Scripture: Deuteronomy 5:1-21; 6:4-9
Over a year ago I got an email from church member Marlys Rucker. It was an email forward that contained a version of this morning’s scripture. So, since she is the wisest Marlys that we have at church, I saved it and made a note to come back to it when I was preaching on the Ten Commandments. Because what Marlys sent me was The Ten Commandments (Minnesota Style). See if you recognize any of these:
- Der’s only one God, ya know.
- Don’t make that fish on your mantle an idol.
- Cussin ain’t nice.
- Go to church even when you’re up nort.
- Honor your folks.
- Don’t kill. Catch and release.
- There’s only one Lena for every Ole. No cheatin.
- If it ain’t your lutefisk, don’t take it.
- Don’t be braggin bout how much snow ya shoveled.
- Keep your mind off your neighbor’s hotdish.
This week my preacher friends also shared the Cowboy 10 Commandments, but I’ll spare you those. But take it from me if you type “funny versions of the Ten Commandments” into Google, you can kiss your next half hour goodbye. I might know that from experience.
Here’s the thing: The “Minnesota Style” commandments make sense in a certain way to those of us aware of Scandinavian culture. They speak to a certain community, right? Same with the Cowboy commandments. Pretty much every community has some signifiers—like Ole/Lena, fish, snow, and hotdish references—that make it possible to put the Ten Commandments into that community’s language. But in the beginning, before all these local variants, the original Ten Commandments helped to identify a certain people, the Israelites. “Who are we as a people? We are a people who follow the Ten Commandments.” The commandments helped form community and identity in the first place. The Hebrew people who escaped Egypt under the leadership of Moses and wandered in the wilderness for 40 years needed the commandments of God if they were to stay together as a people after entering the Promised Land, the Land of Canaan.
Our scripture today comes in a hinge between one-of-a-kind individuals, and the experiences of Hebrew people more broadly. We’ve been talking about Great Men and Women of Biblical History for the past few weeks, folks like Abraham, Sarah, Jacob, Shiphrah, Puah and Moses. But now we transition to stories from the community more broadly. Over the next five Sundays we’ll hear the experience and wisdom of the Hebrew people between the wilderness and the prophets. They are, from one Sunday to the next: a community loyal to God, a community for outsiders, a community of unity before God, a community broken by sin, and a community loved by God despite sin.
We start today with a community loyal to God, and the Ten Commandments that helped the early Israelites know how to live as Yahweh’s people. These are bedrock principles that are essentially “baked in” to human character. They are habits of the heart to be taught and nurtured from the earliest of ages. They are a guide so that people might self-regulate their behavior before it must be enforced by external laws. In the millennia since they were given, the Ten Commandments have inspired countless generations, they became the building blocks that Jesus built on in his preaching, and they are now what one writer describes as “an essentially universal ethical document of immense value.”
Can I tell you a secret though? For as important as the Ten Commandments are, I don’t know them! At least, I don’t have them memorized. Do you? (If so I’d be envious, except that it would break the Tenth Commandment.) Memorizing scripture, even one as important as this, is a lost art. We live in an era that’s skeptical about memorizing Bible verses, because we care more for the heart and not the letter of the law, so in recent decades most churches like ours have scorned biblical literalism. To be honest, when I think of the Ten Commandments what first comes to mind is not the verses themselves but the culture wars around them. I associate the Ten Commandments with political conservatives who want to post them in every school classroom, claiming this will create a moral society. I suspect that their zeal has more to do with pushing a certain agenda, and they’re using the Ten Commandments for their symbolic value. But what’s lost in the political fight over the Commandments is a real consideration of their contents. Both the too-hot obsession over a monument’s location and the too-cold suspicion of memorizing verses, miss what is just-right: the substance of the Commandments. And that’s a terrible loss, because for a people of faith like us they capture something essential about loving God and loving our neighbors.
Time doesn’t allow us to consider each commandment in depth here, since I was reminded today that the Packers are playing at noon. But for now let me share one core insight which comes to us from Hebrew scholars. The first half of these commandments are given to shape a community’s love of God, and the other half to help us love God in the way we treat our neighbor. If you are a visual learner like me, think of it as the vertical and horizontal axes of the cross. The first five commandments, according to tradition, point us vertically toward God:“I am the Lord your God; have no other gods before me. Do not make idols. Do not take my name in vain.” The commandments about honoring the Sabbath and parents belong here also. When we honor the Sabbath, we acknowledge that God’s power is more effective than our own frenzied rush to get everything done (which too easily becomes an idol, in my own experience). When we honor our father and mother, we are most deeply honoring the fact that God has made it possible for us to exist on this blessed earth. We respect those who played a role in bringing us to life, even though we also must resist abusive or neglectful parenting.
If the first five commandments are about the vertical axis, giving supreme value to the Source and Savior of all life, the other five point us toward right relationships with our neighbors. Do not murder your neighbor. Do not cheat on your dearest neighbor, your spouse. Do not steal from your neighbor. Do not bear false witness—or lie—against your neighbor. And do not covet or be envious for what your neighbor has. These five prohibitions are at the core of what it means to be a safe and nurturing community. And at a fundamental level, they are also directed to God. We demonstrate loyalty to the transcendent God by caring for the people that God has placed on this earth alongside us.
For Christians, Jews, Muslims and others who follow the Ten Commandments, this is the source of all human morality. Loving our neighbor as an essential part of loving God. And it was none other than Jesus who summed it up this way when he was asked the Greatest Commandment. We’ve got that one memorized, don’t we? Love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength; love your neighbor as yourself. The two tablets of the Ten Commandments, the vertical and horizontal axes at the heart of life.
Seen in this light, the Ten Commandments are not so much a checklist to accomplish but rather an orientation of the heart. Measuring our lives against them, we become a community loyal to God which cares for its neighbors. And when we’re loyal to God, the Commandments don’t feel like burdens or a wagging finger. They are instead natural extensions of our love, and the means through which God blesses the world. In the words of biblical scholar Ronald Clements, for “divine love and grace to become real and effective in human society, it must be reciprocated in human actions. So the path is left open for the recognition that to love God is loving to obey the divine commandments.”
I’m not sure that I’ll always be able to recall each of the ten commandments, but I can see now why Deuteronomy places such importance on remembering them. Why Hebrew people to this day wear the commandments of love on their bodies, post them in doorways as reminders while passing by, and teach them to the youngest children. Loyalty to God in the pattern of these commandments—loving God inwardly and neighbor outwardly—leads to flourishing human life. Following these commandments and the love within them is what’s most important to God. But as Deuteronomy points out, remembering them each day would be a great place to start.
Let us pray: God of wisdom, thank you for the loving ways you have set before us in these Commandments. Help us to embrace them in each new day. Place them at the center of our lives and our community, that we might love you with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, and love our neighbors as ourselves. Amen.
 Ronald E. Clements, “Deuteronomy: Introduction, commentary and reflections” in The New Interpreter’s Bible commentary, vol. 2 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998), 329.
 Clements, 346.