Monday, March 23, 2015

Mark 14:32-42 –Gethsemane…

Lesson Focus:
Jesus is deeply anxious about doing the work of his Father.  Because we get anxious about doing the work of the Father, too, Jesus encourages us to pray for strength to do the will of the Father.

Lesson Outcomes:
Through this lessons students should:
1.     Recognize the emphasis that Mark is placing on Jesus’ humanity.
2.     Understand that Jesus’ prayer is a model for us as we pray.
3.     Be encouraged to pray “not what I want, but what you want.”

Catch up on the story:
Jesus and his disciples have just celebrated the Passover meal together.  The identity of the one who will betray Jesus to the religious authorities has been revealed.  It is in this setting that Jesus begins to instruct his followers on how they are to remember the events that will soon take place.  The Lord’s Supper re-imagines and re-interprets the Passover meal so that it becomes a remembrance of what God is going to do through Jesus.   

The meal ends and they travel outside the city to the Mount of Olives.  The disciples will soon abandon Jesus.  They will be scattered like sheep are when the shepherd is attacked.  They are not to fear, though; they will be gathered back together.  Peter, for his part, wants to hear no talk about desertion.  Not only will Peter abandon Jesus, he will deny him three times!  The most trying part of Jesus’ ministry is just ahead.  If he is to be faithful, he will need to spend some time in prayer.   

The Text:
Jesus and the disciples make their way to the Mount of Olives and more specifically, to a place called Gethsemane.  Only John in his gospel refers to Gethsemane as a garden.  The name itself, however, has its roots in the Hebrew and Aramaic word for “oil press.”  It’s plausible to assume that the place Gethsemane was in fact a garden, and more specifically, a garden for olive trees.  It was common at the time for an oil press to be located within the grounds of an olive garden.[1]

The group enters the garden, but Jesus only wants to take Peter, James and John deeper into the garden with him.  It’s at this point that Mark gives us a group of three words that describe Jesus’ physical, emotional and spiritual state.  The first, ekthambeo, means someone becomes excessively affected by emotions, either fear or wonder.  The NRSV and NIV both translate it as “distressed.”   The NIV, more appropriately, adds the modifier “greatly.” This is the only time in the gospels where this word is linked to Jesus.  The word, as it is used in extra biblical sources, is often associated with the fear or dread that happens before an impending emergency.[2] Jesus’ trial and crucifixion is close on the horizon and Jesus is afraid.

The second word follows closely after ekthambeo.  Ademoneo is translated as “agitated” (NRSV) and “troubled” (NIV).  Both translations are rather week in comparison to the force of the Greek, which means to become subject to extreme mental or spiritual anguish, at times even to the point of losing one’s composure.  Not only is Jesus afraid, but also he is physically showing signs that the imminent crisis has him quite rattled. 

Finally, Mark states that Jesus is “deeply grieved, even unto death.”  The NIV has the better translation while more literally following the Greek, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.”  In Jesus there is a deep grief and sorrow that has consumed him over the events that must now take place.  The “my soul” portion of the quote is possibly a reference to Psalm 42:5 and 43:5.  

      Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you disquieted within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
my help and my God.
It is possible that Jesus’ eventual and complete acceptance of the will of the Father during this moment is owed to his familiarity with the Psalm, where a mood of deep despair eventually gives way to a calm trust in God.[3]
Jesus instructs the trio to sit and keep awake while he goes a little further to pray.  He wanders a few more feet into the garden and then throws himself on the ground and begins to pray.  The image that Jesus throws himself on the ground is quite startling.  It may be that in his great distress, his fear and his sorrow, that Jesus is quite unable to remain standing.  For those of us who have experienced great tragedy, trial or adversity these feelings and this scene may be one we have experienced.  It may also be that Jesus is taking a physical position that is one of lowliness and service before the one to whom he prays.  Jesus is prostrate on the ground earnestly praying that what is about to happen may not happen. 
We are told that Jesus prays that, if it were possible, the cup and the hour might pass from him.  Jesus is hoping and praying that the will of the Father might be accomplished in another way other than his death.  We must remember what the church has confessed from the very beginning, that Jesus is both fully God and fully human.  In this moment in the narrative, Jesus’ humanity cries out for deliverance. 
Here Jesus uses the Aramaic word, Abba.  It is often supposed that this term is the most familiar term a child might use to refer to his or her father.  There “is nothing childish about the special relationship implied (it was also used, for example, by disciples addressing their rabbi)…The term conveys the respectful intimacy of a son in a patriarchal family. And in that sense Jesus’ use of this form of address to God is striking and unparalleled.”[4]  Jesus is pleading with his Father that the mode of his mission might be changed.  Even in his humanity, however, Jesus remains singularly focused on the will of the Father.  Jesus will unswervingly do what the Father wills. His human will aligns with the divine will. His human “want” unites with God’s “want.” 
Jesus gets up and goes to the three that followed him further into the garden, but he finds them sleeping.  He calls to Peter using his personal name, Simon.  Jesus wants to know how it is that Peter could be asleep at a time like this.  Jesus then admonishes Peter, and the other two, presumably, to “Keep awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial…”  Here, Jesus is encouraging the disciples, and us too, to be alert, awake and in prayer.  Why are we to do so?  We are to do so that we may be kept from trial or temptation.  The call here is to keep out of temptation all together, to not get into it in the first place.  Watchfulness and prayer seem to be keys to remaining faithful to the will of God.  Indeed, the Spirit of God that can be received through prayer and devotion is strong and able to help us remain faithful.  Without the Spirit, in our flesh we are weak. 
Jesus goes back to pray twice more and each time he returns he finds the trio sleeping.  By this point the disciples are dumbfounded, they just do not know how to respond in the face of their own weariness.  The third time Jesus returns he chastises them again for resting.  They have had enough sleeping and resting; the time has come for Jesus to be betrayed.  Judas is near.           
So What…?
Two things are important for us as we read this story.  The first is that we see and recognize Jesus in his great distress.   It is important for us, as we approach Holy Week, to highlight Jesus’ humanity along with his divinity.  Here we are shown the vulnerability and distress that God faces as a result of becoming one of us.  We confess that Jesus is both fully human and fully God.  We see his humanity being shaken by his forthcoming torture and death.  He is physically shaken in ways that you and I know all too well.  And yet, in that place of vulnerability, in that fear of all that will come, Jesus is able to pray “not what I want, but what you want.” 

Sure we might be able to say, “He was human, but he was God too, so that kind of obedience should be easy for him.”  To say that misses the point of the incarnation and the cross.  The early church settled the debate that Jesus had two wills, a fully human will and a fully divine will. His divine will did not overwhelm his human will. Nor did it give him some kind of advantage over us. He had to bring his human will faithfully in line with the divine will, just as we all do. That is what it means for him to be fully human.  Jesus, in his distress, in his humanity, chooses God’s will over his own. 

The second thing I think that is important is how this passage should shift our attitude about prayer.  Certainly Jesus has faith that God can change his current situation.  It is not that God refuses to answer Jesus’ prayer.  Jesus’ prayer is answered by Jesus bringing his will inline with his Father’s will.  We should view prayer the same way.  Prayer consists not necessarily in changing God’s mind about things and events, but in finding our own place in alignment with God’s will.  Prayer is the way by which our desires come into line with our heavenly Father’s will.

As we prepare to enter the last week of Lent, let us take comfort in the fact that the God who created and sustains the entire universe became one of us, living like us in every way, suffering like us in every way.  It is through this complete identification with humanity that Jesus is able to bring about our salvation and redemption.  Thanks be to God for his steadfast love and grace which brings us from death to life! 

At the same time, however, let us confess that we often use prayer as a way to manipulate God into giving us what we want.  Sometimes our prayers reveal a deep-seated mistrust of God.  We pray too often for our desires and less about our daily bread.  As we enter Holy Week, let us pray that we might have the strength that Jesus had, who, in the face of torture and death, was able to pray, “not what I want, but what you want.”  This prayer never gets easy, but it is possible through the grace of God.          

Critical Discussion Questions:
  1. What does God look like in this text/Who is God in this text/What is God doing in this text? 
    1. God in Jesus Christ became human.  He is afraid; he is shaking and distressed about the future.  Yet, he is committed to us and to do the will of the Father over his desires.  Jesus models for us a form of faithfulness that is difficult but not impossible.   

  1. What does holiness/salvation look like in this text?
    1. Holiness is praying “not what I want, but what you want.”  It is not enough to simply pray those words, but to allow ourselves to be led to possibly unpleasant places by God.  What helps us as we pray this prayer is the knowledge that God vindicates Jesus through the resurrection.  Jesus doesn’t stay dead.  The will of God for our lives may, for a time, lead us into discomfort and possibly suffering, but on the other side of that suffering there is the life-giving power of God.  

  1. How does an encounter with this story shape who we are and who we should become?
    1. We should examine how we pray.  Our prayers should help us orient our will and desires so that they will be inline with the will of the Father. 

Specific Discussion Questions:
Read the text aloud. Then, read the text to yourself quietly.  Read it slowly, as if you were very unfamiliar with the story.

1.      In verse 33 Mark tells us that Jesus is “distressed and agitated.”  A fuller translation of the original Greek could go something like this: “[Jesus] began to become greatly frightened and apprehensive about the coming events so much so that he physically lost his composure.”  When have you felt this way?  What does this description of Jesus have to say about Jesus’ humanity?
2.     What do you think Jesus means when he says that he was “deeply grieved, even unto death?”
3.     Describe a time when you have been so distressed that you have been unable to remain upright?  Why does Jesus “throw himself on the ground?”  Is there a possible reason Jesus chooses to pray from the ground other than his distress?
4.     Jesus prays that “this cup” be removed from him.  What is “this cup?”
5.     Mark tells us that Jesus prays three times that the cup of his suffering might be removed from him.  Each time he declares “not what I want, but what you want.” Why does Jesus need to pray this prayer three times?  Was it hard for Jesus to do the will of the Father?
6.     What would it look like for you to pray, “not what I want, but what you want” and really mean it?  How would that prayer affect your daily life or your future plans? 
7.     Jesus encourages his followers to keep awake and pray so that they might not enter into the time of trial.  What do you think Jesus means by that?  What kind of temptation do you think Jesus is referring to?  What kind of connection might there be between prayer and staying out of temptation?

[1] R. T. France, The Gospel of Mark: A Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI; Carlisle: W.B. Eerdmans; Paternoster Press, 2002), 581.
[2] Gerhard Kittel, Geoffrey W. Bromiley, and Gerhard Friedrich, eds., Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964–), 4.
[3] France, 582.
[4] Ibid., 584.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Jeremiah 31:31-35 –A New Covenant…

Lesson Focus:
God, through Jesus, has made a new covenant with us.  It has been written on our hearts, guiding us, strengthening us, and helping us to become Christ-like. 

Lesson Outcomes: 
Through this lessons students should: 
1.     Recognize that the new covenant about which Jeremiah speaks is the covenant that Jesus has brought.
2.     Confess that we have not been faithful to the covenant that God has made with us.
3.     Desire to renew their covenant with God through Jesus Christ and in the power of the Holy Spirit.

Catch up on the story:
God, since the time of Noah, Abraham and Moses has been covenanting with God’s people to be their God.  As the story progresses from Noah to Moses the covenant gets more and more specific.  At the time of our passage, Israel is God’s special covenant people.  God has promised to provide and protect them, remaining faithful to them.  As with all covenants there are stipulations.  Israel, as a partner in the covenant, must remain faithful and fulfill its obligations as well.  Some of the most significant obligations are to not have any other gods along with God and to observe the Sabbath.

God has done all that God has promised to do.  Israel had grown into a great nation with lots of people and a great land that they called their own.  Israel, on the other hand, had not been so faithful to the covenant.  The curses that God set forth at Sinai for breaking the covenant are beginning to happen.  God is turning Israel over to reap the penalties of their unfaithfulness.  Those punishments have come from the hands of the Assyrians and now the Babylonians.  The northern kingdom of Israel has already been destroyed.  Much of Judah has been taken away into exile and now Jerusalem is about to be destroyed.  There have been many prophets who have come to warn God’s people.  But no one has listened to them.  Jeremiah, who is very sad at the current state of affairs, is currently trying to offer hope and a bright future to the people of Judah and Jerusalem. 

The Text:
Chapter 31 begins with a proclamation from God that God is indeed going to bring the exiles home.  Those who have survived will be able to return home.  God declares that God has never ceased loving them.  God has continued in God’s faithfulness toward God’s people. 
Earlier in the book of Jeremiah God has promised to pluck up and destroy Israel and Judah for their unfaithfulness.  Now that their time of punishment and correction is over, God is going to plant and build his people up once more. 

Then he calls them virgins.  This is incredible.  Throughout almost all of Israel’s prophetic literature God has been likening Israel to prostitutes and unfaithful wives.  All of that has been forgotten.  God, even though the past is still there, is choosing to remember Israel as she was, a virgin characterized by faithfulness and steadfastness.  God will once again call Israel his wife. 

Israel is told to mark out the road for the journey home.  They will be returning from exile.  No longer will God bring punishment upon the children of the wicked.  Those who eat sour grapes will have their teeth set on edge.  The children will be innocent.  Each one will die for his or her own sin.  Our passage, verses 31-34, belongs with what precedes it.  The result of God bringing Israel home from exile is that God will do a new thing, make a new covenant with Israel.  Things will not be the same as they had been for Israel.  The days are coming, God says, when this new covenant will come.  God is going to do a new thing.  God is going to make a new covenant to replace the old one.  This new covenant will be better.  It will not be external.  It will not be written on stone tablets like the old one; it will be written on the people’s heart.  This new covenant will be able to do what the old one was unable to do: it will help God’s people walk more faithfully in the ways of God.

The days are coming, Jeremiah proclaims.  We say today that the day has come.  This new covenant that God was going to make has been made in the birth of Jesus.  It has been made through the life of Jesus.  It has been made through the death and resurrection of Jesus.  This new covenant is here now and ready for us to enter and have God’s law written on our hearts.  To have our lives defined and shaped by the one with whom we are in covenant.  To have God be our God and for us to be God’s people

This internalization of God’s law, one day, will be so complete that God’s people will no longer need to teach each other, they will no longer need to spur one another on, they will just know what to do.  The sins and iniquities of the people will be remembered no more.  We aren’t yet to that point, though.  We do have this new covenant with God.  It has been written on our hearts.  If we are faithful, it will begin to define us as the people of God. 

So What…? 
Why is this important for us? First, looking back, we now know that this new covenant that Jeremiah spoke about is the work that God did in and through Jesus Christ.  Jesus is the bringer of the new covenant.  He has provided a way for our sins to be forgiven and our relationship with God to be restored.  Jesus has provided a way for the Holy Spirit to replace our hearts of stone with hearts that have the will of God written on them. 

The birth of Jesus, which we celebrate each year, is the beginning.  It is the inauguration of this new covenant.  The day has come, but is still in the process of coming.  It is appropriate to talk about this new covenant during Lent because it is during Lent that we become more aware of our unfaithfulness to the covenant. 

Because of what Jesus has done, the new covenant has arrived, and we can live in complete obedience to the law, because the Holy Spirit has changed our hearts and empowered us for holy living. As Wesleyans, we would say that in the grace of entire sanctification, God’s will is written on our hearts and we can live in accord with it, and no longer intentionally violate his law.

Yes, God remains faithful to us, even when sin remains in our hearts after conversion. Yet, God wants to do a radical transformation, and write his will on our hearts, and empower us to obey it. That can happen on this side of the resurrection.
So, as we gather together let us confess our sins and remember that God had promised to make a new covenant with his people, to remember that he has done that in the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and that we need to accept this new covenant, through the power of the Spirit  A faithful relationship, to God or to anyone else, requires a regular recommitment to that relationship. 

Critical Discussion Questions:
1.     What does God look like in this text/Who is God in this text/What is God doing in this text?
a.     God, despite Israel’s unfaithfulness, has remained faithful.  God chooses to view Israel as a virgin again instead of the soiled prostitute and unfaithful wife that she has been.  God is going to restore his people.  God is faithful. 

2.     What does holiness/salvation look like in this text?
a.     Holiness looks like responding to God’s faithfulness with a faithfulness of our own.  It means accepting this new thing, the new covenant and the One who brings it.  It means remembering our covenant with God on a daily and yearly basis.  It also means a routinely confessing of our sins and/or shortcomings so that we might move on from those things to an ever-increasing faithfulness to the new covenant.   
3.     How does an encounter with this story shape who we are and who we should become? 
a.     It should remind us of our own unfaithfulness in contrast to the love of the Faithful One.  At the same time it should spur us on toward a response of greater faithfulness. It should give us hope that God can so transform our hearts that his will and law will be written on them, and we can live in obedience through grace.

Specific Discussion Questions:
Read the text aloud. Then, read the text to yourself quietly.  Read it slowly, as if you were very
unfamiliar with the story.

1.     What is a covenant?  How do they differ from a contract?  What kind of relationship is normally described as a covenant? 
2.     God begins by saying that the days are coming when he will make a new covenant with Israel.  This new covenant will not be like the old one.  What was the old covenant like?  How is it different than the new one God is bringing? 
3.     Who is the bringer of this new covenant? 
4.     What does it mean that the covenant will be written on our hearts? 
5.     The text says that with this new covenant no one will have to say, “Know the Lord” because everyone, even the very small, will already know the Lord.  What does this mean? 
6.     When parties are in covenant with one another they begin to be defined by their relationship with the other person in the covenant.  How are you being defined by your covenantal relationship with God?  What are some of the ways in which you have been changed? 
7.     How does confessing our sins and/or shortcomings help us live in greater faithfulness to this new covenant?

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Exodus 20:1-21 –The Ten Commandments: Part 2

Lesson Focus:
God gives us laws as a way to help us live in faithful relationship with him and with others.  All too often we fail to fulfill these commands.

Lesson Outcomes:
Through this lessons students should:
1.     Understand that the nature of these commands are relational and not legalistic.
2.     Identify how these laws are applicable to us in our current context.
3.     Confess their failure to keep these commandments and subsequently seeking forgiveness and strength to remain faithful.

Catch up on the story:
Last week we examined the first four of the Ten Commandments.  Before we began, we noted that the commands given here in this passage are relational commands.  That is, they are grounded, not in a sense of duty or obligation, but in the context of God’s historical relationship with Israel.  At the outset, God gives these laws because he is “the God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” Israel is called to follow the law, not to gain status as God’s people; they are already that by virtue of their exodus from Egypt.  They are called to follow the law so that they might grow and flourish as the kind of people God intends them to be.  

Those first four commands have more to do with Israel’s relationship with God than with Israel’s relationship with one another.  To be sure, though, when Israel breaks these first four commands, her relationship with her fellow Israelite begins to disintegrate as well.  If we are to grow into a community of faith that confesses that Jesus Christ is Lord, then we must seek to be faithful to the commands that are directly related to God as well as the commands that more profoundly affect our relationships with one another.  

The Text:
The Fifth Commandment:  Care for Your Mommas and Poppas
“Honor your father and your mother…”

It struck me the other day, when thinking about this particular command, that one is not excused from following it after they reach adulthood!  For some time, I do not know how long, I have believed that now that I am an adult with children of my own that this command does not apply to me.  It certainly applies to my children, though! 

The command itself, to honor our parents, is open-ended.  That is, it has no particular behavior in mind.  Rather, what is recommended is that a child’s behavior brings honor and not shame to the parent.  As a parent I can think of a million ways in which my children can bring me honor.  They can obey me the first time I ask them to do something.  They can get good grades in school.  They can be calm and polite when we are out in public.  They can respect others who are their friends and those who are in a position of authority.  It might be safe to say that we intuitively know what it looks like for our children to honor us with their behavior.  In the same way, we know when they are not honoring us! 

Most of the time I think this command gets read this way, from the perspective of the parent who has children.  We tell them, “Life will go better for you if you obey and honor your parents.”  That is, after all, what the command promises. Israel will have a long and faithful life in the land that God will give them if they are conscious about honoring their parents. 

But what does it look like for those of us who are grown adults with children of our own to honor our parents?  My grandmother recently passed away.  She was 90 years old and had lived a life filled with love and generosity, even in the midst of her own poverty.  Toward the end her health began to degrade.  She had a series of mini strokes that left her physically and cognitively impaired.  It soon became apparent that she would no longer be able to live alone.  She needed almost constant care.  Our family decided that we would sell her house and she would move in with my Aunt Glee.  Aunt Glee, at great cost to herself, lovingly cared for my grandmother until the day she died.  My grandmother was truly honored by the care and support she received from my Aunt Glee. 

So while this command urges children, when they are young, to honor their parents through their behavior and by growing up into responsible and well-adjusted adults, I also believe that the command urges us to examine how we care for our parents when they reach old age.  It may not always be possible to care for sick or aged parents in your home.  It is possible to bring honor to our parents in their last days by ensuring that they live out their last days with the dignity that befits them as people who bear the image of God. 

The Sixth Command: Taking Life…
“You shall not kill.”

Much ink and words have been spilled over this command that takes up just two words in the Hebrew text.  Most of the modern translations that you and I might consult translate the command, “You shall not murder.”  To translate it in this way is to narrowly restrict the nature of the command.  Murder carries with it the implication that the taking of a life was done in an intentional and individual way.  The Hebrew word in question, however, is used in various places in the Old Testament when speaking of cases involving killings of all kinds.  The Hebrew word, “rāṣaḥ applies equally to both cases of premeditated murder and killings as a result of any other circumstances, what English Common Law has called, “man slaughter.” The root also describes killing for revenge (Num 35:27, 30) and assassination (II Kgs 6:32).”[1]  So, it is best to translate the command as a prohibition against killing in general. 

When talking about this command there will always be a pull to try and reconcile this prohibition against life taking with all of the violent deaths that take place in Israel’s narrative.  We often try to make a case for the legitimization of war and capital punishment based on this diversity within the biblical text.  If you are not careful, most of your group time will be eaten up discussing this command! 

To best understand this command we must examine it in light of the previous commands.  Inherent in the first few commands is the idea that God is the giver and sustainer of all life.  The act of creation itself, which we are called to commemorate in keeping the Sabbath, is an act of sheer grace. It is life-giving.  The intent of the prohibition against killing is completely inline with God’s creative, life-giving intentions.  Life is God’s to create.  It is also his to take away.  

Of course, there must be room for discussions about the appropriateness of a nation-state, such as our own, to engage in activities such as war and capital punishment, or to the appropriateness of allowing laws for self-defense.  In those discussions, however, we must not lose sight of the fact that this command warns us “that any human killing is far from routine; it can never become some ordinary outcome of a legally constituted system of justice nor some inevitable result of a declaration of war, however justified such a war may claim to be.  Because all life is in fact God’s life, we humans take life at our own peril.  No killing can ever be a cause for rejoicing.  Weeping may be the appropriate response whenever killing is done, no matter the circumstances.”[2]

Perhaps the best approach to discussing this command is a positive one.  We must ask these questions: what does it look like for the body of Christ, that is the church, to work to ensure that all life has the opportunity to flourish?  How can we encourage forgiveness and reconciliation instead of hatred and revenge?  After all, God is working in our world so that it might become a world without violence and estrangement.  In Isaiah 11:6-9, the prophet paints a picture for us of the kingdom that God is seeking to establish, a kingdom that Jesus Christ has and is establishing. 

6     The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
7     The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
8     The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
9     They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea. 

The Seventh Command: No Fooling Around…
“You shall not commit adultery.” 

Once again, this command is only two words in the Hebrew text.  The literal issue at stake here is the violation of the marriage relationship.  Adultery, as the word here is translated, has to do with a man having a sexual relationship with a woman who is either married or engaged.

The larger issue here, I believe, is one of faithfulness.  Sex was meant to be a beautiful and practical part of God’s intention for creation.  Beautiful in that it connects two people together in a way that is otherwise impossible.  Practical in that it provides a way for humanity to be faithful to the command to be fruitful and multiply.  It is in that command that we are invited into becoming co-creators with God.

Anytime we use sex in a way that is contrary to God’s intention for it, either through pre-marital affairs, extra marital affairs, lust or pornography, we actually work against God’s invitation for us to be co-creators.  It is because these forms of sexual activity actively destroy the relationships that allow us to be fruitful and multiply.  Who among us has not witnessed a life or marriage destroyed because of this kind of unfaithfulness?

What does it look like for us to fulfill this command in a positive manner?  Perhaps it begins with how we treat those who have been unfaithful.  Instead of shaming them and casting them out of our fellowship (as we do with many who are caught in affairs, especially those in positions of authority) we should seek to remain faithful to them.  This is, after all, how God has responded to our repeated unfaithfulness, with the steadfast love and self-sacrifice of Jesus.  When we welcome and forgive those who have been unfaithful into our fellowship so that they might become faithful again, we positively fulfill this command.  

The Eight Command: Don’t take what isn’t yours.
“You shall not steal.”

As I have studied the creation narrative found in Genesis one of the things I have learned is that work was a part of God’s plan for us from the beginning.  We were created to be people who derived worth and dignity from the work that we did.  Just as sex is a part of our invitation to become co-creators with God by being fruitful and multiplying, so also work gives us the opportunity to create.  After a day’s labor we can step back and find fulfillment in the fact that we have created something.  To be sure, not all work is equally as fulfilling or equally as creative.  Some of it is downright drudgery.  This, we believe, is a consequence of the fall.

The fact remains, however, that work was a part of God’s plan for us.  Also a part of God’s plan for us is that we would receive some of the fruit from our labor.  Originally, Adam and Eve were allowed to eat the produce that the garden brought forth as they tended it.  Theft, however, takes what one has not worked for, be it money, or goods, or a person’s character or reputation.  In doing so it devalues both the thief and the victim.  Theft is also an upraised fist in the face of God.  It shouts at God, “You haven’t taken good enough care of me!  So, I will take matters into my own hands!”  When we steal, we fail to acknowledge that all that we have is a gift from God.  Even our ability to work is a gift from God. 

There are three ways in which we positively keep this command.  We can go about our work with fervor and dignity, knowing that through our work God will provide for us.  The second way we can positively keep this command is by working to ensure that what belongs to our neighbor is safe.  We work together as a community to ensure that all of our needs are met.  There is a third way as well: we fight injustices that cause people to be caught in cycles of poverty, that, at times, forces them to steal to survive.  Similarly, we can actively seek to liberate people from addictions that drive them to theft. 

The Ninth Command: Liar, liar! 
“You shall not bear false witness…”

A friend of mine used to say; “You only have as much relationship as you have honesty in that relationship.”  I have found this saying to be true.  The best and longest lasting relationships I have had have been built on mutual honesty and truth-telling.  One simply cannot have a good relationship when lies are a constant presence. 

Truth-telling is hard.  It takes courage.  At times, it takes a willingness to place the needs of the other in front of our own.  The temptation to lie comes from the constant pull of selfishness.  Relationships, though, with God and with our neighbor do not flourish where selfish lies abound.  We positively keep this command when we value the relationship with God and with others over our own selfish desires.  We keep this command when confess our sins and when we seek forgiveness and commit ourselves to being a people who tell the truth to one another in love.

The Tenth Command: Don’t Covet!
“You shall not covet.”

The Lord’s Prayer has profoundly impacted my life.  One of the lines in the prayer that I get stuck on is, “And give us this day our daily bread…”  I’ve come to realize that this line has two movements to it.  First, to pray it is to recognize that all I have is a gift from God.  My family, my house, and the food I eat, while seemingly the fruit of my own efforts, is really the gracious gift of the God who has given me the ability to work.  The air I breathe and the body I have are gifts as well.  Acknowledging that all that we have is from God is not our natural mentality.  At least, that is, not here in America where it is believed that we are what we make of our selves. 

The second movement is tied to the first.  If God has provided all that I need, then all that I have is enough.  There is a freedom and a rest that comes with realizing this.  Contentment comes from resting in God’s good gifts.  The urge to covet, the over-grown desire for that which we do not posses, comes from not believing or trusting that God has provided sufficiently for us. 

This is a constant struggle for Israel.  Israel, as they journeyed from Egypt to Mt. Sinai,  grumbled that God had brought them out to the wilderness to starve to death.  They grumbled when heaven-sent bread was not enough.  They grumbled when it seemed they had no water.  At each and every turn, however, God’s provision for Israel was more than enough.  Even after they wandered in the wilderness for 40 years they had found that their clothes had not worn out. 

To fulfill this command requires us to rest in what God has given to us.  God calls to us in this command, “My gifts are enough for you.”  I find, when I fail to believe or trust that God will provide for me, that I begin constantly repeating that line from the Lord’s Prayer, “and give us this day our daily bread…”  It reminds me that I am God’s.  It reminds me that God loves me and has provided for me.  It gives me hope that God will continue to provide for me. 

There’s a larger social component to this command too.  If we are resting in what God has given us then we are not so consumed with ourselves.  This allows us to focus on the needs of others, asking how it is that we might help our neighbor resist the urge to covet and the subsequent sins that follow. 
So What…?
I don’t believe that it is enough for us to look at this list and check off our obedience to each command.  It is not enough for us not to be murderers.  We must find ways to work against violence and hatred so that life can flourish.  It is not enough that we are not adulterers.  We must find ways to encourage faithfulness for both those who have been unfaithful and for those who are learning and growing into the faith.  It is not enough to honor our parents as children and then be done with that command.  We must find ways to honor our parents as they age and grow close to death.  The same things can be said for stealing and coveting.  Both these sins have their roots in a lack of faith and trust that the good gifts of God are enough for us.  We must find ways of helping one another see the ways in which God has provided for us so that we might rest in it.

The Ten Commandments are more than just a list of rules that are intended to keep us from sin.  The commands are intended for us so that we might flourish as the people of God, and as we flourish as the people of God, the world can be blessed through our ministry. 

Critical Discussion Questions:
  1. What does God look like in this text/Who is God in this text/What is God doing in this text? 
    1. God is deeply concerned with how we act in relationship with one another. 

  1. What does holiness/salvation look like in this text?
    1. Holiness looks like working to fulfill these commands in their positive movement.  It is not enough just not to steal or lie or kill.  Our faithful fulfillment of these commands urges us to find ways to ensure that others don’t need to seek, that there is truth told, and that we work toward seeing that life flourishes in the midst of brokenness. 

  1. How does an encounter with this story shape who we are and who we should become?
    1. As a whole, the Ten Commandments help us live ethical and moral lives in response to the personal God who has saved us because of our relationship with him.  We follow these commands because we trust that the one who has freed us from slavery knows how our lives should be ordered so that we might have life and life abundantly. 

Specific Discussion Questions:
Read the text aloud. Then, read the text to yourself quietly.  Read it slowly, as if you were very unfamiliar with the story.

1.      We often believe that the command to honor our parents is directed toward children while they are young.  Our responsibility to honor our parents does not cease when we have children of our own.  What might it look like for us to actively seek to honor our parents as adult children?
2.     We live in a culture that celebrates violence and war.  Even in the Old Testament we witness a lot of killing.  How do we reconcile the prohibition against killing with the rest of the Old Testament?  What might it look like to actively seek to positively fulfill this command to not kill?
3.     The term the seventh commandment uses is adultery.  The intention of the command is much greater than just infidelity within the marriage relationship.  What are other forms of sexual unfaithfulness?  Why is sexual faithfulness so important?  What are some of the ways we might positively fulfill this command?
4.     Work seems to be part of God’s plan from the beginning. We are to derive meaning and worth from our work.  How is stealing a violation of God’s creation?  What are some of the ways we might positively fulfill this command?
5.     Respond to this statement: You only have as much relationship as you have honesty in that relationship.  What do you think this statement means?  What does it say about the importance of truth-telling for individual relationships?  For our relationships within our community of faith?
6.     Coveting is an over-grown desire for that which we do not posses.  How does coveting betray our faith in God?  How does it damage our relationships with one another?    

[1] William White, “2208 רָצַח,” ed. R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer Jr., and Bruce K. Waltke, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (Chicago: Moody Press, 1999), 860.
[2] John C. Holbert, The Ten Commandments: A Preaching Commentary (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002), 77.