Adapted from a sermon preached on Exodus 20:1-17 at First Presbyterian Church; Pontotoc, MS, March 2018.

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Photo by Jamie Templeton on Unsplash.

For every camp at which I’ve worked, making a group covenant has been part of the early-in-the-week activities. Groups got together and decided what guidelines might order their lives together that week, and we leaders often tried to steer the language in a positive direction. “Don’t run” or “don’t use bad words” became “follow the camp rules.” “Don’t be mean” became “respect others” or “be kind.”  “Don’t skip activities” became “be present” or “try new things.”

This positivity practice is, I think, helpful for two reasons. First, a list good options sounds a lot more attractive than a list of things that aren’t allowed. For kids and youth of course, but let’s be real, it also sounds better to me. The second reason is that the positive alternatives often go a step further in building caring communities. It’s not as simple as, for example, keeping your mouth shut and not saying mean things. It’s making the choice to actively uplift your neighbors by saying kind ones.

God shared a number of directives for how the Israelites should live out the covenant God had made with them, and the Ten Commandments are some of those guidelines. There’s obviously a bit of creative liberty I’m taking in reimagining them — this list isn’t another biblical translation, but an interpretation of one.

“You shall have no other gods before me.” 

or

Put God first.

The first commandment isn’t one that denies the existence of other deities or powers, but it is one in which God-with-a-capital-G demands Israel’s total allegiance. There’s a lot we could worship in this world — wealth, power, famous figures, or uncompromising attachment to our own ideas. There’s no denying that those temptations exist. But even when life leads us to engage with those things, we’re led to make God a more important influence.

“You shall not make for yourself an idol…”

or

Embrace that God is bigger than any human image can contain.

When it comes to the number of verses spent on each commandment, “no idols” comes in at a close second place. Read: this is an important one. We get two and a half verses of explanation — no idols that look like things in heaven, or things on earth, or things under the earth. No bowing to or worshiping these images, and that to do so puts the people at risk of generations of punishment. Still, God’s love is greater than God’s wrath, because to follow this commandment is to feel God’s love to the thousandth generation. While there are plenty of idols fighting for our attention these days, when the Israelites heard this commandment, it was likely a specific warning against making images of Yahweh. So often we think we can box God into a particular picture or pronoun or personality. In a world that often seems uncertain, it can be challenging to find comfort in the vastness of God that is so beyond our understanding. Of course God isn’t always about comfort, but what wonder there is to be found if we can be okay with that kind of big.

“You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God…”

or

Sing praise to God.

We often hear this one as “don’t use the Lord’s name in vain.” Over time we’ve boiled down this commandment to mean avoiding certain non-worshipful phrases that include the words “God” or “Jesus.” Instead of just avoiding talking about God the wrong way, how might we share the right way?  Whether through literal music or not, I hope we’ll be inspired by this commandment to actively share the ways God’s Spirit is moving in our lives.

“Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy.”

or

Follow God’s call to renewal.

This is one of only two commandments already written in positive language, but I hope you’ll reimagine it with me nonetheless. There’s weight to this one, as it comes in at number one in the amount of space given to explanation. Four verses total, describing in detail what it means (“you shall not do any work”) and who it’s for (the heads of household, kids, servants, immigrants and even the animals). Even God rested on the seventh day, we’re reminded. As W. Sibley Towner beautifully puts it, “Rest is written into the very nature of things.”*

Often when we hear the word sabbath, we think Sunday and thus, for many of us, land on the image of going to church. Of course I hope that your being there is renewing, or at least fulfilling. But sabbath renewal the way God intends can be a whole lot more than that. What is it that sets time apart from your day to day life to rest, recharge, and make you more open to connecting with the holy? Maybe it’s quiet time to yourself, book in hand, or maybe it’s exercise, time with family, fishing, or some other life-giving activity. Without following God’s example seeking rest and renewal, we’re not all that equipped to sustainably navigate the rest of our lives together.

And here’s where the focus of our covenant how-to shifts a bit, toward that whole “life together” thing. While the first four commandments focus on our relationships with God, the last six direct us to better relationships with neighbor.

“Honor your father and your mother…”

or

Remember those who have come before us.

Here we are with the other already-postive directive. To the Israelites, this would have been a whole lot more than listening to “eat your vegetables” and obeying “go to sleep when we tell you to.” Especially for a community in exile, the importance of traditions passed down from generation to generation was inextricably woven into the fabric of their being. Remembering those who have come before us might mean honoring the people responsible for our genetics, but for some people their parental relationships aren’t ones to be celebrated. We all have people, though, who have made us who we are. I hope we have all had people who have made us feel like belong. Remember those who have come before us, and the ways they have made us who we are today.

“You shall not murder.”

or

Join God in the work of creation.

Later in Scripture — in Matthew, specifically — Jesus reflects on this commandment by saying that if a fellow person has anything against you, reconciliation is a must before you go worship at the temple. “Don’t murder” is straightforward, but what does not killing call us to do? Whether we make art or music or really good food, whether we work the land, nourishing the creation that already surrounds us, or whether we create just a little more love by sending a handwritten note in the mail, instead of taking life away, why don’t we try adding to it. 

“You shall not commit adultery.”

or

Love your family well.

For the Israelites, this declaration would’ve been less about being faithful for love’s sake, and more about preserving the integrity of the family line, and therefore of the transmission of inheritances. In an age before DNA tests, the only way to be sure of family lineage was to make sure there weren’t any other possibilities. When it comes to reimagining this one, there are a couple ways it could go. Do we say simply “remain faithful to your spouse,” and those of us who are unmarried can just check this one off as a non-issue? Not quite.

I won’t presume to define the word family for you. Everyone’s looks different. Maybe your family is defined by blood, but maybe not. Whoever your tribe is, love them well. Sift out all the things that might be more attractive — work, screen time, whatever it is. Even when inheritance isn’t the primary concern, this attitude of devotion might just pass down from generation to generation.

“You shall not steal”

or

Practice generosity.

This one is, it would seem, another on the list of pretty straightforward commandments. Just as the Israelites valued lines of inheritance, a people in exile would have valued what little personal property they did have. Hence, a rule to protect it. In a society today that constantly tempts us to put ourselves first, what might be possible if we aim for the opposite? There’s something to be said, I should mention, about making sure you are okay. It’s important to listen to what our own bodies and spirits need. But there are a whole lot of ways to be generous.  Instead of wondering what you need to take, think about what you have to give.

“You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.”

or

Tell the truth.

Commonly simplified today to “no lying,” to the Israelites this charge would have specifically focused on judicial proceedings. Not lying can be an adequate undertaking of silence, but telling the truth requires some action. Sometimes telling the truth might be as easy as intentionally telling a neighbor or friend what we appreciate about them. When telling the truth is saying something contrary to those around us, it’s a bit more of a challenge. Later in Exodus, as Moses continues to share laws from God, he expands on the idea of not bearing false witness, saying “You shall not follow a majority in wrongdoing.” All of a sudden the original “don’t lie in court” has potential to be downright prophetic. Every one of us won’t act this out in the same way. But tell the truth.

“You shall not covet.”

or

Practice gratitude.

Although it’s just one verse, there’s explanation here too. No coveting someone else’s spouse, servants, or animals, and just to make sure we get it, there’s the catch-all conclusion “or anything that belongs to your neighbor.” Especially in this age of social media and constant communication, it’s easier than ever to wish we had nicer clothes, a nicer car, or the seemingly so-put-together life of the person down the street. We all come from different places and people and stations in life. There’s no denying that some people have had a really hard go of it. That’s real. But as we consider this last commandment I’ll challenge us to look at our own lives and find something for which to be grateful. Maybe your list is long. Or maybe all you can muster is finding gratitude for waking up this morning and filling your lungs with air. That’s enough.

These commandments are a ten-part covenant for faithful living. There’s room in these rules for the vast diversity of humanity, and when we live the ways God leads us to, we more fully embrace our identity as being made in God’s image.

Like the Israelites, we won’t always get it right. News flash, perfection isn’t exactly a common human trait. But the beautiful thing about God’s covenant with us is that, unlike the traditional either/or of a legal contract, here when one party falls short, the other still promises to be there. 

Put God first.

Embrace that God is bigger than any human image can contain.

Sing praise to God.

Follow God’s call to renewal.

Remember those who have come before us.

Join God in the work of creation

Practice generosity.

Love your family well.

Tell the truth.

Give thanks.

May it be so.


* Towner, W. Sibley, Feasting on the Word Year B Volume 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 77.