“Thou shalt not have any other gods before me.” Exodus 20:3
Warning: this will not be my most popular GraceWaves.
Eight of the Ten Commandments begin with “Thou shalt not.” (I like the sturdy King James language here). The two that are formed in a “positive” manner are keep the Sabbath holy and honor your parents.
The so-called negative casting of the commandments is off-putting to many people, as is the Old Testament in general. So much so to some, that they follow the lead of the second century scholar Marcion who flatly rejected the Old Testament and said that the God of Jesus is the real one.
Marcion was wrong, of course. We need the Old Testament. Its traditions date back more than 3000 years. And it’s a terrible mistake to claim that grace and love are the provenance of the New Testament only. The earliest books of the Old Testament are full of references to God as abounding in steadfast love, patience, and kindness. Grace flows from the pages of the first section of the Bible. In fact, the most radical and even irrational portrayal of unconditional love in the Bible is the book of Hosea. No, Jesus was not the Son of a new God. He was the Son of the God of Abraham, Issac, and Jacob.
I’ll be the first to admit that wading through the legal sections of the Old Testament is tedious and not especially helpful in the particulars. We are not bound to keep all the laws of Leviticus, for example, but I do claim there is a tremendous value is seeing how the people were to “work God into” the most minute details of life. I need that. But sticking with the larger picture, we must take time to hear the “Thou shalt nots” of scripture. Let me suggest a few reasons why.
First, Jesus said He did not come to abolish the law, and that we must not relax any of it (Matt. 5:17, 19). I start with this because some people fall in love with the Sermon on the Mount, for example, and assume it’s all we need. I hear the sentiment, but pay close attention to what you read there. Jesus said the law is important.
That leads to my second observation: the law serves a vital purpose in our development of faith and ultimately of grace. Law provides moral and spiritual structure to our lives and introduces us most clearly to our place in the universe. We must first relate rightly to God and to other people, and that is certainly the aim of law.
There are plainly some things I need to not do if I’m going to have a joyful and meaningful life. I need to not create gods in my image. I need to not steal, or lie, or kill, or engage in adultery. The law does limit our freedom. It limits our misery.
The law is a radical taming of the ego. To stick with Freudian language for a bit, ego left to its own devices never evolves into superego. It inevitably submits to the riotous id. Grace does win the day eventually, but first we need direction and strength lest we simply become grace-abusers. We need law to get us where we really want to go. Richard Rohr put it this way, “You ironically need very strong ego structures to let go of the ego” (Falling Upward, p. 45). The law provides that.
Without question, we do not want to stay in the legal, formative stage. We need to move on to the purest grace, but only after establishing the parameters of law. It is a paradox, but surely you’ve noticed that matters of faith and spirit are full of those! Bottom line, you can’t sit and listen to the Sermon on the Mount without first bowing at Mt. Sinai.
This is why I issued my warning at the beginning of this week’s edition. At a very fundamental level, we just don’t like to be told what we can and cannot do. But chances are there are some things I need to stop doing, and some things I need to start doing. I think you all can join me in that conviction. So this may not be my most popular GraceWaves, but it is likely to be the most necessary.
Dr. Terry Ellis
January 31, 2016