Tuesday, 6 March 2012
lectionary leanings: Exodus 20: 1-17
As a keen student of church discipline I think law gets a rather bad press. Words such as ‘repressive’, ‘oppressive’, and ‘legalistic’ are often bandied about disparagingly. And admittedly, upon first hearing,a phrase like ‘thou shallt not’doesn’t tend to make you feel particularly warm and fluffy on the inside...but bear with me as I try to make the case for church law being a good thing, as well as perhaps misunderstood.
Our reading today, is that most classic of all church law texts: the Ten Commandments, also known as the ‘ten words’.
Now from the early stirrings of human civilization to the present,
wherever groups of humans have lived alongside one another, rules or law codes have tended to spring up. At their most basic, law codes enable people to co-exist with each other in a more or less peaceable manner and help maintain social order. Further, inextricably tied into most law codes was – and still is – notions of morality. Lord Devlin, the noted judge and jurist argued that morality was the glue that held a society together and without which, society would fall apart. Alternatively, another take on Devlin’s view might be found in that perennially troubling issue: without law and morality, who would take care of the drains?
This, courtesy of the late, great comedienne Joyce Grenfell in conversation with a young anarchist.
The law, or codes of conduct, used by a particular group tell us rather a lot about that group; and, in the case of the ten commandments, what we discover is that this code tells us both who, and whose, these people are,
and from that, how they are to respond:
all this even before we arrive at the very first commandment. For the giving of the commandments begins with the following statement: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery...’
Here, ‘God’s identity and purpose are forever situated in this saving event and this narrative. This is a covenantal relation that is organised against every exploitation or oppression. The God of the commands is one who intends freedom and well-being in communion.’ [Brueggemann, in Texts for Preaching yr B, p212]
If, as the old Dylan song observes, ‘you gotta serve somebody’ – here we see a people choosing to serve God: the God who has already chosen them, the God who rescues and liberates them... the one who teaches them about getting their relational priorities – both vertical and horizontal – in order.
And this, so that they, who were once oppressed, may live in God’s freedom, and in their freedom, to overturn the tables of those power dynamics that dehumanise and oppress.
Given this, the ten commandments, the ten words, are less some nasty little legalistic code to be got around –
to be tholed as some kind of burden.
Rather, these are words of liberation and life:
law as a powerful spiritual tool designed to bring about the transformation of both the individual, and community, and in doing so, to create a little piece of heaven on earth.