It is really quite intriguing, but when we look at the 10 commandments, there are aspects which seem to reinforce and to build upon each other, writes Rev Sydney Maitland. First of all is the command that there should be no other gods before the Lord. Israel was reminded that the Lord was personal and personal to her. She was forbidden to have any other gods before Him. The surrounding nations may have plenty of deities of their own, but Israel was to have only one, and that was the Lord.
In our own context, we have many gods – not only does the current fashion for multiculturalism seek to validate any and all other deities and their spokesmen, but it also establishes many other non-deities as supreme: scientism, nationalism, capitalism, socialism, the celebrity culture and of course, materialism. All of which take precedence over the Lord whom we worship.
But secondly, Israel was banned from having any images representing the Lord and possibly acting as a substitute for Him. There were to be no idols, whose priesthood could then manipulate and distort their faith. Equally in our own time, there are idols of our own choosing and devotion: the rich and famous, the celebrities of sport and entertainment, the commentators of the press and broadcast media, even some of our political leaders. All seeking to maximise their power and influence, never mind wealth, in competition with each other and over the general public. Yet as we know only too well these false gods are all being overturned: the crisis in capitalism, the collapse of communism, the parliamentary expenses scandal, the morality of the press, the elimination of major productive assets or their sale to foreign owners; even the collapse of football clubs. And to make it clear, perhaps the first of the powers in the land to be shaken has been the church, riven by scandal, division, and indeed novel if not contradictory doctrines of faith and life.
But that is only half the story, for it is the last two commandments that have really attracted my attention. First of all, the ninth commandment was against false witness against our neighbours. Yet we avidly consume the press with prurient glee at the misfortunes of those who lead our society, but never knowing the full story and assuming that “there is no smoke without fire” – so the person reported on must be at fault, and if not of this allegation then there must be something else. It is not just that we consume these reports but by doing so we encourage them and give them currency by discussing them. It also applies to our appetite for the glowing details of their partners, wealth, clothing and fashion, houses and cars and holidays.
It is a far cry from Paul’s letter to the Philippians:
“Whatever things are noble, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy – meditate on these things.” (4: 8)
Secondly, there is the 10th commandment against covetousness. When the commandment was issued, it was against covetousness of the neighbour’s wife, manservant, maidservant, ox, donkey, or anything that is his. In our day it certainly applies in relation to our neighbour’s wife (or husband), family, house, car, career, entertainment equipment, or even social or commercial or political success.
But it goes much further than that. It also applies to the false gods that our neighbour may embrace, and the idols that that person may honour. In other words it takes us right back to the 1st two commandments. The false gods and idols of science isolated from godly values; fame unsupported by genuine achievement or honour; possessions gained by dishonest or abusive or manipulative means; power gained by simplistic arguments, cliché and false promises or claims or accusations; commentary founded on shallow philosophy or entertainment; even humour based on humiliating and abusing another person.
The point is that in giving way to covetousness and gossip, we fall prey to the false values of those already beholden to false gods and idols. Even if these subscribe to such distortions and vanities, we do not have to. We may be aware of them but we do not have to be loyal to them.