Sunday, 4 March 2018

Morality-Ten Commandments Ex 20

The Ten Commandments have been held up as an icon of morality for at least 3000 years. In the Gospel of Matthew when Jesus was asked by a rich young man, 
“Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?”
 Jesus replied by saying, 
“If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments” (Matt 19:16-17).
Jesus went on to list commandments from the famous ten. Now, we have to read this in the context of the rest of Scripture, and so account for the cross and the grace God offers us. But, this Scripture is enough to show that the Ten Commandments were highly regarded by Jesus. And so, they should be highly regarded by us as well.

When we talk about the Ten Commandments it is perhaps important to talk about morality in general. We live in a society that is paradoxically very willing to place judgement on others (see reality TV and social media), but we also aren’t very clear about what morality is besides an opinion about how things should be.

The Commandments open with the statement, 
“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Ex 20:2).
 The Commandments start with a declaration that these are the words of God, rather than Moses. Why might this matter for us?

Moral thinking has sometimes been separated into subjective morality and objective morality.[1] Subjective morality means that the source of the moral values are in the subject who is acting. That usually means a person or a society. When it comes to a command like “you shall not murder” a subjective view of morality would say that as a society we have developed over time and come to understand that murder is counterproductive to the building of the kind of society that survives. Morality is a survival adaptation for a society. Ultimately, morality comes from the subconsciously agreed upon commands of the society. 
As society changes, then the moral commands will change as well. If a society comes to change their mind about the command against murder, then murder is no longer wrong. It is completely up to the society. 
We might even consider subjective morality as individual based. So we put locks on our doors because we have different moral values from those who might want to break into our house. 

One of the challenges with this view of morality is that one society doesn’t have much ground to stand on if it wants to judge the actions of another society. If we encounter a society like the ancient Greeks who had a terrible practice like pederasty (The practice of older men mentoring younger boys that included a sexual component), we don’t have much ground to stand on if we want to judge the practices of that society. If that society decided on a different morality than ours, then on what basis can we say that our society’s morality is better? Theirs developed by the same method ours did, but they arrived at a different set of moral values.

Similarly, we can’t even judge our own society’s past behavior using subjective morality. If we want to say that the practice of slavery was wrong for North Americans and Europeans in the 18th century, then on what basis are we able to do that? On a subjective view of morality, we would just have to say that they had a different morality than we have in modern North America and Europe. That society developed their morality through their society the same as we have. It was subconsciously and collectively agreed upon. They decided that slavery was permissible, and we have declared it detestable in our modern society. In subjective morality it is nearly impossible to declare the practices of another society, or a past society, to be wrong. They could just as easily turn around and say that we are the ones who are wrong. And from the place their are standing, that's the way it would seem. 

Objective morality, on the other hand, has its source in the universe as it has been created. It is as real as gravity. It is built into the very essence of reality. Ultimately, morality has its source in the Creator. Morality is an expression of the character of God. In an objective understanding of morality, morals are revealed or discovered (rather than created). They are revealed by God and God’s agents, and they are discovered by means of rationality based on what is logical and in continuity with the character of God. This means that God reveals a set of moral values, and hopefully over time God’s people unpack their meaning and come to live their lives more in line with these realities. (It is important to note that this always has to be done with humility and careful interpretation. It would be easy to impose a cultural assumption that is not actually the objective moral law, which was a common mistake as colonialism encountered many cultures.)

What objective morality means is that “you shall not murder” is true in the same way as gravity is true. It is a true part of reality whether anyone believes it of not. If all the societies on earth believed that murder was right, it would still be wrong, just as if all societies would be wrong if they believed the sun went around the earth, or declared that 2+2 was 5. If the objective moral value was understood correctly it would apply to all societies equally because it is a part of creation. The society that understood it correctly could  rightfully judge another society that was not conforming to it. Every society is ultimately judged by this objective standard.

So, if we encountered a culture like the ancient Greeks, who practiced pederasty, we could declare that practice as wrong and be on solid ground to make that judgment because the moral value stating it is wrong doesn’t come from us. Ultimately, it comes from the character of God. … We can declare slavery to be wrong, and to have always been wrong for all societies, if we have correctly understood objective moral truth as saying slavery is wrong.

Using objective morality, we can correctly judge as wrong the Nazi vision to reshape humanity by removing all those they decided were inferior from the gene pool by mass killing. We can judge them even though they were a different society. The Nazis believed they were creating a stronger humanity and so they believed their actions were moral. From an objective view of morality, the Nazi vision isn’t just a different morality from our society’s. It is wrong because human beings have all been created in God’s image and have inherent dignity- and we believe that is an objective truth that is a part of creation.

In fact, this is what we do all the time when we talk about human rights. The United Nations describes human rights this way: 
“Human rights are rights inherent to all human beings, whatever our nationality, place of residence, sex, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, language, or any other status. We are all equally entitled to our human rights without discrimination”.[2]
It sounds like they are describing an objective moral law.

Where do these rights come from? Human rights only work if we agree that they are part of the reality of humanity. We feel justified in imposing these human rights on a society that doesn’t comply with them. We allow for some cultural variety, but there are some moral values we think every society should abide by. We judge a society as being wrong if it violates these human rights. When we look as Pol Pot’s Cambodia, or Mao's China, or Stalin’s Soviet Union, we can judge the many deaths as being a violation of human rights. Likewise, we can judge a society that degrades women, or that practices slavery, as being wrong, rather than being just culturally different. … This is a difficult thing to justify under a subjective view of morality, but it makes all kinds of sense in an objective view of morality.

For objective moral values to be real it makes the most sense if there is a Creator who has declared how things ought to be and who has built these “oughts” into the fabric of reality.  

In a materialist worldview where morality arises in a society as part of the desire to pass on genes to the next generation it is hard to understand how moral values could be objectively real in the way human rights are described.

I spent a lot of time talking generally about morality. In the few minutes we have left I would like to just say something about how the Ten commandments generally fit into our lives as Christians. … Overall, I believe the Ten Commandments are an expression of the Moral Law that was written into creation. These principles are ultimately traced back to the character of God. They are, as Jesus said, ultimately about loving God and loving our neighbour (Matt 22:36-40). (Since these principles are built into creation, we shouldn’t be surprised by the fact that there is so much overlap in the realm of morality with the various cultures of the world.) These laws are given to draw people towards God. To follow the principles of these commandments is to live a life that more closely reflects the character of God. We are created to be God’s image bearers. The more we reflect God’s character, the more we are who we were created to be. However, because of sin we need these laws spelled out for us. The Commandments act like a mirror so we can see ourselves more clearly. We see how we often don’t reflect God’s image very well. This leads to us realizing we need more help than we thought. Having seen ourselves clearly, in humility, we are made more ready to receive God’s grace. “God’s grace” is really just another way of saying “Jesus”. Jesus then helps us as we seek to lead a God-shaped life, by both saving us from sin and empowering us to follow God’s leading in the world.

For more reading regarding morality see:

Chapter 9 of The Reason for God by Timothy Keller

[1] This is a distinction I first heard from theologian and philosopher William Lane Craig.

I thought I might say a few words about the commandments. The first thing to maybe mention is that there are at least three different ways to number the commandments. 

Exodus 20 
20 Then God spoke all these words:
2 I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; 3 you shall have no other gods before[a] me.

This is a declaration of monotheism. Only God is to be worshiped. Dennis Prager mentions that monotheism is necessary to create a moral society because multiple deities might also produce multiple moralities. We should also be willing to see things like flags, power, money, ideology, etc. as potential deities. The mention of slavery may also indicate that these commands are about living as free people. 

4 You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 5 You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, 6 but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation[b] of those who love me and keep my commandments.

God is not to be "put in a box". (See apophatic theology.) God is always bigger than our words about Him.

7 You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.

We usually think about this as don't say, "Oh my God". Actually this is probably more about misusing God's name to grant your project authority- such as driving a plane into a building. This is referring to doing evil in God's name. This jeopardizes the whole enterprise of creating a moral society based on divinely sourced moral law.   

8 Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. 9 For six days you shall labour and do all your work. 10 But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. 11 For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.

People are made to be free. We are to take a day to remember that the world doesn't revolve around us. I don't think this has to necessarily be Sunday. That's not practical for everyone. But, we should take one day to remember that we are not slaves to our jobs, and the world will not fall apart if we are not working. However, we shouldn't underestimate the power of a shared sabbath day. Sunday used to be a day where families gathered and built relationships. Now schedules are so complicated it can be hard to get people in the same room at the same time and on the same day. This might actually be the first national law in favor of the fair treatment of animals. 
12 Honour your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.

Not everyone gets along with their parents, but there should be a healthy respect for parents. I think we can also infer from this that there should be some kind of respect for the authorities in our lives. Our attitude towards authorities and elders in our lives will have an effect on how we view God as well. No society can survive love with children turned against parents. Societies are based on families, and statistics tell us that the healthiest place for children to grow up is in a family with a mature mother and father. Respect for parents should also open the doors for healthy relationships with grandparents and extended family as well. Honouring our parents will also set a precedent that our children will honour us. 

13 You shall not murder.[c]

This is sometimes translated as "kill". In Hebrew there are two words- harag (kill) and ratsach (murder). The Hebrew in this command refers to murder, which is "wrongful killing". It might seem redundant to say "it is wrong to wrongfully kill". To understand what makes the killing wrong we have to look to the rest of the Bible that goes into more detail regarding when killing might be permissible. Jesus sets the bar even higher-
‘You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder”; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgement.”  But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “You fool”, you will be liable to the hell of fire." Matt 5:21-22
As disciples of Jesus we should look to the root of murder, which is anger. How many murders would happen if we had anger under control? 

14 You shall not commit adultery.

This command takes the power of the sex drive seriously. It recognizes its power to tear apart families, which are the building blocks of our society. Adultery involves deception. It damages marriages, and threatens the stability of the home of children. 
Jesus again intensifies this command, 
‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.” But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. Matt 5:27-28
Again, Jesus is pointing to the root of the problem, which is lust, not the act of adultery itself. If people controlled their lust, how often would people commit an act of adultery? While this command is specific to a married person having sex outside the marriage, I think this can also lead us to consider sexual misconduct generally. 

15 You shall not steal.

This overlaps with other commands. Denis Prager points out that murder can be understood as taking a life that doesn't belong to you. Adultery is taking a sexual relationship that isn't yours. Coveting is the desire to steal. We are to respect the boundaries of peoples property. This too is an important foundation for society.   

16 You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour.
This primarily seems to refer to a courtroom, but I think it implies truth telling in life in general.  
Jesus again intensifies this command.  
33 ‘Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.” 34 But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36 And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37 Let your word be “Yes, Yes” or “No, No”; anything more than this comes from the evil one. Matt 5:33-37
Oaths are needed in a world where lying is assumed to be somewhat normal. If we need an oath to know when people are really telling the truth we are really assuming that people are not telling the truth. 
For a society to be healthy we have to value truth. Truth is a big question mark in our society.   

17 You shall not covet your neighbour’s house; you shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour.
Coveting isn't liking your neighbour's car. It is wanting it so bad you are thinking of ways to can steal it. The Hebrew lachmod implies an intensity that is more than just appreciating something that belongs to your neighbour. Coveting is a heart issue. Coveting something that is your neighbour's is the root cause of much sin. Lusting after your neighbour's spouse is coveting. Coveting is the root cause of stealing. In Buddhism desire is viewed as the root cause of suffering.   

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