Thursday, March 10, 2011

Finding Freedom

Deut. 30:15-20; Mt. 5:21-37[1]

It’s hard to mention the Ten Commandments these days without thinking about Judge Roy Moore. He’s the former Alabama Supreme Court chief justice who commissioned a 5,000-pound monument depicting the Law of Moses. And then he was removed from office for refusing to move it from the State Capitol. What you may not know is that “the Rock,” as it has been called, went on tour. That may not seem that big a deal, until you think of what it takes to lug around two-and-a-half ton sculpture. It rode on a flatbed truck and had to be lifted off and back again with a five-ton, fifty-seven-foot crane![2] What a perfect image to portray the commandments as “burdens, weights and heavy obligations,” as one commentator put it.[3]

But it doesn’t really seem consistent with the way our lesson from Deuteronomy portrays the commandments —as life-giving, liberating, restorative, and redemptive. In the Hebrew Bible, the commandments are an amazing gift that makes it possible for us to live in harmony with God’s will—with God’s justice and peace and mercy and love. Our lesson from Deuteronomy says it this way: “choosing life” means “obeying the command-ments of the LORD your God … by loving the LORD your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments” (Deut. 30:16). It means “loving the LORD your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him” (Deut. 30:20).[4]

We’re not used to talking about the commandments in this way. We’re much more familiar with talking about them as a burden, a weight, or a heavy obligation—like a 5,000-pound monument made out of Vermont granite. But that misunderstands the role of the torah in the covenant God made with the people of Israel. When God entered the covenant with the Jewish people, it was to form a relationship. Not surprisingly, what God was looking for from the covenant people was to commit themselves to this relationship wholeheartedly.[5] In that context, the purpose of the commandments was to define human life as an expression of what it means to love God.[6] They were given as the parameters within which they could live their lives—parameters that were intended to enable them to enjoy a life that is full of living hope, lasting joy, and genuine love, both toward God and others.[7] Viewing the commandments as burdens misses the fact that they begin with “the good news of what the liberating God has done” (“I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery,” Deut. 5:6) and then they describe “the shape of the freedom that results.”[8]

Here I’m quite sure we’ve entered terra incognita. Who ever heard the word freedom associated with the Ten Commandments—especially in church? When we think of freedom in connection with the Law of Moses, we tend to go down the path that sounds something like “Jesus sets us free from the Law.” But our Gospel lesson for today doesn’t really bear that out, does it? Jesus’ take on the Ten Commandments is not to set them aside, but to make them a central part of what it means to live in relationship with God! In a very real sense, our Gospel lesson shows Jesus spelling out in very specific terms what it looks like to do God’s will on earth as it is in heaven. For him it means that we not only don’t kill one another, we also avoid hatred, anger, and disrespect. For him doing God’s will on earth as it is in heaven means that we not only don’t engage in promiscuity, we also relate to others with pure hearts. For him, doing God’s will on earth as it is in heaven means that we not only love our friends, we also love our enemies.[9]

So, how in the world can we speak of this kind of life in terms of freedom? I think St. Augustine was onto something when he said, “love, and do what you will.”[10] I think he was saying that if we truly love God and truly love others, then we are free to do whatever we want, because what we want will be an expression of love toward God and others![11] When we make the choice to align ourselves with the fulfillment of God’s justice and peace in this world, there’s not much in the Ten Commandments that will be limiting or restricting to us.

Events in Egypt this week have reminded us of how important freedom is for life. But they also remind us that true freedom requires certain parameters—civil rights, free and fair elections, the ability to make a livable wage, access to education, and others. Time will tell whether the Egyptian people will achieve true freedom. We hope and pray that they do. Our Scripture lessons remind us that we all constantly stand before the choice of true freedom. We find freedom when we commit ourselves to doing God’s will on earth as it is in heaven. We find freedom when we live our lives in harmony with God’s justice and peace and mercy. We find freedom when we embrace a way of living that is defined by love.

[1] © 2011 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 2/13/11 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.

[2] Joshua Green, “Roy and his Rock,” The Atlantic Monthly (October 2005); accessed at .

[3] Cf. Thomas G. Long, “Dancing the Decalogue,” in The Christian Century (March 7, 2006):17.

[4] John Shelby Spong, Living Commandments, 14, 15, says that the Ten Commandments are the principles through which we find “the fullness of life, the depth of love, and the meaning of our own humanity.” Cf. also James L. Mays, Psalms, 99.

[5] Cf. Miller, Deuteronomy, 125, 213 where he says that to live in covenant with God means “to commit oneself wholly to God and to God’s way.”

[6] Cf. Paul J. Achtemeier, Romans , 199: the original purpose of the torah in the context of a covenant relationship was “to show how life was to be shaped in ways appropriate for God’s people as their faithful and trusting response” to God’s gracious covenant and salvation. See also John Calvin, Commentaries on the Catholic Epistles 175–176: “the law, which is spiritual, does not command only external works, but enjoins this especially, to love God with the whole heart.”

[7] There is a potential for misunderstanding here. The language sounds like life and prosperity are a reward for obedience, and using rewards to motivate obedience tends to undermine the whole idea of a loving commitment. In reality the point is that life is the result of living in a way that is consistent with God’s purposes.

[8] Long, “Dancing the Decalogue,” 17.

[9] Hans Küng, The Christian Challenge, 146, reminds us that “God wills life, joy, freedom, peace, salvation, the final great happiness of [humanity]” (altered).

[10] Augustine, Homily 7 on the First Epistle of John; fathers/170207.htm.; See also John Caputo, On Religion, 3-7, 24-28, 109-116, 134-36, 139; and Küng, Christian Challenge, 154: “love puts an end to casuistry.”

[11] Jacques Ellul, “Christian Responsibility for Nature and Freedom,” Cross Currents 35 (Spring 1985): 50 reminds us that true freedom is “inconceivable without … a life within the love of God and neighbor.”

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