The Very Rev. Tom Callard – March 7, 2021
I remember a story from around fifteen years ago where there was this survey where they asked people if they could name all of the ten commandments. And they asked the same people if they could name all seven ingredients in a McDonald’s Big Mac, and if they could name all the children of the TV show the Brady Bunch. Kind of this holy trinity of cultural and religious knowledge.
So they found that less than half of the respondents – about 45 percent, could recall the commandment “Honor thy father and mother,” which is lower than the 62% who knew that the Big Mac has pickles. And that 34 percent of the people could recall the commandment to “remember the Sabbath and keep it holy” which was lower than the 43 percent who remembered that Bobby and Peter were two of the Brady children.
So it turns out that people didn’t know the commandments, or at least they didn’t know them as well as they knew about the Big Mac and the Brady children. And this was fifteen years ago, so you assume that today even fewer people know the commandments.
I wonder if right now I asked you to name the ten commandments, how many you could name without looking at our first lesson today, which contains all ten. Do you think you know all ten? There are four that relate to God and how we should behave with God and six that relate to how we should behave with each other. So, do you know all ten? Let’s go over them.
The first, relating to God, is that you should have no other gods before me. God wants us to be in an exclusive relationship. The second is not to make or worship any idols, for God is jealous of anything we might put into in God’s place, which is what an idol is. The third is not to take God’s name in vain. God’s name is a powerful and holy thing, and should be used in a way that is suiting and befitting God. And the fourth is to set aside some time for the Sabbath, which is time with God. God wants “us time.” These four commandments help define the relationship we have with God.
The second six commandments define the relationship God wants us to have with other people. When I was teaching confirmation class, I used to tell the students that to remember these, just think of the sensible things in life we shouldn’t do. We shouldn’t disrespect our parents but should honor our father and mother. We shouldn’t murder, we shouldn’t commit adultery, and we shouldn’t steal. We shouldn’t lie, which is to bear false witness. And we shouldn’t covet, which is when you really want something. So even though your neighbor might have a great house, and a great spouse, and great things, you should just appreciate what they have and be happy for them.
I have no way of knowing if you know all ten of the commandments or not. If this were confirmation class I would test you, but I trust you to test yourself.
Is it essential to know the commandments? No, it’s not really, out in the world. I think a person can survive out there and do pretty well without knowing the commandments. But as a Christian, you really should be familiar with them. And it’s probably not hard to memorize them, since there are only ten. So that’s your homework, to memorize the commandments this week.
Is it essential to know the ingredients to a Big Mac? No, it’s not. Unless you happen to work at MacDonald’s and your job is to make Big Macs, then you need to know, for example, that there are pickles. But otherwise no. It’s just something we know because of the culture around us.
I think what surveys like this show is what our culture knows and talks about, and they show that in general, there is a disconnect between what we do in here as Christians and what happens in the culture out there. I think fewer and fewer people know the commandments. They may still follow the spirit of the commandment, but when it comes to having an active, religious practice, we’re getting smaller. Our footprint in the cultural landscape is shrinking.
We are not the center like we sometimes think we are or like we used to be. Back seventy years ago in the 1950’s, my grandfather was an Episcopal priest in Westchester County, NY. And he was part and parcel of the culture around him. It was a Christian culture. His position as a clergy was recognized and sanctified by society. The clergy of his time received all sorts of perks: they were given cars, they were made members of elite social clubs, they were shown great respect in wide circles.
Clergy used to be able to get into baseball games for free. To go see the Red Sox you just needed to walk up to the gate at Fenway Park wearing your collar and they’d let you in. Come in, Father, they would say. No ticket was necessary. And you could be sure that a high percentage of people at the time knew all ten commandments.
And so the culture of the day was more religious. And we might look back at the 1950’s and earlier and say: wasn’t that a great time for us. Because, back then, everyone knew the ten commandments.
Except, as we know, it was not a great time for many people. It was not great if you were African American, or a woman who wanted to be on equal ground with the men. Or someone who was queer. Or Muslim, or even Jewish in certain parts of the culture. Or if you were differently abled. Things were not especially great for many people back in the good old days, even though they looked especially great for some of my ancestors and those who knew the ten commandments.
So our culture has changed since then, and many more people today find their lives are better because there’s so much more access to jobs and equal pay and civil rights and protections under the law. And there is much more acceptance in general than there was back in those days. Even though we still have a long, long way to go.
But is our goal as Christians to get back to the center and become again a pillar of our culture? In other words, should we be jealous of the Big Mac and try and oce again take its place?
Much of what Jesus says in his ministry is not a glowing endorsement of the culture of his day, but it is about getting the culture around him to see God. He tells us that the first should be last. He tells us that leaders must be followers and servants. He tells us to forgive our enemies. He tells us to sell everything we have and give it to the poor. These are not predominant cultural values, back then or today.
The Bible records Jesus criticizing and challenging and attacking the culture around him again and again. The culture in which he lives allows people to stone a woman to death for adultery. And he’s against that. The culture in which he lives allows a man to write a writ of divorce and dismiss his wife into poverty. And he’s against that. The culture in which he lives pushes widows to donate even their last cent to the coffers of the powers that be. And he’s against that.
And, of course, in today’s Gospel, we see that the culture around Jesus allows for there to be open commerce in God’s house, with people changing money and selling cattle, sheep and doves in the temple, and profiting off of the poor worshippers who come into the city to make their offerings to God. Because that’s who almost everyone was, poor worshippers coming into the city, while a few connected people took advantage and made a profit from them. And Jesus is against that.
Jesus’s goal always is to point us to God who is true and pure and holy and unpolluted by the hands of the culture around us. And as we know from the ten commandments, our God is desperately aware that human nature is sinful and that human nature wants to pollute things. Human nature wants to make things muddy, to make them perverse by creating idols which are more important to us than God. Human nature wants to put other things in the place of God, to fill the temple with all sorts of distractions. And human nature wants to forget about God all together, and not honor the sabbath and keep it holy.
This isn’t just some people, it’s all people. We all muddy our relationship with God, just as we muddy our relationship with each other. And this is why you have the ten commandments in the first place. Someone once told me that you don’t have a sign on a lake that says “No Fishing,” unless you’ve got a lot of people there trying to fish.
Same with the ten commandments. They exist because they describe what we are prone to do and who we are prone to be, and the actions that if left to our own devices and desires we would be tempted to do.
And so who is Jesus in this? Jesus is the one who comes from outside ourselves, from outside our culture and outside the things that we do. Jesus comes from some far away divine source that we cannot touch or muddy, as a prophetic voice that addresses us in the most clear way to bring us back to the good. To bring us back to the source of God. To adjust us when we are off, and free us when we are caught. And drive the money changers out of our temple.
He doesn’t need to be in the middle of the society to do that. In fact he can’t be in the middle of society, because look at what society has said of Jesus, look at the way the culture around us misunderstands even Jesus. He needs to be at the edge, coming to us from the corners. And pushing us, like the money changers in the temple, to throw out all that corrupts us from being a more perfect house of God.
We should always expect that our culture will be good and decent and do the right thing. But we should always know that it probably won’t. At least not entirely. Because that’s what human nature is. And so we do not need to worry about the culture around us being perfect or knowing the ten commandments or returning to being this idyllic, Christian era that we imagine of the past. We can let them have the Big Mac. We can let them be obsessed with TicToc and Facebook and virtual videos of cats, all those things that happen to be at the center of culture today.
Our job is to know and practice the commandments for ourselves. Our job is to uphold them in our own lives. And, as we are able, our job is to join Jesus in the struggle for the good. Our job is to be those who speak against and work to fight injustices of the money changes in the temple, who turn over the tables of those who seek to profit off the poor, who challenge those who uphold the sins of racism and sexism and homophobia and prejudice. And who talk and work for the good. That’s us.
We are not the predominant culture, and because we are not, we can look at it and occasionally say: what you’re doing is wrong. Here’s what the Bible says. Here’s what the ten commandments say. Here’s what Jesus would do.
So this week, in addition to memorizing the ten commandments, your homework is to be Christians who speak and work on behalf of the Good. Where in your life can you speak and work on behalf of the Good? This is a worthy Lenten discipline.