A Sermon at St. John's Church, Portsmouth, Kingston, Ontario, March 26, 2000

by Robert Brow      (www.brow.on.ca)

RULES OF MORALITY  The ten commandments are rules of morality found among all nations. They are recognized by people of all major religions, and even by those with no religion. Even an atheist will object if he is made to work seven days a week, if he is falsely accused, someone murders his daughter, or his wife commits adultery with another man. But there is a huge variety in the ways each of these ten rules is interpreted.

The first commandment tells us there can only be one supreme being. Christians, Jews, and Muslims view him as the one Creator God. Hindus talk about the Absolute, or the principle or soul that moves our world. Atheists think the Big Bang explains everything. But it takes a lot of faith to say "I believe in the Big Bang Almighty Creator of heaven and earth."

The second command forbids the making of idols and images. Strict Muslims take this to the extreme and allow no depiction of anything that looks like any kind of human, animal, or plant life. Except in Iran, where some decoration is permitted, Muslim mosques use only complicated mathematical designs. Greek Orthodox believers on the other hand use icons in their devotion. They deny that the icon of Jesus or Mary or a Saint is worshiped. Faith looks through the icon like a window to the reality beyond. When Cromwell and his Puritans took over Britain three centuries ago they destroyed thousands of priceless stain glass windows, and smashed any statues in the churches. But some Evangelical Christians who have no artistic decoration in their church buildings are quite happy to have a picture of Jesus in their Sunday Schools. In a dictatorship ordinary people object to huge statues of their ruler or posters of his face on every billboard. Obviously the second commandment is a rule which is given many interpretations.

Three weeks ago we looked at the fourth commandment about work and rest. Religions not only differ about the day of rest but about the rules which are made for keeping it.

All people in some sense forbid murder. But some Christians are prepared to fight to defend their own country. Others would object to engage in a war against a distant country. Two hundred years ago Englishmen thought it was their Christian duty to use guns to subdue and civilize their colonies. There are also Christians like the Mennonites and Quakers who are total pacifists. Even when their home and family is attacked the stricter Mennonites will not even call in the police. Other Christians are willing to carry a gun in the police force and hope they will never have to use it.

When Mollie and I were in Abu Dhabi we were shocked to find that the local Arabs had a very different definition of the seventh commandment. A man could have extra wives, take in a concubine, or have affairs with a foreign women, and that was not considered adultery. It was only adultery if he went in to the wife of a local Arab man, and that deserved the death penalty. That made us read the stories of the Old Testament patriarchs who had a similar views about polygamy and concubines. As a result we wrote a book called Adultery : An Exploration of Love and Marriage which explains the totally new view of love, mutuality, divorce, and adultery that Jesus brought from heaven.

All of which proves that the commandments are ten categories of judgment found among people everywhere. And humans continually engage in moral discussion of the detailed contents of each these universal rules.

JESUS AS TEACHER   If there are all these differences of interpretation, how can we know what rules to live by? In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus said six times "It was said to those of ancient times . . . but I say to you" (Matthew 5:21, 27, 33, 38, 43). He did not hesitate to correct the interpretations of the law which were current among Jewish people. Similarly he would no doubt want to correct the wrong ideas about right and wrong in every nation and tribe of the world. One of the principles which he taught was "Do as you would be done by" or "Do to others as you would have them do to you" (Luke 6:31) . In other words "Put yourself in the other person's shoes, and you will know how you ought to behave."

But Jesus' moral principles went far deeper than that. He stressed that the outward behavior required in each of the ten rules began in our heart long before the outward act occurs.. A murderous attitude of "I would kill him if I could get away with it" is already murder (Matthew 5:22). And where there is a decision to commit adultery if there was the opportunity, the person has already committed heart adultery (Matthew 5:28).

Most important of all he told us to interpret each item of morality in terms of the love of God for us and our love for God and for our neighbor (Matthew 22:37-40). God gave us the rule about work and rest because He loves us, not to make life a burden. Which is why Jesus said "The day of rest was made for humans. Humans were not made to obey rules about sabbath keeping" (Mark 2:27).

I like to define love as caring about the freedom of the other. God's love means that he is totally concerned for our freedom and ultimate joy. In a loving marriage each cares about and longs for the joy of the other. That does not mean being walked over, but it involves adopting a heart attitude that cares about the other's freedom. Similarly parents who love their children don't begin by insisting on obeying arbitrary rules. They have a heart concern that each child will have the freedom to grow into all the love and joy and peace of a creative worthwhile life.

When we interpret the ten commandments according to our own standards we may feel we are doing quite well. But when we see the implications of Jesus' interpretation we realize that we have a long way to go in the direction of being perfected in love.

JESUS AS HEALER   Paul wrote that "Through the law comes the knowledge of sin" (Romans 3:20). This means that the law is diagnostic. When we go to the doctor the function of the thermometer, the stethoscope, and the blood tests is to see what needs attention. They do not heal us. There was a story of a missionary doctor in India who carefully went over a man's chest and back with his stethoscope. When he had finished the man said "Thank you very much for healing me, Doctor Sahib, I am feeling better." He mistook the diagnosis for the treatment. That is why Jesus not only gave us the correct interpretation of the law, but he also undertook to heal us. "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners" (Mark 2:17). The Ten Commandment or rules of any kind can never heal us.

But Jesus does not limit himself to his life and example of death and resurrection for us. He gives us the Holy Spirit. "If you, who are evil know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!" (Luke 11:13, John 14:17).

The Holy Spirit is always ready to give us all the wisdom, and inspiration, love, joy, peace, prayer according to the will of God, and many other forms of empowerment. People who say "I am a good person, and I live by the ten commandments" have no idea of all they could be and do by the power of the Spirit. So again it is obvious that no commandments or rules can ever give anyone the fruit and gifts and power of the Holy Spirit.

When we go to him as Doctor for our inability to love and care as we ought, Jesus the Messiah also introduces us to his Father. And God the Father immediately welcomes us as children of God (John 1:12, 1 John 3:2). Early this morning at about 4 a.m. I had a terrible dream. I was in a foreign country, desperate to get to my car and nobody in a line of taxi drivers would help me. When I woke up I knew it was a nightmare, but I was still terrified, and couldn't go back to sleep. Happily I immediately turned to God as a little child to a parent, and so to speak cuddled up in bed with Him. I felt totally safe, and went off to sleep happily till the morning. No amount of rules can do that for you.

It is important to set our instruments right by the practical wisdom of Jesus's teaching concerning the ten commandments. But it is far more important to feel free to talk to God like a little child and experience the wisdom and power of the Holy Spirit to make our live effective and beautiful.

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