The Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17) is Rev. Geoff McKee’s scripture for the third Sunday in Lent 2018 (04 March). Drawing on a powerful story told by H.A. Ironside, he explains why the Ten Commandments help us understand the difference between law and grace. Why, despite the lack of a “No spitting” sign, there is no spitting on the floor of the beautiful house.
Click here to download a PDF version of the sermon.
Exodus 20:1-17 (New International Version)
The Ten Commandments
20 And God spoke all these words:
2 “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.
3 “You shall have no other gods before me.
4 “You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. 5 You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, 6 but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.
7 “You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.
8 “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor and do all your work, 10 but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. 11 For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.
12 “Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you.
13 “You shall not murder.
14 “You shall not commit adultery.
15 “You shall not steal.
16 “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbour.
17 “You shall not covet your neighbour’s house. You shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour.”
How difficult it is to do the right thing!
One of the most famous criminal trials in history was that of Benjamin Francois Courvoisier – in London, in 1840.
He’s a character who is now immortalised in Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum.
Courvoisier was a Swiss valet accused of murdering his elderly employer, Lord William Russell.
What made this trial notorious was the argument for the defence.
The police had bungled the investigation.
The evidence against Courvoisier was entirely circumstantial or had been planted. One of the officers had perjured himself, and the maid’s testimony brought suspicion on herself.
The defence barrister, Charles Phillips, was convinced of the innocence of Courvoisier and cross-examined witnesses aggressively.
At the beginning of the second day of the trial, however, Courvoisier confessed privately to his lawyer that he had committed the murder.
When asked if he were going to plead guilty, he replied to Charles Phillips, “No, sir, I expect you to defend me to the utmost.”
Phillips was faced with a dilemma.
Should he declare to the court that the man was guilty, or should he defend Courvoisier as best he could?
Should he break the confidentiality of the client-lawyer relationship or should he help a guilty man to possibly go free?
Which is more important – truth or professional duty?
Phillips decided to defend the guilty man. But, despite Phillips’s efforts, Courvoisier was convicted.
When the dilemma was later made public, Phillips’s decision to defend a murderer horrified British society and brought him a great deal of criticism.
Lying, cheating and stealing are becoming an “acceptable norm” among high-school and college students.
So said Ralph Wexler, speaking for the Joseph and Edna Josephson Institute of Ethics.
In a survey, the Institute reported that:
- 61 percent of the high-school and 32 percent of the college students polled admitted to having cheated on an exam during the past year;
- 33 percent of the high-school and 16 percent of college students said they’d stolen something in the last year; and
- 16 percent of the high-school and 32 percent of the college students said they’d lied on a resume or job application.
What do we read over and over again in the Exodus passage today?
“You shall not….”
And over and over again we tighten up.
H.A. Ironside wrote the following about one of his proteges.
“Some years ago, I had a little school for young Indian men and women, who came to my home in Oakland, California, from the various tribes in northern Arizona.
One of these was a Navajo young man of unusually keen intelligence.
One Sunday evening, he went with me to our young people’s meeting. They were talking about the epistle to the Galatians, and the special subject was law and grace. They were not very clear about it, and finally one turned to the Indian and said, “I wonder whether our Indian friend has anything to say about this.”
He rose to his feet and said, “Well, my friends, I have been listening very carefully, because I am here to learn all I can in order to take it back to my people. I do not understand all that you are talking about, and I do not think you do yourselves. But concerning this law and grace business, let me see if I can make it clear. I think it is like this.
When Mr. Ironside brought me from my home we took the longest railroad journey I ever took. We got out at Barstow, and there I saw the most beautiful railroad station and hotel I have ever seen. I walked all around and saw at one end a sign, ‘Do not spit here.’ I looked at that sign and then looked down at the ground and saw many had spat there, and before I think what I am doing I have spat myself. Isn’t that strange when the sign say, ‘Do not spit here’?
“I come to Oakland and go to the home of the lady who invited me to dinner today and I am in the nicest home I have been in. Such beautiful furniture and carpets, I hate to step on them. I sank into a comfortable chair, and the lady said, ‘Now, John, you sit there while I go out and see whether the maid has dinner ready.’ I look around at the beautiful pictures, at the grand piano, and I walk all around those rooms. I am looking for a sign; and the sign I am looking for is, ‘Do not spit here,’ but I look around those two beautiful drawing rooms, and cannot find a sign like this.
I think ‘What a pity when this is such a beautiful home to have people spitting all over it — too bad they don’t put up a sign!’
So I look all over that carpet, but cannot find that anybody had spat there. What a queer thing! Where the sign says, ‘Do not spit,’ a lot of people spat. Where there was no sign at all, in that beautiful home, nobody spat. Now I understand!
That sign is law, but inside the home it is grace.
They love their beautiful home, and they want to keep it clean. They do not need a sign to tell them so. I think that explains the law and grace business.”
As he sat down, a murmur of approval went round the room and the leader exclaimed, “I think that is the best illustration of law and grace I have ever heard.”
So, what about these ten commandments?
Were they designed to drive us to wrongdoing?
Do they belong to the old era of law that is now dispensed with, because of grace?
I don’t think so.
When Moses brought the ten commandments down the mountain inscribed on two stone tablets they were placed in the ark of the covenant. They were placed in the presence of God, not because God needed to read them, but because human life needed to be lived out in the presence of God and how could that happen without divine guidance?
We have a tendency in Christianity to reduce the ten commandments to a set of moral principles by which we are expected to live.
We say: ‘These are rules and that’s it’.
What happens when you make a rule? People will begin to break it.
There will be an outbreak of spitting around the ‘do not spit’ sign.
But what happens when the rule is understood in context? – when the extravagant love of God, his grace, is presented to us, when we delight in the beauty and generosity of what is offered to us? What happens?
We are inspired to respond by living faithfully and honestly and before we know where we are, living as God intended us to live.
There is no spitting in the beautiful house. What happens when the sign goes up? Well, we all know.
By the third Sunday in Lent, I can almost feel the weight of exasperation!
‘Give us a break!’ you may be feeling.
‘All this talk of law and commandments and fasting and denial is just too much and we feel like rebelling big style.’
What about a change of mind? What about Lent as a gift of God, just like the ten commandments? What about Lent as an invitation to heighten our awareness of where we are at, so that we might be better able to respond to the extravagant love of God resplendent before us on Easter morning?
Dig deeper and you will find that the trials of this time will prepare us for a wonderful blessing.