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Exodus 20:1-17 & John 2:13-16
We are currently reading through Exodus in the Bible Study class – which, with a shameless plug, meets just before this service at 9:30 if you’re interested. And in that study we are talking a lot about how this particular piece of scripture becomes a profound account of liberation for not only the Jewish peoples in many places and moments of history, but also for others. There was, in our own country for a period of time, a “slave’s Bible” that was published by slaveholders specifically to be given to those in chains across this nation. It was virtually identical to the Bible we have right here in our pews save one major omission – no Book of Exodus. References to liberation, or slaves being set free or equality from other places in the Bible were removed too, but this entire book was eliminated! This is, in part, because the whole of Exodus is a story about both literal liberation and metaphorical liberation. Far beyond a single line or passage, the narrative itself is about God’s mighty hand coming to save people from tyranny and oppression. That is powerful stuff if you are oppressed, and dangerous stuff if you are the oppressor.
What we heard read this morning from Exodus is the ten commandments, or, in Hebrew and Greek, the “ten sayings” or “ten words.” We most often hear of them taken out of context or, here in Oklahoma, carved into a stone, which is a violation of the first commandment if you think about it. Yet they are really part of a much larger narrative, and part of a much larger set of commands, the “boundaries” of this newly liberated community, who are wandering the wilderness and learning that with freedom comes responsibility. We should not pull the “Ten Commandments” out of this context. They are and should be read as part of this story of covenant. God’s liberation makes demands on us.
According to Exodus, God sets free the Hebrews in order to mold a people who are truly free from slavery, not just free from the chains, and able to undertake the responsibilities of life in community with God and one another. And that takes a moral code. Hence, the ten…or rather the 365 commandments. We can have our disagreements with some of these laws, we probably find some abhorrent. They even contradict one another at times, but this is to be expected when human beings are in charge of interpreting and disseminating the will of God. If there is one thing that the Bible bears witness to, it is that we human beings can take a perfectly good and simple rule like, “Love your neighbor as yourself”, and muck it up completely. Well, who is my neighbor, really? And what do you mean by love? And what if I don’t love myself very much, are we talking about an equation here – so if I don’t like myself then I’m free to pass that on to others?
Throughout the Bible, from Exodus to Deuteronomy to the Psalms and Prophets all the way through to the Gospel writers and the letters of Paul we see this directive lived out, whether a call to respond to freedom from the chains of the Egyptian empire or freedom from the chains of the Roman empire or all the way through history to the American empire in which we live now. For what is the kin-dom if not an effort to free us from the mindset empire creates in us and the ways that it twists our morality and calls it “the way it is.” The kin-dom model sets us against that with a far-reaching ethic and a moral code that is supposed to accompany us everywhere. Note that the instructions in Exodus, even after these first ten, address things like property and commerce and justice, authorizing an ethic that, while still endorsing slavery and seeing women as property, in context is a push towards a more universal human rights, to a compassionate and human ethic that works on us still, beckoning us to give up our power, to expand our horizons and to draw the circle wider.
Today our language is less tribal and more economic. And, like the Israelites in the wilderness who almost immediately after the tablets are handed down from Mt. Sinai ignore their directives, so too we forget that God’s grace is only truly accepted by us when we can give it away to others. We forget that all of the desires we have, our needs and wants and hopes, are the ones that others have, too. While God offers us abundance, the empire teaches us scarcity and insists on models of competition to justify hoarding, rationalization and control. This is amplified by a capitalist system, where we often treat one another as commodities, as if people were just cogs in a machine and to the victor goes the spoils.
After the collapse of Enron, a Wal-Mart that consistently rakes in billions and keeps employees eligible for food stamps, and the almost total devastation of the economy from an out of control banking industry, “business ethics” seems to be an oxymoron, like “military intelligence” or “jumbo shrimp.” And yet we continue to insist that we can have morality in a “winner takes all” atmosphere…we persist in our assertion that greed can create positive outcomes, or that a “free-market” governed entirely by what the market will bear can possibly be relied upon to care about the people it impacts.
Over the past few decades, we have learned what happens when a capitalist system is deregulated and the boundaries that seek to curtail and protect are abandoned in favor of so-called “free-market” principles. Benefits and salaries of employees are cut while profit margins and CEO perks skyrocket. There is a mad rush for the cheapest labor possible, creating sweat shops overseas, or the migrant farm workers in the US who are thoroughly exploited while expensive lobbyists for the same companies help shape an immigration system that cooperates with the exploitation. Time and time again, the business “ethic” in the United States confirms that people don’t matter, profits do. Nowhere is that twisted ideology more apparent than in a private prison system that makes so-called “justice” a for-profit model, or a privatized school system that believes the education of our children can be monetized.
We do have examples, of course, of positive ethical practices. Yet they are the exception, not the norm. Taking care of your employees, setting a fair and balanced work environment, noticing and caring for the ecosystems in which your business operates…in a world governed by kin-dom ethics, this would be considered the standard, the bare minimum, not the exception.
We continue today through a sermon series, inspired by the seven social sins identified by Mahatmas Gandhi almost a century ago. It is remarkable how his list still rings true. The sins he listed were corporate rather than an individualized list like the seven deadly sins, and they are: Wealth without work, pleasure without conscience, knowledge without character, commerce without morality, science without humanity, religion without sacrifice, and politics without principle. Today we are using the Ten Commandments and the example of Jesus cleaning out the temple’s market to examine commerce without morality. But rather than continue to list the ways that we know that commerce and morality are strangers to each other, there is a chance for us to discover how it is that the Gospel asks us to re-examine the way that we live as a whole. Morality in commerce ought to come from someplace, as a sign of our acceptance of the Gospel rather than a wooden adherence to a bunch of rules we have to make for every conceivable situation. What Jesus demonstrates isn’t merely anger about people transacting business near the temple, it is anger at turning religious practice into another commodity. His anger is about the identity of commerce overtaking the people’s identity as children of God. For the money changers were placing profit over people, making access to God contingent on your bank account and acting like they were being observant. This is ultimately what has the rabbis condense the Ten Commandments to a shorter directive – the great Shema said on Shabbat evening to this day – love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, mind and strength. Because the more you list what that means out, the more that people treat it like a business contract, looking for loopholes and ways to exploit it. But these laws from Exodus and the ways of the kin-dom that Jesus teaches are covenental, the are about right relationships, not the appearance of piety. They are meant to teach us that we need each other, not that it’s us versus them.
We still live here in the heart of the American empire. So, of course we will act as consumers and citizens, for this is part of who we are. But I believe that our identity as children of God, our responsibility to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly, and to love our neighbors as ourselves, must take priority over any of the demands made on us by the state or by any economic system, by any other ideology or by any of the “-isms” laid upon us….none of them eclipse the identity we have at this table, for here you eat without cost or fee. Here you are welcomed no matter what your nationality, your status, no matter who you are or will become. The table is open to all who would come…free for those who are free, or those who would be free, which is how God created us all…
Come to the table.