The Ten Commandments and Thanksgiving


Scripture: Exodus 20, Thanksgiving Nigel Bunce


Today, I want to explain the fit between the Ten Commandments and Thanksgiving weekend.  The Book of Exodus records that God gave Moses the Ten Commandments. The first four are about God; the other six are about relating to other people. These six are the five “Thou shalt not” commandments, plus the demand to honour your parents. Jesus called the ancient shema the summary of the law of Moses. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and your neighbour as yourself.” As Jesus said, “On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.”

The Ten Commandments as a new way of living

In their day, the five “Thou shalt not” commandments offered a new way of living. For ancient Israel, they represent the start of civilised society. No murders, no adultery, no stealing, no lying, and no covetousness (meaning, greed). We can trace a clear line from them to many of our laws in Canada today.

To realize what an advance these commandments represent, think back to the Book of Genesis. It’s full of blood-thirsty stories, cheating, and immorality. Jacob cheats Esau out of his birthright. Joseph’s brothers sell him into slavery and tell their father he was killed by a wild animal. Lot’s daughters get their father drunk and sleep with him to get themselves pregnant. It’s as racy as any modern soap opera.

Significantly, in none of these stories does it seem that the malefactors get punished. It seems that Genesis represents a time of complete anarchy. The Ten Commandments usher in the beginning of the rule of law. God’s revelation continues in our day with the continuing evolution of our laws, and our modern demands for equality among people, human rights, and social welfare programs.

The Ten Commandments and Thanksgiving Weekend

That’s the connection to Thanksgiving weekend. Today, we are giving thanks for our national heritage, even while we admit that not everything is perfect. Like the Kingdom of Heaven that Jesus proclaimed had “drawn near”, Canada is a work in progress.

We can be proud of and thankful about many things in Canada today, such as our commitment to freedoms of assembly, speech, and religion. We espouse equality, universal education, and health care for all. Our government strengthened our social safety to help those affected by the current pandemic.

But we still have people in Canada with inadequate housing, hungry, or living in fear of domestic and other violence. We have so far failed to heal the breach of trust with our First Nations. There is still persistent discrimination in all its forms, despite our human rights legislation.

But in spite of our failings, most of us are extremely fortunate to live in this beautiful country. People from many other parts of the world look on us in envy.

Are the Ten Commandments relevant today?

But is it heretical to ask, “How are the Ten Commandments relevant today?” A few weeks ago, I said, “Times change and so do values.” By Jesus’ time, society had moved on from the days of the Ten Commandments. That explains why Jesus said, in the Sermon on the Mount, “You have heard it said thus (about such things as murder and adultery) but I say something different …”

A live issue today concerns the Sixth Commandment, ‘Thou shalt do no murder.” How should we address human rights, such as those concerning abortion and medical aid in dying? Do they represent murder, as some would suggest? Today’s homily is not the occasion to launch into culture wars. But I have said before that my personal (I stress that word) position is that in some specific cases it may be the least bad option to set aside the Sixth Commandment.

In other words, I’m not suggesting that we ignore the Ten Commandments and undertake an orgy of murder and adultery. Nor should we take them only legalistically or moralistically. Instead, we must ask how God would have us use them for thinking about the kinds of ethical issues that impinge on our lives today.

That sort of thinking was why Jesus faced opposition from the Temple authorities. They saw tradition in terms of keeping everything the same. Jesus challenged outdated dogmas, while remaining faithful to the essentials of his Jewish faith.

My personal thankfulness this weekend

I want to finish by saying a word about something that I feel particularly thankful about today. Because this Thanksgiving Sunday marks exactly ten years since the first time I preached at St. George’s. Some of you will remember the occasion. Our priest at the time was Susan Wells, who had broken her ankle and was in hospital. I received a “help! help!” call from Jan. Could I fill in?

My feeling of gratitude rests with your ongoing support of me and my ministry here. I am convinced that I have grown to understand the Scriptures more deeply because you have not criticized my lapses into heresy from conventional church doctrines. That would have been hard to do in the face of continuing opposition. So thank you, most sincerely. Please take the time to enjoy this final public holiday of 2020, despite its COVID-induced limitations.