Arthur bought a new parrot. It was a beautiful African Grey, and he was told that this parrot was a great talker. So Arthur brought the parrot home. And the parrot was a great talker. Unfortunately, every other word that came out of his mouth was an obscenity. Arthur was shocked, but he was determined to change the parrot’s language. He tried rewarding the parrot for using clean language, but that didn’t make any difference. He tried scolding it, he even tried yelling at it. The parrot bit him when he did that, but his language got even worse. Arthur was at his wits’ end, so one day, in complete frustration, he threw the parrot into the freezer and shut the door. There was lots of screaming and terrible language from the bird for a couple of minutes, and then silence. Arthur was a little afraid that he had hurt the parrot, so he opened the freezer door. The parrot quietly walked out onto Arthur’s arm and said, “I am so sorry for using such bad language. I realize that I have been very difficult, and I promise to change my ways.” Arthur was surprised and very relieved. Then the parrot said, “I just have one question. What, exactly, did the chicken do?”
The Ten Commandments often seem as if they were God’s way of trying to get obstreperous people to behave. We have the image of an angry God shaking a finger at us, “Do this. Don’t do that.” And that is how they have been interpreted all too often by the Church – a way of trying to control people and make them behave. Threats of hellfire and damnation are usually attached.
But I want to invite you to see them differently. I want to suggest that the Ten Commandments are actually a love song. They are God’s invitation to us to live happy and meaningful lives. Rather than rules that have to be kept, they are promises about the joy that life with God can bring
The people of Israel had been wandering for years in the desert. They had been freed from slavery, but they hadn’t yet come together as a people. But when we get to this part of the story, the people of Israel were ready to come together as a nation and ready to come into the Promised Land. God had led them and made sure that they had food and water, and it seems that they had started to know that this was the God they wanted to follow. But they didn’t really know who God was, or what was expected of them. Like any love relationship, both partners need to get to know one another and to trust one another. So the Ten Commandments are God’s way of inviting the people deeper into the relationship. They describe the conditions that will result in a happy and fruitful life.
The first four commandments are about how to live happily with God. The last six are about how to live happy lives with one another.
God is that Love which makes us most truly human, most truly ourselves. And anything that makes us less than that, anything that limits our love and our joy, is not God. We cannot ever fully know God, and so, too often, we settle for less. We settle for the image of an old man in the sky, or an angry parent, or a warm, fuzzy buddy. We settle for what we can define and control. But God will not be defined or controlled.
We are not worshipping God when we settle for less than the fullness of God’s infinite grace, and that’s what those first four commandments are about. God is saying, don’t settle for something that is superficial or easy. God is beyond all that we can imagine, and we will be happy if we keep reaching for that unknowable. Other gods and graven images are cheap substitutes. Taking God’s name in vain, misusing it, means that we are pretending to know God in a way we don’t, pretending that we understand who God really is. When I was learning Hebrew, I learned that when you see the name of God in the text, you never pronounce that name, but substitute another word that means “Lord” in its place. The meaning behind that is that if you can name something, you have some measure of control over it. God is beyond all our control, so we never use that name.
When we understand our place in the scheme of things and realize the infinite vastness of God’s love, we can relax, stop trying to control the universe, and let ourselves trust in a God that creates the fabric of all that is.
The final six commandments are about how to live happily with one another. And again, we have too often interpreted them as restrictive rules that limit our freedom to do what we want. But the reality is that learning not to be jealous or greedy, learning to live truthfully, learning to honor other people – these are all things that make human life worth living. If we are going to live as a community, we have to be able to trust one another and we have to be responsible for our place in the community. We have to be trustworthy. God is inviting the people of Israel – and us – into a relationship with one another that will help us grow and thrive and have real security. The temptation is always to believe that security comes from taking care of ourselves first and guarding against what other people might do. But that’s not security – that’s defense. And when we live like that, we are tearing apart the fabric that makes society healthy. A healthy society is one in which people take responsibility for themselves, where they honor every other person in the society, and where they make sure that every person is safe and respected. That is the clear intention of the Ten Commandments. They are a recipe for a happy, healthy community.
God wants us to be happy, to be fruitful, to have healthy and happy lives.
And the gift of the Ten Commandments is that they are the support for that happiness. And we don’t need threats of hellfire and damnation.
Our failure to live by the commandments becomes its own punishment. When we put other gods – like wealth, or success or popularity – before God, we lose the richness and depth of life that we could have. Our lives become as shallow as our values, and we live in a spiritual atmosphere that is as thin as the top of Mt Everest. And when we fail to live in love with one another – when we lie and cheat and steal, even in small ways, we destroy the happy community that God intends for us. We end up living out of a need to protect ourselves so much that we forget that God’s idea for a community is so much freer. If we live out the commandments, we can live in security with one another rather than out of defense against one another.
We don’t have to live like Arthur’s parrot – angry and defensive and brought into decent behavior only by the threat of force. God’s invitation is to a life with joy and fun and delight. The Ten Commandments are the invitation to that life.