Friday, October 2, 2015

Commands toward Others II (Exodus 20:15-21) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

Today we conclude our three weeks series on the Ten Commandments, which are also called, the decalogue. The late American filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille said: “Humanity has made 32,600,000 laws, but hasn’t yet succeeded in improving on the 10 Commandments.”

In the late 1990's, the Tennessee Senate approved a resolution encouraging homes, businesses, houses of worship, places of work, and schools to post and observe the Ten Commandments.  The resolution cited the declining moral standards in our nation as the reason.   It wasn't a law, it was merely a resolution to “encourage” Tennessee citizens to heed and post the Ten Commandments.  Tennesseen's were completely free to follow or ignore the resolution.

What do you think of such a resolution?   Personally I agree with it.  The 10 commandments are God's moral compass.  They provide God's direction for people who are spiritually and morally lost.  They are God's word for people who have not heard the word of God.  In my view there has been a decline in our nations’ moral standards.   I would like to see California citizens post the Ten Commandments, this classic summary of our Judeo/Christian moral and spiritual values.   Is there a chance it could happen?  Realistically, no.  But people are free to post them in their homes.

Is this a new idea?  No, it is actually an old Jewish tradition.  You may have heard of the mezuzah.   Mezuzah is a Hebrew word which literally means “doorpost.”  It's a small wooden, metal or glass case, about three inches in length, which is placed on the doorpost of a Jewish home.   Inside the case is a tiny parchment, on which is inscribed the Ten commandments. 
It's aim is to instill God’s law in people's minds and hearts at home and away from home.   They are a constant reminder of God’s presence and God’s command for us to lead faithful, righteous, good and moral lives.  We now turn to the last three commandments.  

The Eighth Commandment is: You Shall not steal.  This command is so basic.  Author Robert Fulghum's book, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, said it well: Lesson number six - “Don't take things that aren't yours.”

God knew that His covenant with Israel could not be sustained and that the covenant and Israelite society itself would collapse, if theft, at all levels, became rampant.  God is saying one has the right to own property and one’s rights of ownership should be respected.  

The prohibition against stealing is necessary for the stability and well-being of society.  Honesty and economic justice are core values of any society.  The very future of society is in peril, wherever theft occurs: in the medical community, in government, in the military, in business, in education, in churches or in our homes.    We are bombarded with warnings about identity theft today.

The perception of theft in our communities today is overwhelming.  We read that one in four Americans will be a victim of crime each year and the majority of those crimes will be thefts.  There is some light in the picture.   The number of property crimes in the United States from January to June of 2014 decreased 7.5 percent when compared with the same time period in 2013.  Property crimes include burglary, larceny-theft, and motor vehicle theft.

I was particularly acute to the possibility of car theft after we lived for many years in Los Angeles.   I recall in 1995 when I received a call to a church in Colorado.  We moved from Santa Monica to Monument, Colorado, a small town just north of Colorado Springs.  Nancy and I were on guard and made sure the car was locked.  So in addition to our car alarm we would also attach a club locking device on our steering wheel. The only thing we didn’t have was a large Rotweiller sitting in the front seat with a sign in his mouth saying:  “Make my Day.”  We both remembered getting strange looks from people when we would park the car and go through the steps to lock it up.  It turned out car theft was almost unheard of in Monument.  No one locked their car.  Crime was almost non-existent.  It took awhile to change our habits.

This commandment forbidding stealing is broad.  It prohibits stealing another human being, kidnapping.  Then, as today around the world, human beings are kidnapped for various nefarious purposes, including selling them into slavery and for ransom.  God has created human beings with a sacred right, the right to life, to liberty, the right to live in freedom.  Secondly, it forbids the stealing of another's property.  God declares that people have a right to own and protect private property.  The third meaning concerns stealing the many non-material things an individual owns – your reputation, your good name, your dignity, your sense of trust and personal safety.

Let's turn to The Ninth Commandment: “You shall not bear false witness against another” or “give false testimony against your neighbor.”  

The original context of this commandment was people lying in Israel's courts of law.  God is deeply concerned about fairness in the legal justice system.  God knew that Israel could not survive if its system of justice was corruptible.  Obviously that is true today.  A corrupt legal system, unscrupulous judges and lawyers can threaten a nation's survival.  God commands us to be honest in our private dealings and in our pubic dealings.

We give false testimony by intentionally leaving something out of a story, telling a half-truth, twisting the facts, or making false accusations, unfounded allegations, groundless claims, boldface lies about others.   God warns us against such deceit.  A society cannot endure when it holds contempt for truth whether inside or outside the courtroom.  Even though lying and making false accusations is a way of life for some, God's people must never give into it.  God calls upon his followers, you and me, to speak the truth, to tell the truth. 

A false accusation can of course ruin a person’s reputation.  It can convict someone unfairly, send an innocent person to prison, lead them to being unjustly fined, or result in a guiltless person’s execution for a crime.

True, truth-telling as a witness can be complicated.  To truthfully tell what you saw, what you heard, what you know, is not always simple given the various circumstances of an incident, from a crime to a traffic accident.  Perception is always involved.  We hear stories today of false claims about rape, racism, assault, child abuse, workplace intimidation, school yard bullying.  It is a daunting task for law enforcement and the court system to investigate and ascertain the truth of a reported crime against a person or persons. 

When you strive to live truthfully, you acknowledge God's authority over your life, you show respect for God, you honor and obey God.  By truthful living you treat others with dignity.  God has created us for truthful living and by his grace, God has endowed us with the courage and wisdom to tell the truth. 

Searching for truth and being truthful to one another, is one of the greatest hallmarks of what it means to be created in God's image, to being a human being, to being a follower of Jesus.

Poet Beth Day wrote:  “Make it pass, before you speak, three gates of gold:  These narrow gates:  First,  “Is it true?” Then, “Is it needful?”  And the next is last and narrowest,  “Is it kind?”  And if to reach your lips at last, it passes through these gates three, then you may tell the tale, nor fear, what the result of speech may be.” 

God’s final imperative in the decalogue is an urgent word:  You shall not Covet!  Coveting, really.  Coveting doesn't hurt anyone, why a commandment? 

Author Dennis Prager writes:  “This is the only one of the Ten Commandments that legislates thought.  All the other commands legislate behavior.  Coveting is what leads to violating the other commandments, coveting so often leads to evil.” 

The Hebrew word for covet is “lachmod.”  The word is not about a passing fancy - “Oh, I wouldn’t mind having that” or “That is nice, I like that,” or about admiring someone else's possessions.  The Hebrew word used here is a strong one.  It refers to a chronic personal attitude of dissatisfaction, discontentment, an obsession with something or someone, hyper-jealousy, an intense wanting or preoccupation toward something or someone else.  It deeply resents that someone has something you don't have.  It is an all-consuming envy which can pollute one's mind and distort one’s perception.  It’s a destructive emotion, a lusting after, a drive or fixation to possess what others have.  

Covet in Hebrew further includes planning and scheming to acquire what someone else has.  It can range from another's material possessions, to their success, their position, their spouse, their children, their name.  The modern day stalker is a frightening example of one who violates this commandment.  The stalker is relentless in his or her drive to possess some person. 

The source of coveting is of course human sin. The sin of pride, idolatry, insecurity, a deep seated unhappiness within ourselves. God in this commandment links our inward desires with our outward actions.   God knows it all begins in the heart, with our inner thoughts, the seed of an evil thought which grows into murder, adultery, lying, stealing. 

In the Bible, King David coveted Bathsheba, and had her husband, Uriah the Hittite killed in battle in order to possess her.  King Ahab and Jezebel coveted Naboth’s vineyard, and had him killed in order to acquire it.

Covetousness is the enemy of serenity, tranquility, inner peace.  Can we have inner-peace if our hearts are eaten up with a powerful desire for things that are not ours?  Covetousness is the enemy of peace in the family.  I have personally witnessed families battling over wills and property and inheritance issues.  Covetousness is the enemy of peace in the church.  Covetousness is the enemy of peace in the workplace, the community, the nation and in the world. 

If you are struggling with coveting, turn to the Lord and pray: “I seek your help God.  Change my heart.  Free me from this obsession.  I have sinned.  Forgive.  Make me whole. I seek your blessing.”  And be assured that there is power in God's word of mercy, forgiveness, and blessing.  Through repentance and confession, the Holy Spirit begins a new work within us.

An inner transformation begins to occur and we begin to enjoy and value our lives and not  resent what others have that we lack.  We begin to celebrate the success of others instead of being jealous and resentful.  We discover true blessing in giving to others, rather than getting from others what we desire.  God will transform the envy that can burn within into a genuine sense of inner-peace and contentment.

As we study the commandments, they drive us toward God whom we encounter both as holy judge and merciful savior.  And by the inward working of God’s Spirit, they gradually change from being external rules, to becoming God's word written on our hearts.  We see them as they are: signs of God’s steadfast love commanding us to lead good and righteous lives which love, worship and honor God and treat others with respect and justice.

For God’s plan for creation is where people are more concerned with their neighbors’ good, than with their neighbor’s goods.  Amen!

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