Friday, June 09, 2006

Christian Faith: The Basics, Part 18

Mathematician, philosopher, and atheist Bertrand Russell was fond of dismissing the Ten Commandments with the simple observation that they're actually composed of more than ten commandments. While Russell was correct, that's no basis for dismissing them.

We've come to call them The Ten Commandments because of how they appear in a pre-Christian Greek translation of the Old Testament generated in the city of Alexandria, called The Septuagint. There, these commands are referred to as the deka logoi, the ten words or the ten sentences.

It's a bit of a contrivance to conflate them into ten commandments then, resulting in differing numbering of them. The Lutheran Cyclopedia notes:
The Bible gives us no basis for a certain numbering of the Commandments or of determining their respective position...The Greek and Reformed Churches make [Exodus] 2:2,3 the First, verses 4-6 the Second, verse 17 the Tenth Commandment. The so-called Augustinian division, retained in the Lutheran and Roman Catholic Churches takes verse 3 (vv.3-6) as the First Commandment, verse 7 as the Second, and divides verse 17 into the Ninth and the Tenth. Thus the Fourth Commandment of the Lutheran Catechism is the Fifth of the Reformed...
In The Small Catechism, written for use by families at the dinner table, Martin Luther treats the Ninth and Tenth Commandments separately. Not so in The Large Catechism, which he penned for pastors and theologians. There, they're treated together. And rightly so.

The commandments are:
You shall not covet your neighbor's house.
You shall not covet your neighbor's wife, or his manservant, or his maidservant, or his cattle, or anything that is your neighbor's.
The intent of this command, whether rendered as one or two different ones, is clear. In the preceding commands, God has warned us against actions we might take that would do harm to others. Here, God addresses the attitudes that lead to such actions.

These commands remind me of something God said to one of the sons of Adam and Eve, a man named Cain. Cain had become surly when, unlike his brother, who offered the firstlings of his flocks to God, he had given the leftover grain from his farm as an offering of thankfulness to God. Cain knew that God was pleased with Abel's offerings, but not with his. God noted Cain's reaction and so, told him:
"Why this tantrum? Why the sulking? If you do well, won't you be accepted? And if you don't do well, sin is lying in wait for you, ready to pounce; it's out to get you, you've got to master it." [Genesis 4:6-7]
Mastering sin involves subjecting our thoughts and our attitudes, those things that give rise to sin, under God's influence and power. (This is a daily battle, by the way, which nobody ever completely wins, least of all me!) Jesus once said:
It's from the heart that we vomit up evil arguments, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, lies, and cussing. That's what pollutes. [Matthew 15:19, The Message]
To covet is to desire something that isn't rightfully ours, be it the affections of another's spouse or their possessions. Luther pointed out that in ancient times, obtaining a divorce for the flimsiest of reasons was even easier than it is today. In both the Old Testament world of the Hebrews and the New Testament world of the Roman Empire, a husband could simply decided to dismiss a wife and then be free to entice another man's spouse to become his wife. This command was designed to thwart that sort of behavior.

Of course, obeying this or any of the other commandments isn't an easy thing. (A fact that we'll delve into more deeply in the next post in this series.) We cannot obey any of the commandments, least of all these last two, on the strength of our wills. Obedience comes down to surrendering to the God Who gives Himself to us in Jesus Christ. He will perform what I have called a holy lobotomy, changing the minds and therefore changing the actions of those who turn from sin (repent) and follow Jesus Christ. (But even then, we will rely not on ourselves, but on Jesus Christ to make us acceptable to heaven in spite of our sins). Paul, in the New Testament, encourages those who want to live lives pleasing to God in this way:
So here's what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don't become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You'll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you. [Romans 12:1-2, The Message]
More on how that all works in the next installment of this series, I hope.

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