatry and injustice.  
            Whenever, for instance, an institution becomes “too big to fail” and has thus immunized itself from any kind of accountability, and can even be rewarded for wrongdoing… that would be a form of idolatry souring into injustice.
            So, for instance, the main way we take the Lord’s name in vain is not when we impulsively curse when we hit our thumb with a hammer.  I’m pretty sure God overlooks that.  It is when the powerful and wealthy have made themselves more important, more essential, more authoritative, and more free than anyone else.  Because then they are usurping the role, and sometimes even the name, of God to themselves.  They have become little Pharaohs.

III.
            The hinge of the Commandments is number four: “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.”  This is where the Commandments shift from dealing with our relationship to God, and turn to addressing our relationships with each other.
            Left to their own devices, the Pharaohs of the world will demand constant work and production from their servants.  This is one of the ways they make themselves into gods.  They will insist that they are the lords of your time, which means they own you.  Slaves worked seven days a week.  There are many, many workers in the world today who are compelled to do the same.  Indeed, some of us force ourselves to work this much, so thoroughly have we bought into the ideology and idolatry of work and consumerism.
            The Sabbath is important because it removes one day in seven from the demands of production.  The Sabbath principle is extended to include the Sabbath Year, every seventh year, and eventually the Jubilee Year, every 50th year or so, in Leviticus 25.  In the Jubilee, all debts are cancelled and all property reverts to its original families of ownership.  There is no practice in which we see more clearly the intent of the Sabbath to undermine wealth inequality than the Jubilee.  The Jubilee is a direct assault on the excessive acquisition of wealth and on unregulated economic growth.
            The Ten Commandments appear in two places in the Bible; here, and in Deuteronomy 5.  The rationale for the Sabbath commandment is different in each.  Here, the people are to keep the Sabbath in imitation of God’s creative work.  They rest on the seventh day because God rested on the seventh day of creation.  But in Deuteronomy the reason is because when they were in Egypt there were no days off.  They rest on the Sabbath now as a way of rejecting Pharaoh’s ruthless seven-day work-week.
            On the Sabbath, freedom from work is for everyone.  From the highest people in society to the lowest, to aliens and foreigners, to even animals!  Everybody gets a break.  The Sabbath insists that the main reason for human existence is not economic growth.  It is not working and producing and consuming and creating wealth.  But, as the Westminster catechism says, “the chief end of human life is to glorify God and to enjoy God forever.”
            Oppressive leaders and institutions hate the Sabbath because they idolatrously imagine themselves to be god.  And the Sabbath represents what is to them a theft of one-seventh, that’s over 14%, of the wealth that other people’s work would have given them.  The stockholders would never stand for it.

IV.
            The final six commandments are about our relationships with each other.  Basically they prohibit disrespect to parents, as well as murder, adultery, theft, perjury, and even envy.  Every one of these commandments responds to tactics used by the powerful in society against the powerless.  These sins all indicate an imbalance of power that is exploited by the strong against the weak.
            All of these commandments have to be seen within the larger framework of the first three commandments, which require a single-minded loyalty to God.  Once we affirm that God is the real power, the true judge, the ultimate authority, the One whom we must believe and obey in life and in death, then all of our earthly, horizontal relationships with others are aspects and reflections of this primary allegiance.  All our uses of power are usurpations of God’s power.  “Do not judge,” says Jesus, “So that you will not be judged.” 
            In our interpersonal relationships as well as in our economic and political systems, God says do not be like Pharaoh.  Do not make yourself out to be a parent in the sense of claiming for yourself authority over others.  Do not put yourself in the place of God over another. 
            Jesus says: “Call no one your father, for you all have one Father, who is in heaven.”  One Father, one Creator, one Authority, one Lord: God.  Not any human person, except the One who became flesh to dwell among us, full of grace and truth: Jesus. 
            You are not the lord of someone else’s life; only God is.  Murder takes God’s authority, making yourself the arbiter of another’s life and death.  Adultery makes your agenda the most important thing in a relationship, even in other people’s relationships.  Stealing makes yourself the lord of someone else’s property, property that ultimately belongs not to any individual but to God.  Lying makes yourself the lord of truth, as if your story was more accurate and important than God’s story.  And envy is a rejection of what you have, it is a dissatisfaction which indicates lack of faith in God, and leads to murder, adultery, stealing, and lying.
            All these were useful tools of Pharaoh in oppressing people.  Don’t do them, says God.  Don’t do them to each other.  And certainly don’t invent for yourselves political and economic systems that do them as a matter of policy.

V.
            In our gospel reading for today, Jesus goes to the Temple to celebrate Passover, the great holiday of the Israelites’ liberation from Pharaoh’s bondage.  And what he finds is an establishment that has embraced the values and practices of Pharaoh.  “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” Jesus shouts, his voice echoing off the stone walls, resounding over the sounds of bleating animals and angry, yelling people.  Don’t turn God’s house into a marketplace.
            Jesus knows that the marketplace is where the “haves” tend to rule, and the strong often take advantage of the weak.  The marketplace can be where people and animals and goods are reduced to commodities that have a price tag.  Jesus knows that the values that frequently rule in the marketplace are those of Pharaoh, not God who gives all we need to us for free.  And this business in the Temple was practically offering God’s salvation for sale, not unlike the selling of Papal Indulgences in the 16th century, against which the Reformation was a rebellion.
            It could even be argued that Jesus’ injunction to “stop making my Father’s house a marketplace” provides a rationale for the Ten Commandments.  If creation belongs to God, and may be termed God’s “house” – and the Temple was explicitly a representation of God’s creation – then the Commandments are about not following Pharaoh’s road in making the world a marketplace where the strong and rich have their way, taking things God gives for free and selling them to others at a profit.  
            This we know,” said Chief Seattle, “The Earth does not belong to us, we belong to the Earth.”  And the Earth belongs to God, according to Psalm 24.  The Ten Commandments are a comprehensive guide to living together in peace on God’s holy planet.  They call upon us to live without hierarchies, without superiors and subordinates, without violence, without fear and selfishness, in humility and sharing, in generosity and grace, without hoarding, without inequality, without greed, without winners and losers.
            If we place God first in our lives, we will see each other as equals.  If we live in obedience to God’s law, reflected and fulfilled in Jesus Christ, we will avoid a lot of self-inflicted misery.  And we will find ourselves dwelling in a community that anticipates God’s Kingdom.
            This is unlikely to happen in the larger world.  But it has to happen first here.  Among us.  In God’s church, the community of disciples of Jesus, the Word of God.  If it doesn’t happen here, it won’t happen anywhere, and the church has no reason to exist.  But if it does happen here, among us, then it can start to happen out there in the world as well.  
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