Exodus 19-21, Psalm 23, Matthew 24
The Ten Commandments, not the Ten Suggestions
Exodus 19 – 21
When I studied in Seville or Sevilla as the Spanish call it, I had already spent time studying Spanish in Barcelona, Madrid and Salamanca. I had walked over 500 miles crossing the north of Spain on the Camino and visited Burgos, Leon and Santiago de Compostela. I had seen a lot of Spain. But once I started exploring Seville, I felt as though I had encountered the real Spain.
Each day I walked across the Guadalquivir River and past the Torre de Oro to my school near the Plaza de Toros. In the nearby bars and restaurants heads of bulls were mounted on the walls along with photos of famous matadors. Nearby stores sold traditional Sevillana clothing. This was the Spain that I had dreamed about, and I fell in love with it.
So, it is with the Bible. We read through lengthy portions of it and suddenly we come to passage or story and think to ourselves, “This is what I was looking for all along. This is God – the real Creator, Sustainer and Redeemer of the Universe!”
The Bible is full of many fascinating stories, but there not a lot of direct encounters between humans and God. These encounters between God and humans, while rare, are extremely fascinating. They are called theophanies. “Theophany” derives from an ancient Greek word meaning “appearance of god.”
The term appears in Homer’s Iliad, a story of the ten-year siege of the city of Troy during the Trojan War, and in the Epic of Gilgamesh, an epic poem from Mesopotamia, which is one of the oldest surviving pieces of literature known to man. The Old Testament contains only a small number of theophanies. The Bible states that God revealed himself from time to time to human beings. God spoke to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden (Gen. 3:9-19), to Cain (Gen. 4:9-15), to Noah (Gen. 6:13, Gen. 7:1, Gen. 8:15), to Noah’s sons (Gen. 9:1-8), and to Abraham. (Gen.18:23-33)
Moses’s encounter with the burning bush was a theophany (Ex. 3:2-22), and is one of the longest conversations between a human and God in the Bible. Samuel’s dream at Shiloh is a theophany. (I Sam. 3:1-21) Many of the prophets had direct encounters with God, including Isaiah (Is. 6:1-13), Amos (Amos 7:1-9), Jeremiah (Jer. 1:4-19), Ezekiel (Ezek. 1-3), and Zechariah (Zech. 1:1-2:5)
When God appears in the form of a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire at night to lead the Israelites out of Egypt through the Sinai desert (Ex. 13:21-22), this, too, is a theophany. In Exodus chapters 19-20, which we read today, we encounter another theophany. This one is accompanied by thunder and lighting, a smoking mountaintop, the sounds of trumpets blaring and the earth quaking under a dark cloud covering the mountain. (Ex. 19:16-25) Hollywood would love this!
In the midst of this theophany God revealed the Ten Commandments to Moses. The same story will later be told in Deut. 4:11-13, 4:33-36 and 5:4-19, where a more succinct version of the Ten Commandments is revealed.
God reminds Moses how he “bore [the Israelites] on eagle’s wings” and brought them safely to himself.” (Ex. 19:4) God promises to treat the Israelites as his “treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.” (Ex. 19:5-6) The Israelites will remain God’s Chosen People as long as they keep God’s Covenant.
Christians today have inherited God’s Covenant, but our keeping of the Ten Commandments is lax at best. The first four commandments symbolize the vertical relationship of faith. We shall worship only one God. We shall not worship any idol or false God. We shall not take the name of the Lord in vain. We shall honor the Sabbath. All of these focus on the relationship between God and humans.
The final six commandments symbolize the horizontal dimension of faith, which connects us to other people. Honor your mother and father. Do not murder. Do not commit adultery. Do not steal. Do not bear false witness. Do not covet. These focus on the relationship between humans.
Martin Luther said, “If you keep the first commandment, you will keep them all.” He was right. If we break the first commandment, all of the other commandments are in peril. Today, the commandment that is most in peril is probably the fourth commandment, “Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy.”
America is the stress capital of the world. After abolishing the Blue Laws, shops and stores were allowed to open on Sunday, and Sunday became just like another day. We all need a day, however, to move to a different rhythm and renew ourselves. As God told Moses, “Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work…” (Ex. 20:9:10)
Some people cannot take Sunday as their Sabbath. What is key is to find one day a week to stop working and allow for other things to fill our life and bring us joy – reading, exercising, gardening, having lunch with a friend, playing golf or tennis, sleeping in, making love, fixing breakfast for the family or watching Downtown Abbey or a favorite TV show. God gave us the Ten Commandments for our benefit. If we don’t take a day off each week and keep these commandments, God won’t suffer, but we will.
In chapter 21, we begin reading laws of restitution, which at times appear almost comical. “Whoever curses father or mother shall be put to death.” (Ex. 21:17) Really! Obviously, these laws can be dangerously stupid. Societies that take them literally end up using religion to tyrannize one another. Religion comes from the Latin word religio, which means “to bind together,” not destroy or pull apart. True religion is about integrating, healing, unifying, forgiving, renewing and bringing out the best of us.
Finally, Exodus 21:23-24 speaks of lex talionis or the Jewish law of “an eye for an eye.” If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.” Someone has said that a society that practices lex talionis or eye for an eye will be a kingdom of blind men. Jesus speaks of turning the other cheek and forgiving seven times seventy. It’s a far healthier way to go about life than maiming one another eye for eye.
There is no more beloved psalm than Psalm 23 and perhaps no more beloved passage in the Bible than this. I urge parents and grandparents to help their children and grandchildren memorize this poetic prayer, which provides infinite comfort and hope. Its words are meant to be engraved in our souls.
The oldest parishioner whom I had the privilege to serve died at the age of 110. I went to visit her one day in her 109th year. It was hard to have even a short conversation with her, but when I began to pray the Lord’s Prayer and the 23rd Psalm with her, she joined in and recited both from memory. Studies reveal that prayers, hymns and songs are the three last things to leave our mind.
Interiorizing these prayerful words of infinite beauty will come in handy throughout our life. Most of all, they offer one of the best depictions of God found in the Bible. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” (Ps. 23:1). God will clearly take care of our basic needs. That’s the bargain, not a yacht, a perfect marriage, kids who never complain, the dream job or the college of our choice. God gives us the basics – what we need to find peace and joy.
The pastoral imagery of “green pastures” and “still waters” has stood the test of time when it comes to communicating the calming gifts and renewal that God extends to us. “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil.” (verse 4) “…your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” (verse 4) God’s love and God’s teaching are the guardrails on the highway of life.
A priest taught me before I began seminary that sheep actually get lost by “eating their way out of the flock.” They put their head down and get so caught up eating that the flock moves on and they become lost. In a similar way, many humans get caught up taking drugs, drinking too much alcohol, entering inappropriate relationships, becoming addicted to pornography or fixated on making more money. One day, they look up and realize that they are lost. God tries to curb our excesses, not for God’s sake, but for our sake. It’s all about protecting us, even if it means protecting us from ourselves.
“You anoint my head with oil…” (verse 5) In ancient Palestine, the Messiah was the one who would be anointed with oil. Jesus was anointed as the Messiah. We, too, are anointed in baptism with oil and marked as Christ’s own forever. Our baptismal anointing makes us “little Christs” or Christians. It sets us apart. God anoints us and expects much of us.
“My cup overflows.” (verse 5) If you learn to see your life as overflowing blessings, you will live and die a happy person. Count your blessings. Write them down. Share them with others. The secret to happiness is to be content with what you already have.
In his book The Contemplative Pastor Eugene Petersen asks, “How can I make others lie down in green pastures and lead them beside still waters, if I am in perpetual motion?” It is a good question for each of us who shepherd others – parents, grandparents, teachers, coaches, mentors, bosses, etc. – to ask ourselves. Am I calm enough to create a peaceful presence for those around me?
A Japanese writer, who translated Psalm 23, made me see this psalm in a fresh new way. I cannot remember his entire translation, but I do remember the first line. “The Lord is my pacesetter. I shall not rush.” That speaks powerfully to me and powerfully to stress-filled America!
Religion can easily get distorted. In chapter 24, Jesus looks down through the centuries and warns us about the excesses of those who will come after him and those who claim to follow Jesus and speak for him. “Beware that no one leads you astray,” warns Jesus. (Matt. 24:4)
But Matthew leaves us with much fodder for false prophets to use. “And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars; see that you are not alarmed; for this must take place, but the end is not yet.” (Matt. 4:7) The problem is that countless misguided religious leaders have ignored this and tried to predict the end of time, reading far too much into wars, tsunamis, earthquakes, famines and floods, and claiming that a certain number of these clearly demonstrate that the world will soon end. Don’t believe it!
God is about saving the world, not ending it. “And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray.” (Matt. 4:11) A key sign is that those who predict the end times are never convinced enough to give away all that they have, since if their predictions are true they soon shall have no need of it. Be careful who you follow and to whom you listen. There are a lot of religious charlatans in the world.
Nonetheless, Matthew 24 offers great cosmic imagery. “…they will see ‘the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven’ with power and great glory. And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.” (Matt. 24:30-31) Stars Wars and the Lord of the Rings offer nothing that cannot first be found in the Bible!
“Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left.” (Matt. 24:40) This verse spawned The Left Behind Series, which claims to be the best-selling Christian series in history. In reality, it’s an awful misrepresentation of Christianity that uses randomly selected verses like this to create the idea of a mastermind, controlling God, who selectively plucks up those who have led pure lives on earth while leaving others behind to suffer without salvation. It’s just bad theology!
Jesus offers a bright note, however, when he claims, “But the one who endures to the end will be saved.” (Matt. 24:13) Focus on this, if you are going through a time of testing and trial. Your endurance, which God will provide, if you ask, will help bring about your salvation. When Matthew wrote his gospel, Christians were already suffering martyrdom. He notes, therefore, “Then they will hand you over to be tortured and will put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of my name.” (Matt. 24:9)
Sadly, with persecution by Muslims on the rise and other forms of persecution, many Christians still experience torture, suffering and death today merely for following Jesus. We need to pray for them and call on Islamic leaders around the world to do all that they can to prevent this.
Jesus warned the disciples that following him would be a costly endeavor. It cost his closest followers everything that they had to offer. Ten of Jesus’s disciples died as martyrs. While martyrdoms were already occurring when Matthew wrote his gospel, so, too, was evangelization. “And this good news of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the world, as a testimony to all the nations; and then the end will come.” (Matt. 24:14) You are I are part of this exciting effort right now!
Psalm 23 – all of it. If you haven’t memorized it, start today. You will never regret it.
But the one who endures to the end will be saved. (Matt. 24:13)
Insure that you are reading a contemporary translation of the Bible. While the King James Bible is a classic, it was translated over 400 years ago and reads like one of Shakespeare’s plays. That’s great, but it stacks the odds and makes it more difficult to comprehend. Until you have read the Bible through two or more times, I would encourage you to read the New Revised Standard Version, the Common English Version or the New International Version of the Bible. Any of these will serve you well.
Do you believe in theophanies? Have humans ever truly encountered God? Which of the Ten Commandments do you think is most important? How do you maintain the Sabbath and when do you take it? What do you think about predictions of the end of time? Do you think that God has a plan to destroy all life on earth? Why do you think Psalm 23 is the most beloved psalm of all?
Gracious and loving God, you watch over us like a shepherd watching over his flock of sheep, moving to rescue us when we go astray, drawing us into community and using your rod and staff, not to punish us, but to protect us – often from ourselves. Help us to honor the Sabbath each week and to lie down in green pastures as you lead us beside the still waters, so that from a renewed heart and spirit, we might bring hope, love and faith to others. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
© The Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie
Rector of St. Thomas Episcopal Church
Fort Washington, Pennsylvania