Image via WikipediaThe Propers for the third Sunday in Lent include the Exodus version of the Ten Commandments. They are set in the context of God's redemptive act of release from slavery in Egypt. The preface reads, "I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery" (Ex. 30.2). Jewish tradition considers this to be the first commandment, but most scholars see this as a preface, leading to the first commandment about fidelity to God. In any event, it is important to note that the commandments are a response to the call of a people. God first chose the people of ancient Israel, freed them from slavery, and then gave them the law to guide them into right relationship with God and with each other.
A few days ago, I blogged about the importance of a rule of life. I think it fair to view the Ten Commandments as a rule of life for the people of ancient Israel, both as they wondered in the desert and later as they settled in a new land and became a nation.
The Decalogue became a liturgical text in ancient Israel, recited in the context of worship, as it used to be in the Anglican tradition (provision is still made in the Book of Common Prayer to do so in the Penitential Order used by some during Lent). The Ten Commandments were used, as were so many liturgical texts, to wrestle with what it meant to be the people of God. They served as a standard by which their actions could be judged and challenged. The Apostle Paul certainly saw the law (oracles as he called them) in this way - guidelines that made people aware of their condition (see Romans 3.1-20)
We can use the Ten Commandments as guides to our behavior today. For instance, take the first commandment - "You shall have no other gods before me" (Ex. 20.3). When it was first articulated, the people of the just forming Israelite community lived in a polytheistic world. It would have seemed strange, perhaps, to consider offering fidelity to one God only. However, this is what the God of Israel asked of them - that they choose to offer allegiance to Yahweh alone in response to Yahweh's gracious and generous prior saving act.
In our world, we don't think in terms of multiple gods. However, if we chose to define God, as Paul Tillich and others have, as "that which is of ultimate concern," we can see that, in fact, many gods exist in our lives and in our world. So, the first commandment calls us to examine that reality, to consider what really is of ultimate concern to us. What do we really worship? What is of ultimate concern in our lives when all else is stripped away? This is an important question that deserves our attention, especially during this season of Lent.