How do you know how to live as a free people if you and your whole community have been slaves for your entire life, as were your parents and their parents and theirs, going back 400 years?
Last week we looked at the people of Israel crossing the Sea of Reeds that took them from captivity in Egypt to freedom as they headed towards Canaan and their promised land. The Exodus event is booked marked by God’s declaration of the name God gives himself in Ex 3:14 at the start, and then here in Ex 20:2 and as we said last week, this is the event that marks Israel out as a people. It is a foundational event for their shared life and identity. It meant, for example they had no royal family, aristocracy or ruling class as every one of them is joined to the other by the fact that they were all slaves, and all rescued by the goodness and mercy of God. The Old Testament affirms by repeating no fewer than 125 times that God is the one who “Brought you out of Egypt out of the land of slavery.” Do not forgive God thinks you are worth it, seems to be the root.
But from roots to shoots, how are these ex-slaves to be free? Well the answer is by learning together. The point of the wilderness wanderings, which happen next in the story and for at least an entire generation seems to be to allow the people to learn how to be free. They need to learn responsibility, solidarity, decision making, leadership, delegation, fair-living, and trust in God. This is a slow process. Those of us who know the work of IJM know that even today when person who has been a slave is freed from a brick kiln or any site of slavery, it takes time and a carefully constructed program to help them to live free. Short cuts to this program very often lead to that person being re-trafficked. Part of the programme of learning how to be free is a change of mindset that goes from “I am only worthy of the life of a slave,” to “I am worthy of the life of freedom.”
The 10 words, or 10 commandments, as we know them, are part of the program to help Israel understand they are worthy of freedom, and acts as rules for free living in community. In his book, ‘Bound to be Free,’ Graham Tomlin makes the point that we have misunderstood freedom in modern thought. Being free is not individualistic freedom to do whatever I want whenever I want to do it. True freedom is found in committing ourselves to relationship with God and with others, meaning we see others not as a threat to our freedom, but a key to it. Freedom is committed participation in the story of God and one another. In this way we begin to understand that “happiness is not found in unbridled freedom but precisely in the commitments and choices we make.” (Tomlin)
So, these 10 commandments are choices and commitments that limit Israel’s tendency to harm themselves, and so enhance participation in the shared life of God and one another. In other words, they are life hacks, designed to be easy to learn, there is even one for each digit, to enable living together under God. Most are phrased in the negative ‘you shall not…’ because it is snappier than to list all the things ‘you shall…’ God is generous, life is full, the limits keen us free, but they are not especially onerous
The first section focuses on living in right relation with God. God is primary and worthy of our uncontested worship. The second picks that up and focuses on right relations in the worship of God. Do not make idols is not a limit on artistic expression (more on that next week when we look at the work if the Spirit) but is a directive not to allow anything to steal our hearts from the true worship of God. Money, sex and power in all their forms are oblivious idols that woo us with their siren calls on to the rocks of idolatrous desolation.
The third section focuses on right relations with society. How to live well in a shared space and time knowing I am bound to you and you are bound to me.
But I want to look closely at the 4th commandment: ‘Remember the sabbath.’
At the beginning of this year I was all ready to outline a vision for us at SMWC to become people who resisted the crisis of business, that I and many others had identified in our community. I had been reading a book called ‘The ruthless elimination of hurry,’ by John Altberg and that book was born out of the insight from the scholarly and prophetic Dallas Willard that our biggest problem in the west is busyness and hurry. An unrelenting increase in pace is deafening us to our spiritual selves, to the God and father of Jesus Christ and to the creation of which we are a part. That was his case, and part of his solution was to go back to sabbath which is God’s ordered rest. It is rest as a moral choice for us and those who work with us. It is ordered because it reminds us who God is and our part in God’s story, that we are not machines or slaves but worthy of freedom. It looks back to the Exodus, and for Christians, who moved the ceremonial day of sabbath from the last to the first day of the week when Jesus rose, it reminds us of the resurrection of Jesus when a whole new chapter in freedom began because we were rescued from the slavery of sin and death. When God demonstrated His unfailing love for us. And it looks forward to a total freedom when God’s kingdom fully comes and His will is fully done on earth as in heaven when Jesus comes again. What does all this? Having a day off. No shopping, no emails. Just birdsong and family and creation.
Whatever we go back to after lockdown, and I am sure it will be hard, the economic and social justice fight of all our lives maybe, we cannot go back and expect to thrive if we ignore the call to and gift of sabbath.
God loves us and gave us a day of rest. God says we are free and worthy of freedom. So please, in the name of God, can we live like it? Amen