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  • Writer's pictureRev. Izzy Harbin

1st Commandment

Updated: Aug 10, 2023

Author's note: Long post warning. I pray it is a good read.

Matthew 19:16-22


16 Then someone came to him and said, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” 17 And he said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is one who is good. If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.” 18 He said to him, “Which ones?” And Jesus said, “You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal. You shall not bear false witness. 19 Honor your father and mother. Also, you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 20 The young man said to him, “I have kept all these; what do I still lack?” 21 Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” 22 When the young man heard this word, he went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

The 1st commandment of the 10 Commandments reads: “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.” Most often, we only see the last phrase of this scripture when describing the 1st of the 10 Commandments – “you shall have no other gods before me.” I haven’t decided yet whether the elimination of the first part of this text is critical or not, but it feels as though important context for this 1st commandment gets lost when left out.

God’s pronouncement that he, alone, is the one who brought the Israelites out of Egypt, that he alone, rescued them from slavery, says a lot about the character of God in this moment. We see God needing to qualify his demand to be the only god. After all this effort, why would any god want to share the glory in besting the Egyptian Pharoah?

Still, as God’s way of setting initial limits with the people of Israel, it isn’t a bad deal. They are freed from a life of slavery and in turn are asked to honor the one who freed them. Here’s where I struggle, though, with this commandment – God is also the one who arranged for them to be in Egypt in the first place. Why was it necessary for the people of Israel to suffer in Egypt for 400+ years. That seems like an excessive length of time for having committed no crime. And where was God when “his people” were crying out in anguish?

Exodus 3:7-10 tells us, “7 Then the Lord said, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, 8 and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land to a good and spacious land, to a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. 9 The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. 10 Now go, I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.”

From this text it appears that God didn’t hear their cries until an appointed time. This isn’t how we usually think of God, especially one that is supposed to be all knowing, all powerful, and all present. For what purpose did the Israelite people suffer? Was God trying to teach them a lesson? Of course, these are all questions that we cannot know the answers to, but still we ask.

In truth, I cannot worship a God who would intentionally cause us to suffer so that at some point they would receive praise and glory for being the liberator. And now we are getting to the point of Sunday’s passage – the concept of liberation.

Sunday’s passage, found in both Matthew and Mark, is about a wealthy man who has many possessions. His question to Jesus is one of liberation, “What good deed must I do to have eternal life?” The question about eternal life is a tricky one in that there is no consensus among scholars regarding the beliefs of Jews in the 1st century as it relates to the afterlife. There were multiple views of the afterlife. So, when the rich man asks this question, we cannot be certain what he is actually asking.

Oddly enough, this question is also asked in Luke by an attorney, and is also connected with a conversation about commandments, specifically the greatest commandment, “to love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, your mind, your soul, and your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself.”

In both of these instances, Jesus refers the asker back to the law. In the Matthean passage, Jesus quibbles about the word “good” but then tells the rich man, “if you wish to enter into life then follow the law.” This wording is interesting because Jesus doesn’t use the same word that the rich man does – he doesn’t say ‘eternal life’ he simply says ‘life.’ This discrepancy might also be a clue into the meaning of eternal life or life – both of which could refer to a more authentic way of being in the moment.

In the Luke passage where the attorney asks this question, Jesus asks the attorney, “What does the law say?” to which the attorney replies, “To love the Lord, your God, etc.” The first time we see this phrasing of the “law” is when Jesus is coming up against the religious leaders of the Temple and sums up the law for them, in the Book of Matthew.

The questions surrounding the law, or even the summation of the law, reveals a new teaching by Jesus. Yes, it reflects the general tenor of the 1st Commandment, ‘to have no other gods before me,’ but the love your neighbor as yourself sums up commandments 5-10. It truly is a summation of the whole of the law, as in the 10 Commandments.

If we keep reading our passage though, the rich man is quick to ask Jesus if there are specific laws he should be keeping. Jesus replies with a list, conveniently leaving out the first 4 commandments. And, not to put too fine a point on it, Jesus alters the last commandment, “Do not covet,” to read, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Where is the commandment to put God above all else? Or the commandment to not create idols, or take the name of God in vain? Or the commandment to keep the Sabbath Day Holy?

What I think Jesus is pointing to through his exchange with the rich man is that we are incapable of keeping all the commandments as written in Exodus 20. As much as we would like to believe that we can put God first in all things, there always seems to be something material that gets in our way. For the rich man, it was his wealth and all his possessions. His materialism stood in the way of his liberation. He couldn’t enter fully into life because these things were weighing him down.

For others, it may be some type of addiction, or it could be religious fervor that is without depth or substance, or maybe for others it is people pleasing and the like. There are so many possibilities.

God is consistently patient with us and is always waiting to liberate us from our circumstances. In the case of the Israelite people, they became so entrenched with their captors they didn’t even realize they needed liberating. We can become so ensconced with our own issues that we, too, cannot recognize our need for liberation. It is only after liberation comes that we see just how bad things were. Usually, it takes someone else to point out our struggles, like being unable to see the forest for the trees. And we don’t want to believe that we placed ourselves in the situations that bind us but would rather blame others for our misery.

While God may have guided the Israelite people to Egypt through the brothers of Joseph, he didn’t require that they stay there. They could have conceivably left at any time. Often when we are faced with some sort of hardship, we imagine that it will get better over time. Yet, time passes and things never change, they just continually get worse.

This is why God comes to rescue us.

For the people of Israel, they were willing to risk following Moses and Aaron out into the desert in order to taste the life they so desperately wanted. The Israelites understood the cost, and knew that if they left, they probably could never return. Even then, it took 40 years for them to see a different way to exist as a whole people. The rich man, on the other hand, was unwilling to risk everything. He could not enter the fullness of life. Even though he also knew the cost to himself, and perhaps others, the only thing he was willing to risk was his liberation. Jesus showed him a better way when he asked the rich man to give up everything he owned. The rich man was incapable of seeing how his wealth trapped him and kept him imprisoned, just as the Israelites were captive in the land of Egypt.

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