March 7th, 2021 homily on Exodus 20:1-17 and John 2:13-22 by Pastor Galen
The summer between my junior and senior years in college I lived with my brother in a little row house in southwest Baltimore. My brother had two rules for me, which, if you don’t know him, can tell you a good bit about him. The first rule was: “As soon as you walked in the door, before you touched anything in the house, you needed to go immediately to the sink and wash your hands with soap and water.” The second rule went along with it: “No shoes in the house.”
My brother was and is very concerned about the spread of germs and getting sick. In fact, early on at the start of the COVID pandemic, while he was of course very concerned by the spread of the deadly virus, he was secretly happy that people were beginning to come around to his way of thinking, and were finally beginning to take germs and handwashing a little more seriously.
Now, lists of rules are not usually very exciting, but they do tell us a lot about the values of the person, organization, or institution who developed the rules. Rules can also be an indication of how people acted prior to the rules being set, because rules that may seem ridiculous usually exist because someone acted that way in the past.
My wife and I used to host teams of college students in our house for spring break and summer service projects. And over the course of years we added more and more rules to the list. One such rule was “No making dinosaur sounds or stomping on the floor in the middle of the night.” The reason for this rule was that one year we had a group of students who loved to stay up late at night playing games, and one of those games involved stomping on the floor and making dinosaur sounds. Our neighbors who lived downstairs complained about the noise — and from that time forward the rule was added to our list.
We also added the rule: “No jumping into the harbor.” This was of course because one year we almost lost a student who tried to go for a swim in the inner harbor without knowing just how many toxic pollutants and pieces of shrapnel are located in the murky waters of the harbor.
Although students would often smirk when they heard these rules without knowing the backstory, the rules were developed because we loved our neighbors and felt that they didn’t deserve to be awakened in the middle of the night by college students who were goofing around, and because we cared for the college students themselves, and we wanted to try to prevent them from serious injury and death.
The Ten Commandments
This leads us to the list of rules, or commandments, that we find in Exodus chapter 20 — often called “The Ten Commandments.” Analyzing these rules, and looking at them in the light of the rest of Scripture and the life and ministry of Jesus, tells us a lot about God, and God’s care and concern for us as humans.
It’s often been pointed out that the first several commandments (you shall have no other gods before me, do not make any graven images, do not use the Lord’s name in vain, keep the Sabbath holy) deal with our relationship with God, and the rest of the commandments (honor your father and mother, do not steal, do not kill, etc.) are about our relationships with others. But in reality all of the commandments relate to our relationship with God and with others. Worshipping false gods (which today might be money or power), or demanding that those within our spheres of influence work constantly without taking a day of rest harms not only our relationship with God, but those around us as well.
Stealing, murdering, and lying are offenses not only against other people, but they also do severe damage to our relationship with God.
In these Ten Commandments, and in the other rules that follow, we see God’s heart for humanity, God’s care and compassion for the vulnerable and marginalized. We see God’s desire for human society to flourish and be just and peaceful. We see that God wants us to experience life to the fullness, but not at the expense of the people, animals, or environment around us.
Love God, Love Neighbor
Jesus, when asked, said that the two greatest commandments are to love God, and to love our neighbors as ourselves, and that “on these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets” (Matt. 22:40). Now these two commands are not found explicitly in the Ten Commandments, but Jesus is saying that all of the rules in the Bible could be summed up by those two simple commandments.
Loving God, and loving our neighbor. And if we don’t know what it looks like to love our neighbor, Jesus also told us to “do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets” (Matt 7:12). Treat others as we want to be treated. It’s as simple, and as difficult, as that.
As a side note, we often don’t know what others want or need, because we struggle with even knowing ourselves. Many of us repress our feelings, push aside our past hurts and pains. We so deny our own emotions and experiences. And so part of learning how we can and should treat others involves getting to know, love, and care for ourselves.
Not an Exhaustive List
One thing we’ll notice about the lists of rules and commandments in Exodus 20 is that, although they are somewhat specific, they are not exhaustive. The Ten Commandments do not specifically address every single situation and scenario that we might face in 21st century American society.
In such situations, it can be tempting to think that God doesn’t care what we do. As a society we’re so used to looking for loopholes and seeing what we can get away with. We like to push the boundaries and get around the rules if we can. If so it’s not explicitly stated in the rules, then we like to think that we won’t be held accountable.
But the Ten Commandments, and all of the laws in the Bible, are given to us as signposts to lead us into deeper connection and intimacy with God. The rules and commandments in the Bible should lead us deeper into God’s heart. This is why the song-writer of Psalm 19 could say,
The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul; the decrees of the LORD are sure, making wise the simple; the precepts of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the LORD is clear, enlightening the eyes; the fear of the LORD is pure, enduring forever; the ordinances of the LORD are true and righteous altogether. More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey, and drippings of the honeycomb. Moreover by them is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward (Psalm 19:7-11).
Meditating, thinking about, and studying the law led the psalmist deeper into relationship with God, because the law reveals God’s heart.
Of course, the ultimate, living, breathing manifestation of God’s heart is Jesus Christ, who came and lived his life among us, and ultimately gave his life on the cross for us, to reveal God’s purpose and plan and God’s love for us.
There were many in Jesus’s day who recognized Jesus for who he was and is. Many who had studied the law and prophets and it led them to the realization that Jesus was the Son of God, who came to save us. Simeon and Anna recognized Jesus as the Messiah when his parents brought him to the temple as a baby (Luke 2:27-38). John the Baptist recognized him as the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). Some, like the disciples, left everything behind in order to follow Jesus.
But others (ironically some of the most rigorous rule-followers such as the Pharisees and other religious leaders) somehow didn’t recognize Jesus for who he was. Somehow in their attempt to keep the letter of the law, they had failed to see and recognize God’s heart!
This is why, when Jesus walked into the temple in John 2, the religious leaders had set up a marketplace in the temple! They had instituted a system of buying and selling animals to be used in the sacrificial system of the temple that financially benefited the rich and powerful, and put undue harm and stress on the poor and those who had travelled long distances to worship. In setting up the marketplace in the temple, not only were the leaders cheating people out of their hard-earned money, they were also making it more difficult for them to connect with God.
Although the Ten Commandments may not have explicitly spelled out that this type of behavior was prohibited, the leaders should have known better. As people who studied the law, they should have known that in setting up a marketplace in the temple, that they were making false gods out of money and power, they were misusing God’s name, and stealing from others. What they were doing was not loving, they were not treating others as they would have wanted to be treated. And so Jesus turned over the tables. He made a whip of cords and drove the animals out of the temple and poured out the coins of the money changers, saying, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” (John 2:16). In restoring order to God’s house of worship and in driving out those who had turned the temple into a marketplace, he was once again returning the temple to a place of prayer for all God’s people.
Getting to Know God’s Heart
We live in a day and age where there are many religious-type people who are often concerned with following every single letter of the law, just like the Pharisees and religious leaders. But often in doing so, they miss God’s heart. They frequently use Bible as a sort of weapon to be wielded against all of the sinful and rebellious people in the world. They’re quick to judge and call out other people’s sins, but they’re often blind to their own shortcomings. They pick and choose verses from the Bible that seem to support their particular arguments, rather than allowing God’s Word to transform them from the inside out. In using and misusing the Bible in this way, they cause a lot of hurt and pain to themselves and others in the process.
But on the other side of the spectrum are those who see the Bible as outdated and obsolete. They’re too willing to toss aside the Scriptures, believing that the Bible was written for people who lived a long time ago, and that it has nothing to say to us today.
The problem is that if we completely throw away the Bible, then what do we have left to stand on? How can we know God’s heart, if not through the Word? Yes, God can speak to us through nature, and through one another, and through that still small voice that we often experience as our conscience. It’s through the Bible that we learn from those who have gone before us. It’s through the Bible that we’re inspired to new ways of living and following Jesus, while at the same time staying grounded in the story of God’s interactions with human beings throughout all of history. In the Bible we read candid accounts of people who tried and made mistakes, of people who failed and messed up time and time again, again, people who even rebelled against God’s plan, and yet it is through the written Word of God that we see God’s love, and grace, and mercy that is offered so freely to any and all who will turn to God in repentance and trust. Ultimately, it’s through the written Word that we encounter Jesus, where we see God’s lavish and generous love poured out to us through Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection.
And so let us not use the Bible as a bludgeon against others — but let us not toss it aside either! Let’s meditate regularly on the Word — even the Law! And let’s allow it to rejoice our hearts and enlighten our eyes, as the Psalmist says, as we come to know God through the fullness of God revealed to us through Jesus Christ.