Brief synopsis of the readings: We begin in the 22nd Chapter of Exodus where Moses spoke in God’s name. God demanded that those gathered were forbidden from oppressing aliens as they were once aliens in Egypt. Nor were they to wrong the widow or orphan, lest God kill them and make their wives widows, their children orphans. Those who lent to the poor must not abuse them; if that person offered his coat as collateral it must be returned before sunset to allow the lender to stay warm overnight. God will listen to that person’s complaint “for I am compassionate.” In Matthew’s Gospel we skip 10 versus from last week. In those ten versus Jesus got the better of the Sadducees over their denial of life after death. Another group, the Pharisees, continued to attempt to trap Jesus. One of them asked Jesus which commandment was the greatest. Jesus commanded him to first love God with all his heart, soul, and mind and second to love his neighbor as himself.
Last week I confessed that I liked the Old Testament better than the New. It’s because of readings like this. As I said in the synopsis this reading comes to us from the 22nd chapter of Exodus. Let me give some context: The former slaves fled Egypt in the 12th chapter and crossed the Red Sea in the 14th (this is where the Egyptians drowned: it’s an iconic scene in the 1956 movie The Ten Commandments). In the 20th chapter Moses presented the 10 Commandments.
I say this because it raises, for me, a fascinating question: how do you develop a moral compass when you’ve been a slave all your life? Few things are easy when you’re a slave, but here’s one: you don’t have to wonder about doing the right thing when your master controls every aspect in your life. Should you give to charity? It doesn’t matter because your labor (and your wages) belonged to someone else. Should you switch to another profession? It doesn’t matter as your owner decides what you do.
But what happens when you’re freed? How do you relate to each other, and even to God, when you’re not told what to do? Today, alas, the 10 commandments have become a political football in some circles, but it does hold a critical place in our history. The 10 commandments are the first rough draft of the moral compass of our ancestors.
When I was in seminary I had the enviable task of teaching religious education to 10th graders in a parish in New Jersey (and I say enviable because I enjoyed my time with them). But one week I was tasked with teaching them about the 10 commandments. The pastor was a grizzled old man who rarely drank from the milk of human kindness and he announced to me that this was an impossible task as “these kids don’t care about anything.”
Challenge accepted. That night I rolled out the dry erase board and drew a vertical line down the middle of the board. I then asked them this question: “What could your best friend do to you that would end your friendship?” After a minute or so of stunned silence, one of the girls said: “If she lied about me to someone else to make herself look better.” Another girl said: “If she made out with my boyfriend.” Then one of the boys said: “If he stole something from me that I worked hard for.” You get the point. As they were saying this I wrote these on the left side of the board. After a few minutes I started writing down the 10 commandments on the right side of the board.
Then I began drawing lines to connect them. “Lying about me” connected to “bearing false witness.” “Making out with my boyfriend” connected to “coveting your neighbor’s wife.” “Stealing something from me” connected with “You shall not steal.” Obviously this was not a one for one comparison, if only because at 15 years old nobody has an understanding of “honoring your father and mother.” But I was able to show them that they had shared with me their core values and the basis of their moral compasses. I then explained that those gathered around Moses did the same thing. They were alone in a hostile wilderness and needed to begin the process of determining how they were going to survive together.
But today’s first reading also begins to lay out not just how they were going to be with each other, but how they were going to be with the rest of the world. None of them had any illusion that they were going to a place where they would not interact with anyone other than themselves. They needed to know how God expected them to act with their neighbors.
God was pretty clear. He delivered them from slavery, and parted the Red Sea, and drowned their pursuers, and provided them with food and water in a hostile land. So how are they to react to all this? I have to say that they would be justified in doing the happy dance and deciding that God’s power gave them the authority to rule the world.
But God didn’t. He made it clear, from the very beginning, that their power called them not to domination but to humility. Years before reaching the Promised Land he commanded them not to celebrate their place on top, but instead to care for those at the bottom. He reminded them that these victories were not theirs, but God’s. They didn’t kill Pharaoh’s son, God did. They didn’t part the Red Sea, God did. They didn’t provide water from the rock or manna from the sky, God did. When God demands that they care about the alien, the widow, the orphan, and the poor person who borrows money, the lesson is clear: When Pharaoh was punished for his evil, take note. This can happen to you.
This continues in the Gospel. Jesus taught that God’s loyalty follows not his people but his values. In the years between Exodus and Matthew we are given an abundance of laws. While the purpose of these laws should have served God’s intent in Exodus, the Pharisees learned to find opportunity to allow them to oppress the very people Moses hoped to protect. They turned all the laws God intended to protect the poor into a path to oppress other Jews by claiming “only they” understood God’s law.
In their attempt to discredit Jesus, an uneducated, poor man with uncertain parentage and they blew it. The Pharisees were well versed that the first five books of the Bible (called the Torah) listed 613 commands and when they asked him which was the most important they expected to outsmart hiim. They hoped to make him look like a fool by choosing something they could discredit. But (once again) Jesus outsmarted them. The people in Exodus were escaping slavery in Egypt, and those who listened to Jesus were hoped to escape Roman rule.
Recognizing that, Jesus instead continued Moses’ teaching in Exodus: our call to serve demands that we refuse to see opportunity as a path to power. Instead we need to see our blessing as an opportunity to serve those who were not so blessed.
In a funny sort of way, Jesus gives us two commandments that are really one. We don’t love God and then love our neighbor. We love God by loving our neighbor. The first commandment demands the second commandment to make any sense. In the same way that the exiles in the first reading can’t make it to the Promised Land without each other, neither can we live without loving each other as we love ourselves.
And let’s face it: we live in a world that tells us that our future lies in caring only for ourselves and those like us. I’ll be the first to claim that any message that finds it’s origin in these readings runs against today’s headlines. But it ran against the headlines in Exodus and Matthew. And still we fight today. As I’ve said many times before, I don’t want to make this too political but I’m reminded of the words of President George W. Bush when he was reelected in 2004: “I earned capital in the campaign, political capital, and I intend to spend it.” Admittedly we can read this in different ways, but I saw it at the time as claiming his only loyalty rested with his supporters.
I hope I’m not the only one troubled by this. In the course of our lives we will be on the top, and we will be on the bottom. If we think about our careers most of us can see this clearly. I think that during the times when we’re on the bottom we hope for compassion from the top. These readings insist that when we are on the top we show that same compassion for those on the bottom.