Rules for the saved
[Published in Mennonite Weekly Review, 8/30/10]
We misread the Ten Commandments when we think of them as stand-alone rules or general humanistic principles applicable for secular society. The best way to read them is as theological clues — they tell us about God and about life lived in light of God.
Paul’s teaching in Rom. 12:1-2 gives us a good sense of how to think of the Commandments: Due to God’s mercy, present your lives to God. Resist conformity with the surrounding world and instead allow your minds to be renewed in light of God’s love for you.
The first and decisive statement the Ten Commandments make provides what my Old Testament teacher Millard Lind called “the motive clause” for what follows. This statement affirms what we must know about God: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the house of slavery” (Ex. 20:2). Our motive to obey is that God’s saving mercy comes first.
Another way to misread the Commandments is to think they provide the standards we must meet in order to find salvation. It’s precisely the other way around. The message here is that God gives salvation, then gives the commands to shape our lives as saved people. It’s mercy first — but always linked with faithfulness.
Following the slave-liberating God
The Ten Commandments may be understood as a direct challenge to the Egyptian empire — and all other empires. The “god” of the Egyptians served the state, the power of the emperor, the growth of the wealth of the people on the top of society’s pyramid.
The Commandments present a very different God. The God of the Commandments is a God of mercy, a God who liberates slaves. And this God calls upon God’s people to shape their lives according to generosity, concern for the vulnerable, honesty, peace.
The entirety of Torah (the Old Testament law codes that are introduced by the Ten Commandments) is best understood as a blueprint for a genuinely just community — explicitly formed in contrast with the ways of empire.
God gives the gift of life, of salvation, of freedom from all kinds of slavery and idolatry, so that we may worship Yahweh (above all other gods) with our entire lives. Such worship leads directly to lives that seek to break bonds of injustice wherever they may be found.