Third Sunday in Lent
4 March 2018
I Corinthians 1:18-25
I grew up in a church that taught that God had a plan for my life. A plan sounds specific and detailed, like a life all mapped out. There was a decidedly evangelical flavour to this assertion and whether you heard this when you were growing up or not, it is likely something we have come across at one point or another.
And so when I was growing up we wondered about how we would come to know God’s plan for our life. We were young and had many choices to make, about which school to attend, which career to pursue, how to spend our money, which girl to date, whether to break up or not. And the way the question posed itself to us was isolated from the life of the community, we kind of thought we would find out through a personal revelation. If God had counted the hairs on our head, then surely God would to tell us exactly how to discern God’s plan.
But discerning a plan by means of supernatural revelation proved difficult. While there were some among us who spoke with great certainty that God wanted them to do this or that, for most of us life was not as clear and it was in those years that I learned that God’s instructions for my life were not always clear, succinct, or without ambiguity but required an orientation that believed in and sought God’s presence and that involved a life in the communion of the church. I learned that trusting God’s presence and forgiveness was more important than always knowing exactly what I should do, a question which I think I intuitively knew to be a bit self-centred anyway. Somehow I knew that a Gospel that speaks more about my personal happiness than about the salvation of the world is not enough to live by.
Our first reading continues the theme of God’s covenant making. After his covenant with Noah and Abraham God now widens the circle and makes his covenant with a whole nation. The Book of Exodus begins with a description of what had happened to Joseph’s ancestors in Egypt and sets the stage for what is about to happen at the end of chapter two where we learn that the Israelites groaned under their slavery, and cried out. (That) out of the slavery their cry for help rose up to God. (That) God heard their groaning, and (that) God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them. (Exodus 2:23-25)
Our reading gives us the Ten Commandments, the words God gave his people not as a burden but as a gift, words to guide their life together and be the sign that they belonged to God.
Before we come to the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20, we find an introduction in Exodus 19. The people had camped at the foot of Mount Sinai, and through Moses God speaks to the people these remarkable words:
You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my 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. (Exodus 19:4-6a)
You shall be my treasured possession, the apple of my eye, a priestly kingdom and a holy nation. These are not only beautiful words spoken with deep love but they also envision all the people to be so close to God that priests would become superfluous, for they will all be priests. As heirs of the Reformation we hear echoes of the priesthood of all believers.
The people accept this covenant and answer as one: Everything that the Lord has spoken we will do. (Ex 19:8)
But note that in the covenant making at Sinai the people receive much more than a plan for their lives, they receive the promise and faithfulness of God.
The Ten Commandments are bare any ritual demands that we have come to associate with much of the Old Testament law codes. The Ten Commandments don’t replace worship but locate it in the way we live with each other. They are an ethical guideline of how our life with God will direct our life with one another, and how when we don’t make God our highest good our life will be misdirected.
Remember how the people answer to the promise to be God’s priestly kingdom: Everything that the Lord has spoken we will do. (Ex 19:8)
Yet after the Ten Commandments are given, the people no longer seem so sure. Today’s reading ends at v.17 but the text continues, When all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking, they were afraid and trembled and stood at a distance, and said to Moses, ‘You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die.’ (Exodus 20:18-19)
Their words legitimize Moses role as their leader and as the mediator between God and the people, but it seems a step back behind the promise to be God’s priestly Kingdom where a mediator was no longer required, but where God’s presence was immanent and evident.
The people are in fact afraid of God’s presence as we may be afraid that God may require of us something we may not want to do or to go to a place where we do not want to go, or simply want to bless our lives not by giving us the things we want but redeeming our lives by transforming them. And so, to want to follow God’s command, to want to follow Jesus has always been a double-edged sword, for my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD. (Isaiah 55:8)
It is perhaps for this reason that among what now follows are ritual laws. The people were simply not yet willing to enter into a relationship of such freedom as God imagined it.
The scriptures reveal to us a God whose primary concern is his creation and who calls into relationship with him a creation whose primary desire must be God. The first commandment and the last commandment condition each other. If my true desire is God, then I will not covet anything else, the coveting of things leads to the deterioration of human relationships.i If I know only the first and the last commandments, I will know the others in my heart. This is the covenant that God promises the people, to be a treasured possession, a priestly people, and a holy nation, this is the covenant God promises us. This is the covenant we should seek when we ask for God’s plan for our lives. God has a plan but this plan involves God’s people, involves the world, and most importantly, it is God’s plan, not mine. And that is why it can be trusted and why it trusts us. For people who live in God’s covenant and who desire God more than anything, God trusts and empowers to live godly lives, even when they still have to figure out the details.
When Moses and the former Egyptian slaves reached Sinai, they had only the most rudimentary sense of common purpose. With nothing but a reinterpreted harvest festival for a ritual and with little more than campfire stories for a common heritage, Moses first tried to give social coherence to the refugees whose leader he had become by fashioning a code of ethical behaviour, the ten commandments. These commandments, listed in Exodus 20, are lofty, original, and morally demanding. They are strikingly lacking in ritual prescriptions. In terms of mimetic desire, this set of commands is remarkably sophisticated. So sophisticated is it, in fact, that in its final injunction it forbids not only rivalrous and violent behaviour but the covetousness that gives rise to the rivalry and violence. The last commandment is this:
You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his servant, man or woman, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is his. (Exod. 20:17)
Gil Bailie, Violence Unveiled, “Moses and the Commandments,” pp. 143-145
Rabbinical interpretations of the Hebrew Scriptures frequently give special attention to the first and last items in a sequence of texts or a list of proscriptions. When this interpretive procedure is applied to the ten commandments, the two commandments highlighted are the injunction to have only God as a god — “I am Yahweh your God . . . you shall have no other gods” — and to forswear conflictual or rivalistic mimesis — “Thou shalt not covet.” For the most part, the intervening commandments address the social and religious repercussions of failing to obey the first and last commandments. Were the commandments insisting on true transcendence and condemning mimetic rivalry to be universally obeyed, the social order would be relieved of those aggravated passions that lead to social deterioration, to a demand for victims, and, eventually, to sacrificial religion. The New Testament summation of the commandments — to love God and to love one’s neighbor as oneself — expands, in effect, the first and last commandment in Exodus 20 in such a way that the intervening commandments are subsumed in them. We are mimetic creatures, of course, and so eliminating mimesis is impossible. Without it, humanity would not exist. But the humanity that does exist has soaked the earth with blood, and the prohibition against the most destructive forms of mimetic desire is a worthy attempt to reduce the violence. But we haven’t a prayer of eliminating the worst of the mimetic passions unless we find a truly transcendent focus for our deepest imitative urges, our deepest “desires.” I suppose one could say: without prayer, we haven’t a prayer. That’s why the first commandment must be taken into consideration in trying to come to grips with the last one. It is also why it is the first one. It is an insistence that we “desire” and have as our ultimate model the One in whose image and likeness we are made, to use the biblical idiom for expressing something almost too profound for expression. (Gil Bailie, Violence Unveiled, “Moses and the Commandments,” pp. 144-145)