A Good Place to Begin

Pastor Dale E. Austin                                                                   Exodus 20:1-17

One of my favorite quotes, which I stumbled onto only a few years ago, comes from Martin Luther, the renegade German priest who kick-started the Protestant Reformation.  In a letter to a friend he laments the concept that people are simply supposed to accept, with blind devotion, whatever the Mother Church teaches them, without questioning anything.  He finds it difficult to believe in a God who would bless us with intellect, reason, and the capacity for rational thought, and then ask us to forego the use or exercise of these gifts.  It’s a wonderful insight.

All too often we stop at the words of the Scriptures, telling ourselves that everything which God wants us to know is contained there.  But if Luther is anywhere near correct in his assertion, then God does not tell us everything.  There are some things which are left for us to figure out.  We have the ability to draw conclusions from what is there, and we are expected to use that ability, and then to make choices and decisions based upon what we understand.  The full truth of what God wants us to know extends far beyond the words of the Scriptures.  Sometimes, I’m convinced, God gives us clues in order to spur us on toward further exploration, but we stop at the clues, telling ourselves that this is all God wants.

The Decalogue, or the Ten Commandments, is probably one of the best examples.  We tell ourselves that because these come straight from God, there’s nothing more that we need to know.  That assumption is as old as the commandments, themselves.  Yet, how many times does Jesus take us well beyond the mere words?  How many times does he tell his disciples, “You have heard it said … ; but I tell you …”?  “You’ve been told that this law goes only so far; but I’m telling you that it goes far beyond that.”  Simply stopping at the literal meaning of the words, themselves, isn’t enough.  The letter of the law is only the beginning.  We are expected to understand that God wants us to live by the spirit of that law, and not the letter, only.  That requires some rational thought and application.

When God gives his laws to Moses, he is refining his covenant with his people.  He’s giving them guidelines so they can understand what it is to live as God’s people.  But what God gives them is not, by any stretch of the imagination, an exhaustive list of all that God expects.  Rather, these laws offer a representative sampling of what God asks of us, the basics or the bare minimum.  Since this covenant is a two-way agreement, there are certain obligations which pertain to us, as well.  God is giving us some ideas, but he isn’t trying to spell out every possible response to every possible situation in the world.  We’re left to fill in those blanks, and to figure out how these representative laws give us insight into to the rest of our lives.

 The Ten Commandments are just the starting point.  In the chapters of Exodus which follow, Moses will attempt to expand upon them and to show how to apply them to everyday situations.  But even those discourses do not cover every contingency in life.  Consider Jesus’ response whenever someone asked him what they had to do in order to inherit eternal life.  The rich young man insists that he has kept all of the commandments.  Isn’t that enough?  Jesus tells him, “No; there is more that you need to do.  What you’ve said is a good place to begin; but you need to go beyond.”  When asked about the greatest commandment, he simply says that we need to love God completely and to love our neighbors as ourselves.  He doesn’t quote one of the “official” commandments, but goes beyond them.

We make a mistake when we assume that all God asks of us is spelled out in the Scriptures.  God has left some of the details for us to figure out.  The Bible says little about some of the diseases which plague our world today, unless we want to join the ranks of those who insist that we are to rely upon faith, exclusively, or that all disease is a judgment or punishment from God.  Islam did not exist yet, when the Scriptures were written.  The solutions to our contemporary problems with the extremists who wish to distort and corrupt that religion have to be extrapolated from the Scriptures.  Nuclear proliferation, economic problems, political extremism, the increasing influence of money upon our government and the courts, and so many other issues are not specifically dealt with in the Scriptures.  The principles to guide us are most certainly there.  But the specific solutions to these issues are left for us to figure out in the light of those principles.

God’s laws are a good place to begin, but we won’t find all of the specifics spelled out there.  He gave us intellect and reason; we should not be afraid to use them.

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