One of the great problems with a passage like the Ten Commandments is that we tend to read them with little sense of the context or the who or where of what is happening. Until we do this work, then these commandments, like the rest of the 613 mitzvot (plural of mitzvah) that you find across the first five books of the Bible – called the Torah or Pentateuch – are completely irrelevant to our lives.
So, first the where. The action – and there is lots of action – of Exodus 19-20 takes place on Mount Sinai, also called Horeb – a word in Hebrew that simply means wilderness. Remembering the principle of first mention, that takes us back to Exodus 3, when Moses is at this place, minding his own business as he looks after the flocks of his father-in-law Jethro when he sees this weird phenomena of a bush burning but not being consumed. As the curious bloke, he wanders over to get a better view, only to be told by a voice that comes from the bush to come no closer, and to take off his shoes for this is holy ground. The speaker identifies as “The God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.” It is verse 7 that things really get interesting. We are told:
“Surely I have seen the misery of my people who are in Egypt, and I have heard their cry of distress because of their oppressors, for I know their sufferings. And I have come down to deliver them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up from this land to a good and wide land, to a land flowing with milk and honey, to the place of the Canaanites…” [Exodus 3:7-8, LEB; emphasis added]
The Lord goes on to identify himself as “I am who I am” and to give Moses the additional sign, that he will bring the rescued people out of the slavery of Egypt into the freedom of the wilderness and he will bring the people back to this holy mountain to worship the Lord. We read this part of the story in Exodus 19, after all the events of the ten plagues and the great Passover in Exodus 12-13, and that it was a great mixture of people that escaped the slavery and joined the Hebrew people in the Exodus from Egypt (Exodus 12:37-38). So this people comes to the region of Sinai and camps at the base of the holy mountain. Moses goes up to meet the Lord on the mountain and the Lord tells him to tell the people: “You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and I brought you to me.” [Ex 19:4, LEB] The Lord goes on to say that “all the earth is mine”, yet this people will be “a treasured possession for me out of all the peoples” [19:5] and they will belong to the Lord “as a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” [19:6]
Recorded at St Columbkille’s at 9am Mass (19mins, 36 secs); the slightly shorter Vigil Mass recording (15mins) is also available which also provides a bit of background of the whole idea of covenant and why there are two tablets.
Lent, Sunday 3, Year B.
To prevent the decalogue (the Ten Words, or the Ten Commandments) from being an irrelevant list of do’s and don’t’s we need to look carefully at the context of the covenant that is being entered into – and particularly the two questions of where this happens and with whom it happens. Unfortunately this does take time to do – hence the longer than usual homily today 😉
Last week I shared how my brother asking me to forgive him for being such a #$%&@ was the catalyst for discovering that faith was something that could be personal and life-changing. So when I eventually made it to the same youth retreat, in the middle of year twelve at Bega High School, I knew that real change was possible. I already knew and believed in the basic teachings of the church, but my understanding of ‘god’ was that while he was probably real, he was not part of my ordinary experience. God was simply somewhere ‘out there’, a long way from my little life.
When I attended the Antioch weekend I discovered that there were other young people who loved God and were in a relationship with him. They didn’t just ‘say prayers’ but they actually talked to God in the person of Jesus. I wanted the life and infectious joy that they shared so freely. The talks all helped to slowly build up not just a greater head-knowledge of the faith but a personal encounter that changed the young people who shared. They spoke and shared from the heart and I began to encounter Jesus myself in and through them. When it came time on the Sunday afternoon to respond by making a personal commitment to God – we were invited to do whatever we felt we should do – it was the most natural thing to ask Jesus to be at the centre of my life, and to commit to pray each day, read the bible that we were given and attend an extra Mass each week.
Sure, there have been lots of ups and downs along the way – but I have never regretted the day when I let the Lord into my life. I call it my salvation day – a day of sheer and utter grace. It was 4 May 1986. When was yours?