Moral dilemmas. How many of you have seen the movie, “A Bronx Tale?” This is a movie from 1993 starring Robert de Niro and another great actor, Chazz Palminteri, who wrote and directed the film. The movie is set in the 1960’s and tells the story through the eyes of a 9-year-old boy named Cologero, who becomes known as “C.” C lives with his father and mother in a second-floor apartment above a row of shops. In the opening scene, C is sitting on the stoop at the entrance to the apartment where he lives and he watches everything that goes on at the corner bar. C sees men pull up in front of the bar in fancy cars and wearing fancy suits. There is one man, Sonny, who when he gets out of his car, the guys all kiss his hand. C is fascinated! C doesn’t know it yet but these men are Italian Mob guys. One day while C is sitting on the stoop, Tony Toupee pulls up to the curb when another car pulls in front of him and hits Tony’s Cadillac. Tony and the other driver get out of their cars, they argue with each other in the street and a crowd gathers. This brings all the guys out of the bar. A fight develops, and in the middle of the fight, Sonny shoots and kills the man. Everyone scatters. The guys run into the bar. C’s father runs downstairs, he grabs C by the arm and drags him upstairs into the apartment. Moments later, the police arrive and they begin interviewing people. Everyone in the crowd says “We don’t know anything and we didn’t see anything.” But someone tells the police that C was sitting on the stoop and he might have seen something. C and his father find themselves in front of the bar where the police have decided to do a line-up of all the guys from the bar. In broad daylight with a crowd gathered, one by one, the police ask Colegero: “Is this the man that shot the gun?” C says no to each one. Reaching the last man in line, they are now standing in front of Sonny. The police ask again, “Is this the man that shot the gun?” Again, C says no.
We would probably all agree that we can’t blame Cologero for lying under these circumstances. The extraordinary pressure placed on this young boy coupled with the fact that, if he told the truth, it’s likely that great harm would come to him and to his family. C did nothing to put himself in this situation; it was entirely out of his control. And by lying he protects his parents and himself. In today’s text, Moses and the Israelites return to the mountain where God gives Moses the tablets we received today. We told this story in our Family Gathering last week and we talked with them about how the Ten Best Ways to Live, the Ten Commandments, can be divided into categories.
The first three that teach us to honor God. Don’t serve other Gods. Make no idols to worship. Be serious when you say my name. The last six teach us to honor each other. Honor, love and respect your parents. Do not kill. Honor and respect your marriage. Don’t steal. Don’t lie. Don’t want what others have. And the fourth teaches us to honor both God and each other: keep the Sabbath day Holy.
Let’s acknowledge up front that if we’re honest, we would find that collectively we’ve broken most of these Commandments. Depending on the circumstances, such as if any of us has served in a war, we might even cover all ten. We are a kind, compassionate and honest group of people so this speaks to how difficult it is to obey the Commandments. If the Commandments we used today sound a little different than the ones you’ve heard before, that’s because they’ve been modified through the Godly Play curriculum to make them more accessible to younger people.
And now for a little Ten Commandment trivia. How many different versions of the Ten Commandments are there? Three. Those we heard today are taken largely from Exodus 20 but another set are found in Exodus 34 and yet another in Deuteronomy 5. Here is the Tenth Commandment in its full form from Exodus 20: “Do not desire another man’s house; do not desire his wife, his slaves, his cattle, his donkeys, or anything else that he owns.” Exodus 34 doesn’t even have the Tenth Commandment but it does have a commandment that says, “Do not cook a young goat in its mother’s milk.”
The Tenth Commandment illustrates the impact of the patriarchal Jewish culture where women are viewed as property right along with the man’s land and animals. How different the Commandments, our sacred texts and the world would be if Jewish culture were matriarchal instead. Historically, the Ten Best Ways to Live gives us a glimpse of what might have been happening with the Israelites while they were wandering in the wilderness. Many scholars believe the Exodus stories were constructed by the Jewish people to address the turmoil of the Second Temple period. But the Ten Best Ways were not a silver bullet; they didn’t make oppression go away. And they were not all intended to be absolute truth. Just a few chapters after Exodus 20, in which the tablets telling people not to kill are handed to Moses, we read this in Exodus 32:27-28: “Thus sayeth the Lord of Israel, put every man his sword at his side and go in and out from gate to gate throughout the camp and slay every man and his brother and every man’s companion and every man’s neighbor. And the children of Levi did according to the word.”
What are we to do with these contradictions and problematic laws that we are almost guaranteed not to be able to follow? What happens when to obey one Commandment requires disobeying another? For Cologero to honor his parents and keep his family safe, he had to tell a lie. And when the Israelites received the tablets, they were still being pursued by Pharaoh. They were free but not liberated. There was charity but there was no justice. One part of the answer may be that God begins on Mt. Sinai by calling Moses into a conversation and by doing so, the words that would later become flesh through the life of Jesus, start to manifest a deeper, more intentional relationship between God and the people. God’s words are no longer only audible, they can also be seen and felt in the clay.
If we read the words prayerfully and search our hearts for their meaning we can begin to receive the messages that God intends. Through prayerful attentiveness we are able to absorb the beauty and power of the scriptures. The Ten Commandments are a covenant. A relational promise between us, and God, and between us and each other. Covenants convey both rights and responsibilities, meaning that God’s unconditional love for us does not mean unaccountable love. When we say in the UCC, “No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here”, this does not mean anything goes. Our words and our behavior matter and in honoring God and each other we are accountable to God and each other. That covenant extends to the courageous women who are coming forth and who refuse to be silenced by the men in power who took advantage of them. We trust that God’s healing love and grace will flow through to their pain and that God’s justice will be done.
Moses wasn’t handed the Ten Suggestions or the Ten Easiest Ways. Covenants with God and with each other require sacrifice. Our relationships with God and each other are a daily step-by-step decision to work hard for our faith and keeping God’s way, not our way. Personally, I prefer the MesoAmerican “Four Agreements,” written by Don Miguel Ruiz. While they are also difficult they are much more my speed: Be Impeccable with your Word. Don’t Take Anything Personally. Don’t Make Assumptions. Always Do Your Best. These fit my personality better, but that would be my way, not God’s so I will do my best to honor both.
At the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells the crowd, “Do not think I was sent to abolish the laws but to fulfill them and whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in heaven.” That means us. We are the teachers, just as Khalil Gibran’s words describe in your bulletin. The people standing on the street around Cologero were also teachers and what they taught him that day shapes his entire life. And let’s not forget the greatest commandment, to love God and to love each other as we love ourselves. For us, fulfilling this law is also our highest commandment. But in receiving the commandments, we could not have arrived at the place of teaching if Moses had not listened to God in the first instance. After obeying God’s beckoning to climb Mt. Sinai, listen was God’s first commandment to Moses that day. How different our story would be if Moses chose not to?
Last week, we asked our children what they thought the most important commandments were. If you look on the front cover of the bulletin, you will see what Kaia said. It’s one word long. We never know where our inspiration will come from. If you find yourself wondering what to do with the Ten Best Ways and if they mean anything, let Kaia’s profound wisdom be your guide. If you prayerfully listen to God’s spirit inside you, if you make a decision each day to do your best to follow the Ten Best Ways, we will be closer to God and to each other. And that is God’s way.