Commandments 1-3

Looking back from the Great Fifty Days of Easter, we should recall moments in which our Lenten worship had us recount the Decalogue, meaning “the Ten Laws” or “Ten Commandments.” The Book of Common Prayer (BCP) enumerates them in two prominent places (Rite I pp. 317-318; Rite II p. 350) and explains them in the Catechism (pages 847-848). Why go to such great trouble to remind God’s people of first principles? As we shall see in an exploration of the first three commandments, human nature has not changed since Moses returned with the tablets and a clear link exists between us and the Israelites. The Divine wisdom of the commandments reveals our innate need to reorient our lives to the Lord’s purposes by repenting and returning to the very wellspring of our existence.

The BCP relates that “…[t]he Ten Commandments are the laws give to Moses and the people of Israel…” and thereby reconnects us to Holy Scripture’s accounts in Exodus 20:1-17 and Deuteronomy 5:1-22. The first commandment states “…I am the Lord thy God who brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage…[t]hou shalt have none other gods but me…” (BCP Rite I, p. 317), or, in contemporary language “…[h]ear the commandments of God to his people…I am the Lord your God who brought you out of bondage…[y]ou shall have no other gods but me…” (BCP Rite II, p. 350). The second commandment declares “…[t]hou shalt not make to thyself any graven image, nor the likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or in the earth beneath, or in the water under the earth; thou shalt not bow down to them, nor worship them…” (BCP Rite I, p. 318), or, in the modern idiom “…[y]ou shall not make for yourself any idol…” (BCP Rite II, p. 350). We pause here to make two salient observations. First, the BCP adopts the construction found in Exodus of splitting the injunctions against other gods and idol worship. Second, while the Rite II prose provides clarity to the commandments for our 21st century ears, the Rite I language exhibits a richness of expression that clearly links to the Biblical source. Finally, for our purposes today, the third commandment proclaims “…[t]hou shalt not take the Name of the Lord thy God in vain…” (BCP Rite I, p. 318), or, in today’s parlance “…[y]ou shall not invoke with malice the Name of the Lord your God…” (BCP Rite II, p. 350). The Catechism nicely summarizes that the first part of the Decalogue teaches us “…our duty to God…” then transitions to lessons on “…our duty to our neighbors…” in the second part. Thus, the covenant relationship between God and God’s people relentlessly radiates outwards to others, with some scholars suggesting the best way to understand it as one coherent Word that propagates in the world.  

To me, the post modern relevance of the first three commandments is readily evident by asking ourselves a series of questions related to spiritual practice as well as discipline. Do we have other “gods” in our lives? Unfortunately, the obvious answer seems to be yes when we examine the time, energy, thought, money, and devotion spent on career, entertainment, socializing, and acquisition. More pointedly, does our everyday schedule reflect that the Creator is the God of our daily lives? The first commandment places a call on us to “…[t]o love and obey God and to bring others to know him…” that should be self evident in our thoughts, words, and deeds (BCP p. 847). Next, do we make or create idols, or, more to the point, what do we idolize that is not God? Again, we need hardly rack our brains to realize that secular success, achievement, fame, fortune, and popularity attendant to business, sports, media, and cliques preoccupies us to the point of personal distraction and social anomie. One will not find a better spiritual redirection than the second commandment’s call “…[t]o put nothing in the place of God…” (BCP p. 847). Finally, besides acknowledgement that profane use of God’s name is reprehensible and never warranted, we might ask ourselves when have we maliciously invoked the Lord or vainly used the Creator? For instance, when have we conflated self purpose for Divine purpose, or bargained as well as bartered with God, or made a promise that went unfulfilled? In our consumer world, it is far too easy to fall into such a transactional misappropriation of life’s gifts when the third commandment would have us instead “…show God respect in thought, word, and deed…” (BCP p. 847). The BCP eloquently reinforces the commandments’ usefulness as recollecting that “…[s]ince we do not fully obey them, we see more clearly our sin and our need for redemption…” (p. 848). These self reflections show that the hubris of our self centeredness and the illusion of our own control enslave us when, in stark contrast, God promises God’s people perfect freedom.

Rather than despair, the first three commandments predispose us to remember this grace at the core of God’s covenant. Christ’s self sacrificing life serves as the model and the touchstone for utter devotion to God, complete attunement to God’s will, and appropriate invocation of God’s name as well as Kingdom. William Temple, Anglican exemplar and Archbishop of Canterbury 1942-1944, suggests getting retuned to God through “…bringing of the inner life under the control of the Holy Spirit by the perpetual discipline which brings us back, day by day, to the remembrance and companionship of Jesus Christ…” (Christian Faith and Life, page 101). Put to practice in everyday lives, this could mean taking the first three commandments seriously in several possible ways. Keeping the Daily Offices in either the full or shorter form “Daily Devotions for Families and Individuals” (pp. 136 – 144) or simply reading the Daily Office Lectionary promises to re-order our time and bring God to the forefront of our family, work, or leisure hours. Studying the Scriptures, or Bible devotionals, or dedicated prayer that incorporates the lives of the saints helps us to see the Godly alternatives posed by Holy lives to the cultural heroes and false gods propped up by the world. All of us could also do a better job intently listening for God’s purpose through contemplation and silence that stills our willfulness then opens us to the movement of the Holy Spirit. Taking the time as well as effort to show care and regard for others, no matter how different from you, represents prayer in action and recognizes the Divine imprint of Christ in your fellow brothers and sisters. In such a Way, Temple says “…life and worship build one another up into a complete dedication, and you give yourself utterly to His service…” (Christian Faith and Life, page 120). In our over programmed, over-hyped, and over-scheduled world, the spiritual habit of making this space as well as time for God is the very disposition demanded of us as God’s people.   

 Christopher Rodgers is a postulant and a junior at Virginia Theological Seminary

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