Sermon preached at St. Aidan's Episcopal Church, Alexandria, VA for Proper 22 in Year A (2017). Lectionary text is Exodus 20:1-4;7-9;12-14.
“Thou shalt not!”
Negative commands aren’t our favorite things these days. This list of ten is more stereotypically Fundamentalist than Episcopalian, isn’t it?
I should know, since I was raised Fundamentalist in Arkansas. In a little town where a building owner put up an enormous “10 Commandments” banner right across from my office window a few years ago. In the same state where a monument to them was mounted at the courthouse this year. (It was also run over immediately afterward and I can’t deny I cheered.) After all, Jesus didn’t seem to be about this negative talk, and the strident call to remember these Commandments is often associated with oppression of the marginalized in our country.
When we read this passage in our Sunday lectionary it may not be immediately obvious how central it is in Scripture. If you were to ask a Jewish person what the center of their faith is, they’d tell you it’s the Exodus from Egypt, deliverance from oppression.
The number 40 is very significant in the Bible, and the Book of Exodus has 40 chapters. And if you are a Bible geek like me you might know that these Ancient Near East storytellers crafted their texts in very specific ways, including sometimes placing the pinnacle of a lesson in the very center of a text. And here we are, reading from Exodus chapter 20.
That’s right. The text we’ve read today is the heart... of the heart... of the Jewish faith that Jesus lived out in his time on earth.
Maybe it’s worth another look. Maybe there’s something more here than some 3,000 year-old nomads obsessed with rules.
Take yourself back in time. Recall that at this point in the story the Israelites have been enslaved for several centuries of hard labor and have just managed to escape with their lives (and some sweet, sweet looting) but with no religious grounding. They had even forgotten the name of their God. Here they are in the wilderness with few moral, cultural, or social bearings, and they need to establish a way of living and working together without conflict and violence. Fortunately for them there’s a mountain, some smoke, Charlton Heston, and a solution: ten commands written in stone.
But why these? How is this supposed to ground them?
In search of one possible answer, I’ve drawn on two resources: a 20th-century French- American Roman Catholic literary critic and anthropologist named René Girard...and Facebook.
So, how many of you have heard of, or experienced, “FOMO”?
This “Fear of Missing Out,” the sensation that your life is empty and that others are having all the fun, is rooted in something called “mimetic desire.”
You see, we humans are built to learn from mimicry rather than born with instincts. One of the things we learn by copying is what is worth pursuing and possessing. We learn what is desirable by watching what others desire, as if in a mirror.
You can see this in small children when they have no interest in a toy until another kid comes up and demonstrates desire for it. Every time we ask someone for a recommendation, or read reviews for a product, we’re using mimetic desire. We decent what we should desire based on what others desire.
Of course, advertisers are fully aware of this and use it on us all the time. How often have we found ourselves buying a product not because we need it, or because it’s the most practical choice, but because we’ve been shown that others desire it? Whether it’s a celebrity endorsement or a random actor demonstrating their desire for this product, it hooks directly into this mechanism that is one of the foundation of what makes us uniquely human.
Imitative desire can be understood at a deeper level as a yearning to be the Model, “because of a profound sense of the radical insufficiency of one’s own very being.” Here then is our human pathos, a perceived emptiness at the heart of our being that moves us to desire the fullness we believe lies in others. Our “Fear of Missing Out.”
Unfortunately, it doesn’t end here. Mimetic desire all too often leads to mimetic rivalry .
Here the idea is fairly simple. When there are two bowls of oatmeal set in front of an adult and a child, the child learns to desire the oatmeal based on observing the adult’s desire. Depending on your personal thoughts about oatmeal you could see this as a prime learning opportunity, or a dirty trick. But assuming children buy into this desire, what happens when one child has a bowl of oatmeal and a second child does not? Now there is a conflict, as the limited resource is desired out of proportion to its ability to satisfy all at the table. It’s all fine and good when the fancy new ultra-light backpacking tent I have been told to desire is available for me to order at my leisure, but what happens if there’s only one left on the shelf on Black Friday?
So I think you can see what happens when this rivalry moves away from children desiring delicious bowls of oatmeal and creates conflict over unique relationships, commodities, jobs, and geography. Girard proposes that it is this very coveting which underlies individual, societal and national violence.
Now if we continued on, we could explore how societies have attempted to solve this violence through ritualized scapegoating until a man named Jesus of Nazareth turned
the whole system on its head...but now we’re getting ahead of the story, so let’s go back to Exodus to see how this might all fit together with Moses in the wilderness.
Let’s begin at the end, the final Commandment. Do not covet your neighbor’s... house, spouse, slave, Roomba, ox, don’t covet your neighbor’s ass, or anything that is your neighbor's. The Hebrew here translated covet is chamed, which is linked to envy and simply means “desire” or “take pleasure in.”
Do not desire your neighbor’s... anything.
Now work our way up the second half of the list: Do not defraud your neighbor through the courts, do not steal their possessions, do not steal their spouse, do not take their life. When we pursue our mimetic desires without constraint or concern for the other, attempting to fill our own emptiness, violence is the result.
The problem is laid out in stark terms. Now for the solution.
The fifth commandment: honor your elders, your spiritual mentors, those who have gone before; look for what they desire.
Pattern your life rhythm after God’s creative acts, join in religious tradition in sanctifying your calendar.
Do not attempt to take possession of God through oaths or objects.
Finally we have arrive back at the first commandment. This God, this mysterious and uncontainable “I will be-there howsoever I will be-there,” who brings people out of bondage, demands to be placed first in worship, in desire.
This God is always beyond what we can grasp, always deconstructing the idols we create in an attempt to fill our emptiness. This is the God the 14th century German mystic and theologian Meister Eckhart points to when he says, “I pray God to rid me of god.”
“Thou shalt have no other gods before me.”
When Jesus was asked what was most important in the Law, he said: “Love God with everything you have, and love your neighbor equal to yourself.” In this he did not overturn the ten Commandments but rather summarized them through concentrating on the first and tenth: the last describing the root of the human problem and the first pointing to deliverance from our oppression.
15 centuries ago, Saint Augustine wrote of God, “You have made us and drawn us to yourself, and our heart is unquiet until it rests in you.” When we can place our ultimate mimetic desire on God, as Jesus showed us, only then can we overcome the rivalry that spawns violence across our world. Only once we recognize that we are and always have been loved as we are, that our perceived emptiness is an illusion, then we can be set free from bondage to our desires and rejoice instead in enjoying them alongside our neighbors.
Remember that simply having desire is not inherently bad—it is part of what makes us human. However it’s also true that desire naturally distorts into rivalry with our neighbor as envy sets in. This desire makes us feel empty, and we seek to fill ourselves by thinking that if we just had what they have, we could be happy and content. By looking to the saints for structuring our desires, by partaking in community ritual, by meditating on the God who sends rain to the good and bad alike, the God beyond the gods we erect, the God who is known ultimately in unconditional love and complete grace, who lives out of abundance rather than lack, we have a chance of following Jesus into selfless love of both ourselves and others.
Maybe “thou shalt not” is less of a burden and more of a gift.
NOTES: Interpretation indebted to René Girard, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning; Gil Bailie, Violence Unveiled; James Williams, The Bible, Violence and the Sacred.