This week’s Narrative Lectionary continues our exploration of the Ten Commandments. (CEB NRSV) Building on the foundation of our relationship with God, the commandments now turn to our relationships with the people around us. These commandments are all about sustaining the life of the community.
First, the commandments look to the foundation of our lives, with the instruction to honor our parents. For people with loving, attentive parents, this isn’t hard. The struggle comes for people with abusive, neglectful or missing parents. Are we to honor parents who weren’t able to be parents, or who were damaging, or just not present? The original instruction says to honor father and mother, but that may call up a sense of exclusion, as many people now experience a different combination of parents.
This is also a commandment with a quid pro quo attached to it. Honor your parents, not for their own sake, but so that your days in the Promised Land may be long. Are we to honor our parents for their benefit, or to get something out of it?
The act of giving honor draws us out of ourselves, and turns us toward another person, where we take time to see the blessings that come to us through them. The act of stopping the flow of everyday life to pay attention to someone gives reverence to a wider connection. There are all kinds of ways to show honor to someone. Momentary acts of gratitude, or regular acts of connection, are all powerful, but the greatest way to honor someone is in how we live our own lives. To honor someone may mean to give respect, but the deeper meaning of the commandment comes in how we live, so our actions reflect back on them. Honor your mother and father so your life reflects back what they taught you. Honor your mother and father so you are worthy of their good name, or their reputation for kindness, or their business sense.
This blessing attached to this commandment suggests that this is more than just the bond between individual parents and children. It’s also a word to strengthen the whole community. In a world where people lived in extended families, this commandment gives order and structure to the clan. To keep everyone from struggling for their own gain, honor is due to those who provide the foundation of family life. In our world, we might think about honoring the people who are foundational for us. It could be parents or step-parents, or the neighbor down the block who watched us every day after school, or taught us to drive, or the in-laws who taught us a new way of being family. It could also be the teachers who anchor a difficult neighborhood in the school, or the librarians who create a safe space for people.
The next few commandments prohibit actions which break down the bonds of community life. We are not to dis-honor each other with acts of violence and betrayal, or our communal connections will fray. Most of us are doing ok on the murder, adultery and theft, but all of us have places where our actions tear down communal life, instead of building it up. Related to this, the final commandment in this section relates to legal proceedings, and telling the truth. It calls us to a realization that the life of the community is more important than our individual affections. We might be tempted to lie for a friend, but this commandment insists that everyone receives equal treatment by the law. These days, technology makes our community connections broader that ancient people could have imagined, and our actions have wider ripples. There are more places to bear false witness, or to tear each other down.
These commandments seek to help the people of Israel – and us – create a community where connections are strong. With far more people in our lives, our connections are wider. The commandments call us back to attentiveness to the people in our lives, and to be mindful of how we use our time and energy to nurture our connections, and build our common life.
As we look at these commandments about nurturing the fabric of community, the sermon might ponder:
- We have community around us on many different levels – neighbors, place of worship, extended family, supporters of sports teams and more. Which community feels most important in your life? What actions do you take, or refrain from, to build it up?
- Looking at the wider, global community, how do our actions add to or detract from the web of community life? Do our purchases enhance the work other people do, and contribute to a better life for them? Or, are we less careful in how we spend our time and money? When I shop with my teenage daughter, I try to convince her that some clothes are too inexpensive – the price means that someone didn’t make a fair wage to sew them. For her, with a limited, minimum-wage income of her own, there’s no such thing as clothes that cost too little.
- How do you honor the people who gave you life, whether it’s your physical life, or a new life in the spirit, or a new life of recovery? What do you choose to do that honors them?
- When waiting for someone, I used to sit and think, or chat with a stranger. Now I use the time to check email or play a game on my phone, all in silence. For you, how does technology connect us to wider community of people, or get in the way of building community?
- What else? What are your thoughts? Please share them in the comments.