How then shall we live?
That’s a question that the ancient Israelites surely had as they wandered around in the wilderness after being freed from slavery in Egypt.
How then shall we live?
It’s a question that arises out of disorientation. Sure, slavery in Egypt was awful. But they had homes. They had food. They knew what to expect. And now, they are in the wilderness. Their home is constantly moving. Their food appears mysteriously on the ground each morning—or from the sky. Water from a rock. They’re not sure where they are going or how they will get there or when they will get there or what they should do in the meantime.
How then shall we live?
In the Ten Commandments, the Israelites begin to find an answer. We tend to read the 10 Commandments as a list of rules that people have to follow. But in reality, they are a gift of guidance from God to people who are feeling lost.
In some ways we are not that different from the Israelites. We left a time of global pandemic, and have emerged into a new world that doesn’t quite seem like the promised land. Remember back in 2020 when we were saying “this is going to be the great reset, this has taught us that we need a different way forward, from now on things will be different?” Well, it was nice to fantasize for a while, at least.
We have returned, instead, to a world of unmitigated consumption, corruption, and greed. To political upheaval and global conflicts. To catastrophic weather, heat and floods that are destroying our way of life. To ballooning corporate profits at the expense of livable wages for entry level workers. To the festering plague of racism that still insists that Black lives do not matter, whether in our history books or in our grocery stores. To a rising cost of living that makes more and more people financially fragile. To politicians weaponizing the hatred of Queer people and women to pass laws that deny them life-saving medical care. To more and more strain on nonprofits and houses of worship to provide the social services that our government keeps defunding.
We have emerged into a world that leaves us confused, exhausted, unsure of where to plant our feet. This feels more like wilderness than promised land.
It is to us these commandments come–as gifts during a wilderness time; as something firm to hold on to when so much seems to be slipping through our fingers.
And these 10 commandments can all really be summed up in the first commandment:
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.
It can be easy to dismiss this command as something that merely serves a vain and “jealous” god. But in reality, prioritizing and serving a good and loving God is good for us, not just a vanity thing for God.
Putting nothing else above God means we have rid ourselves of any other idols. It means that all those things that we idolize – things we think have ultimate value and authority – stop becoming obstacles to our seeking the common good. What are your gods? Nationalism? Financial prowess? Stability? Fear and worry? Your reputation? Wealth? Intelligence? Yourself?
We all have other gods. They tend to be what we turn to when we find ourselves wandering in the wilderness. Sometimes, they are innocuous, mere coping mechanisms for surviving unstable times. Other times, they’re not so innocent, and they can disorder our priorities in harmful ways. If taken to the extreme, you might say that if you aren’t obeying the first commandment, you’re very likely to violate the other nine.
This is what Jesus is trying to explain, really, in the parable of the wicked tenants. They covet what isn’t theirs, they commit murder, all because they have abandoned honoring of the covenant they made with their landlord. They were entrusted with the care of that land, and they abandoned that trust.
We might be wandering in our own wilderness, but it is the world entrusted to us. It is still the time and place we live in.
Jesus is asking, “How do you live with what’s entrusted to you?”
How are we caring for the world we live in? For the environment? Our country? Our neighborhood? our church? Our families and friends? How does our love of God and the way we embrace God’s love of us inform the way we extend that care?
This is stewardship season at church, where we ask specifically, “how do we care for this church that is entrusted to us?” What can we give to ensure we are honoring God in the way we care for it?
How, then, shall we live?
But this isn’t just an emphasis on the “how” — it’s also an emphasis on the “live.”
One of the best descriptions I’ve heard of the 10 commandments is calling them “the ten best ways to live.”
How, then, shall we LIVE?
Listen again to the first commandment: 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.
I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt.
God is telling us who God is: the one who delivers, who saves, who liberates.
And when we put no other gods before THAT? When we value and prioritize liberation, deliverance, which is God’s character, above all else? Well, then we might be getting an idea of how God wants us to live.
After all, what is the worship and love of our God but to hold fast to the freedom that allows us to discern, in every day, the ways in which we live out the commandments; the guidance for living into a love unlike anything this world has ever known? To listen, in every word, for the rhythms of rest and labor of privilege and humility that show forth the possibilities of the reign of God right within our grasp?
What is the worship and love of our God but to live into a law, a Gospel that constrains our individual, selfish impulses for the sake of a world in which all of Creation can not only survive, but thrive; flourish as a divine vineyard free to give glory to the God who dreams our salvation?**
I am the Lord your God, who frees you. Value nothing more than that.
Important words for the Israelites in their desert wanderings. Important words for us in how we should live in relationship with each other.
How, then, shall WE live?