Who’s the “you” in the Ten Commandments?

Who’s the “you” in the Ten Commandments?

Or, another way to put it: Who are the commandments for? Who is being expected to obey these commandments?

For most Christians, the assumption is that these are universal moral laws: they are for everyone. The “you” in the Ten Commandments is “every person.”

This can make a lot of sense—with some of these commands. We read, “You shall not murder,” or “You shall not commit adultery,” or “You shall not steal,” and it can make perfect sense to hear these as “You—every person—must not do these things.”

But other commandments complicate this assumption.

Take the commandment to keep the Sabbath: “Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labour and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns” (Exod 20:8-10).

Who’s the “you” in this commandment? If you still think it’s “every person,” go back and read that last bit again.

Or, take the commandment not to covet: “You shall not covet your neighbour’s house; you shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour” (Exod 20:17).

Who’s the “you” in this commandment? Or, more appropriately, who’s the “neighbour”?

The “you,” and the “neighbour,” in these commandments is not “every person.” It’s not a universal “you.” The “you” does not include wives, sons or daughters, male or female slaves, or resident foreigners. The “you” here has a wife, sons and daughters, and male and female slaves.

The “you” in these commandments is a man, not a woman or a child. The “you” is a free man, not a slave. The “you” is a property-owning free man, a free man with a “household,” not someone landless and without wealth.

I’ve pointed this out in different teaching contexts, and responses range from bemusement to confusion to shock to denial. Even with the text staring them in the face, some insist that the “you” in the Ten Commandments must be “every person.”

“That’s your interpretation,” they say.

“Read it again,” I say. “That’s the text.”

Now, my point in raising this in teaching contexts is not to deny that the Ten Commandments have any ongoing moral relevance. I believe they do.

Rather, my point is that there is no straight line between the text of Scripture and what it means for us today. We do need to interpret the text—we all do anyway, actually, whether we realize it or not—and if we want to interpret the text well we must grapple with the reality of Scripture’s ancient cultural contexts.

And a big part of this is grappling with the various forms of patriarchy that underlie every single book in our Bibles.

This is disconcerting for us, even disturbing. And it should be.

The Ten Commandments assume—and even support—a patriarchy centred on free men with households, including wives, children, slaves, and other property. This is a slaveholding society, a society which allowed not only bonded servitude to pay a debt but also chattel slavery of conquered foreigners (Exod 21:2-11; Lev 25:44-46). It’s a society in which women are, at least in some sense, the “property” of a man: their father, then their husband (Exod 20:17; Numbers 30; Deut 22:13-21).

This should be disturbing for us.

And it’s not just the Ten Commandments, or even just the Old Testament. The New Testament assumes—and often supports—a similar form of patriarchy centred on free men with households, including subject wives and owned slaves. “Wives, accept the authority of your husbands, like Sarah obeyed Abraham and called him ‘lord’” (1 Pet 3:1-6). “Slaves, obey your masters in everything” (Col 3:22).

This should be disturbing for us.

But running right through the Bible, from Moses through the Prophets through to Jesus, there is a parallel thread highlighting God’s concern for the vulnerable, the marginalized, and the oppressed. Actually, it’s even stronger than that: there is a thread running through the Bible that emphasizes God’s solidarity with the vulnerable, the marginalized, and the oppressed.

Even the Ten Commandments, which assume and support a slave-owning, patriarchal society, open with these words: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.” The God of Israel is the God of the vulnerable, the marginalized, and the oppressed. Any other “god” is not the true and living God, the Creator-of-All, the Redeemer-from-Slavery, the Sustainer-of-the-Oppressed.

Here’s a good way to see this biblical thread represented in a single passage. According to Luke’s Gospel, these are the words of Jesus in his hometown synagogue of Nazareth:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.

I say these are the words of Jesus through the Evangelist Luke (Luke 4:18-19), but this is Jesus quoting from the Prophet Isaiah (Isa 61:1-2), and referencing the Year of Jubilee in the Law of Moses (Lev 25). From Moses through the Prophets through to Jesus, there is a thread through the Bible that highlights God’s concern for, even God’s solidarity with, the vulnerable, the marginalized, and the oppressed.

The poor in a world of shocking economic disparity. The incarcerated in a world of authoritarian violence against minorities. The disabled in an ableist world. The indigenous in a colonized world. The queer in a heteronormative world.

And women in a patriarchal world.

The “you” in the Ten Commandments is not “every person”; it is people with power, especially men with power, people who need a law to restrain the abuse of their power.

But God is decidedly on the side of the powerless. The God who is enthroned in the heavens comes down to the lowest of the lowly, and dwells with them, and takes up their cause, and overthrows the powerful who violate the powerless.

This is how God is revealed in the Law and the Prophets. And this is how God is revealed in Jesus.

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to use to his advantage,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death
—even execution on a cross. (Phil 2:5-8)

Jesus Fulfills the Law—in Love

You don’t have to read far into Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount to hear this astounding claim by Jesus:

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. (Matt 5:17-18)

Jesus’ warning that follows is just as astounding:

Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. (Matt 5:19)

It’s no wonder many Christians have insisted that we must obey the Old Testament Law. These are strong words!

But what did Jesus mean when he says, “I did not come to abolish the Law but to fulfill it?”

We get an answer by following the most basic principle of good interpretation: Keep reading.

When we keep reading, for instance, we discover that Jesus can’t mean we’re supposed to literally obey every commandment in the Law. How do we know this? Because immediately after this Jesus reinterprets some Old Testament laws, and even outright overturns some of them.

I’m talking about all the “You’ve heard it said…but I say to you” teachings that follow in Matthew 5. The “you’ve heard it said” each time is a reference to an Old Testament command; the “but I say to you” is Jesus’ new interpretation of that command.

So, for example, the Law of Moses says: “You shall not murder.” But Jesus says: “Do not even harbor anger in your heart against another person.”

Or, the Law of Moses says: “You shall not commit adultery.” But Jesus says: “Do not even nurture lust for another woman in your heart.”

And on it goes, until we get to the last two. The Law of Moses commanded a form of retributive justice, a principle of “proportional retaliation,” for any violent act committed: whatever the offender did to someone, they were to have that very thing done to them. The full commandment in Deuteronomy 19 is this: “Show no pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot” (19:21).

And, while the Law of Moses in fact commands kindness for one’s everyday enemies, it does direct the Israelites more than once to annihilate their enemies in battle. The promise of Leviticus 26:7 sums this up: “You shall give chase to your enemies, and they shall fall before you by the sword.”

These commands of the Law, Jesus doesn’t just reinterpret. Jesus outright overturns them. No retribution of any kind is allowed. No violence of any kind is permitted. “Do not retaliate against an evil person,” Jesus says. “Love your enemies.”

If we keep reading some more, all the way through Matthew’s Gospel, we also find that this isn’t the only place that Jesus talks about “the Law and the Prophets.” That’s a clue, by the way. Jesus doesn’t just fulfill the Law, but the Law and the Prophets. All the Jewish Scriptures find their completion in Jesus. All the biblical threads of God’s ways in the world and God’s will for us, all these are woven together in Jesus.

The next reference to “the Law and the Prophets” is also in the Sermon on the Mount. In fact, the Sermon is framed by these two uses of “the Law and the Prophets”: our passage near the beginning, introducing the main part of the Sermon, and the next one near the end, as the Sermon is wrapping up.

And what is this summing-up reference to “the Law and the Prophets”? It’s something we all know, the famous Golden Rule: “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the Law and the Prophets” (Matt 7:12).

Doing for others what you would like done for you is the Law and the Prophets—it’s what the Bible is all about. Turning outside of ourselves and looking to others, treating others with the same respect, compassion, kindness, and care that we would like to receive—this fulfills all our obligations under God.

If we keep reading through Matthew’s Gospel, we come to another significant time Jesus talks about “the Law and the Prophets.” It’s in Matthew 22, Jesus’ response to the question, “Teacher, which commandment in the Law is the greatest?”

We all know Jesus’ answer—it’s the Great Commandments:

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets. (Matt 22:36-40)

Love—devoted love for God and others—is what the Law and the Prophets are all about. Everything—all God’s ways in the world, all God’s will for us—hangs on these two commandments: love God and love others.

Or, in other words, love is the fulfillment of the Law.

Other early Christians got the message. The Apostle Paul sums this up as neatly as any of them, in Romans 13:8-10:

Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the Law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the Law.

Jesus oriented his life around love—not holiness, not purity, not strength or power, not truth or even wisdom, not even justice or peace. He oriented his life around love: devoted love for God and devoted love for others. And in doing so, Jesus demonstrated true holiness and purity, he showed true strength and power, he revealed true wisdom, he carved out the path toward true justice and peace.

In other words, all the things the Law pointed to—holiness, purity, wisdom, truth, mercy, justice, peace—Jesus fulfilled them all in love.

And likewise, when we orient our life around love, we too fulfill the Law. If we orient our life around striving for holiness or spotless purity, we will miss the fullness of God’s will for us. If we orient our life around some pure search for truth, we will miss the fullness of God’s will for us. If we orient our life around a relentless quest for justice, or even peace, we will miss the fullness of God’s will for us.

But when we orient our life around love in the way of Jesus—devoted love for God expressed in devoted love for others—then we discover true holiness and purity, true strength and wisdom, true justice and peace along the way.

I know, I know. Love can seem like a pretty flimsy foundation for a life of holiness, or for the pursuit of truth, or for producing peaceful and just societies. But this is what Jesus teaches, and the rest of the New Testament confirms it for us.

The question is, do we really believe it? Are we willing to put it into practice? Relentlessly, persistently, above all else, seeking to love God and others?

Adapted from a sermon given at Morden Mennonite Church on January 7, 2018.

“I Desire Mercy, Not Sacrifice”

Jesus says, “Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’”

Okay, Jesus. I’ll take you up on that. I’ll go to the prophet Hosea to learn this—after all, that’s where this quote comes from.

There’s ancient Israel awash in idolatry and injustice, yet trusting in her religious rituals—prescribed by God in the Law, no less!—to maintain her standing before God. But God would rather have his people living in simple chesed—“steadfast love,” “lovingkindness,” “mercy”: devotion to God and compassion for others—than have them do all the prescribed rituals of the Law put together.

Okay, Jesus, I’m good with that. In fact, I’d love to be free from feeling obligated to do religion in just the right way. I’d love to be free to do religion in a way that’s free, you know? I’d love to be free to do religion in a way that focuses on the stuff that really matters, like “doing justice and loving mercy and walking humbly with God.”

“Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’”

But, I just… Oh, okay. I’ll go deeper. Let me check out the context of your teaching, why you said what you said when you said it.

Isaac Cigoli, The Sacrifice of Isaac

There you are, eating with sinners, and the Really Religious don’t like it. Their concern is about holiness, about maintaining purity—the prescribed “sacrifice” according to the Law. But your concern is about “mercy,” about showing compassion—this is the greater pursuit, God’s greater desire.

Of course, you don’t neglect the reality of sin—you call all sinners to repentance—but you turn “sin” on its head: excluding the marginalized, and especially justifying this by appeals to “holiness” before God, is the greater sin. Purity plus power so easily turns to bigotry and exclusion.

Okay, Jesus, that’s hard, but I think I can do that. I can try to be attentive to those on the fringes, especially those my community labels “sinners.”

“Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’”

But, didn’t I just…? Okay, okay, Jesus. I’ll go still further. After all, there is that other time you said these words.

Your disciples pluck and eat grain on the Sabbath. You heal on the Sabbath. The Really Religious get on your case once again. This time, though, they’re putting the letter of the Law—strict Sabbath observance, that is, “sacrifice”—ahead of its spirit—“mercy.” As the Son of Man, The Human, you are Lord over the Sabbath Law. The Sabbath, you say, was made for humans, not humans for the Sabbath. And so you prioritize the Law’s spirit of mercy over its rigid observance.

Okay, Jesus, I’m pretty sure I can do this. It can be hard to discern the spirit of biblical teaching, harder still to discern the Spirit behind the biblical teaching. But when in doubt, choose mercy—that’s a good guideline right there.

“Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’”

There’s still more to this? I don’t doubt that anymore—you do seem to have a way of saying simple things that aren’t so simple once you start really thinking about them!

“I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” What other “sacrifice” might you mean? More than just the Law-prescribed offerings, or the right religious rituals? More than just living by the letter of the Law?

Oh, yes. There’s you. You gave your own life as a sacrifice. But if you did this, what does it mean to say you—or God, for whom you speak—does not desire sacrifice?

Oh, I see. You mean, no sacrifice of anyone, anytime, in any way.

Your self-giving sacrifice was an end to all sacrifice—not just animal sacrifice, not just religious offerings, but all the ways in which we sacrifice a life to gain the favour of the gods or to create favourable circumstances for ourselves.

No sacrifice, then. No daughters and sons sacrificed in war for The Nation or The Wealthy Few. No condemned prisoners sacrificed eye-for-eye and life-for-life. No brown people sacrificed over there, or right here, to maintain “peace” or satisfy “justice” or fill our White Man’s craving for land and cotton and oil.

No sacrifice. No women suffering abuse while the church keeps silent, all to maintain the church’s (and men’s) reputation and power. No children murdered in school on the altar to the twin gods Gun and Mammon. No LGBTQ folks scapegoated so straight folks don’t have to deal with their own sin. No unborn children pulled from the womb so close to seeing the light of life, and no pregnant women cast out into the wilderness bearing the burden of responsibility for their child.

No sacrifice. No sacrifice, ever.

Only mercy. Only, and forever, mercy.