What’s Your End of the Freedom Bargain?

10 Commandments
Photo credit: Fergal of Claddagh

Exodus 20:1-20

Then God said:

I am God. I brought you out of Egypt and set you free. Therefore:

  1. Don’t worship any other gods.
  2. Don’t make images of other gods, in whatever form, from anything you may see in the sky or on earth or in the sea. Don’t bow to them or worship them. The dire consequences of doing so will last three or four generations, but do as I say and the benefits will last thousands of years.
  3. Don’t use my name as a curse, or I’ll curse you.
  4. Take one day off in seven. Work for six days, and then take a day off. But one day off per week is sacrosanct. And don’t make anyone else – I don’t care if they’re family, employees, or even the illegal aliens you hired under the table – don’t make anyone else work incessantly either. I got all my work done in six days, you ought to be able to take a day off, too.
  5. Respect your parents if you want to live near home.
  6. Don’t murder.
  7. Don’t screw around on your spouse.
  8. Don’t steal.
  9. Don’t tell lies about your neighbors.
  10. Don’t try to keep up with the Joneses.

When the people saw the thunder and lightning, and heard the trumpets and saw the mountain erupting, they were afraid and backed away. They told Moses, “You tell us what God says. We’d rather God didn’t talk to us.”

Moses said, “Don’t be afraid. God just wants to see if you’re going to chicken out, or if you’ll keep your end of the freedom bargain.”

In all the zeal for mounting these in public spaces, what’s often overlooked is that these are not ethical imperatives. These are the enumerated terms of a specific contract. They are the people’s end of a deal, in which the quid-pro-quo on God’s end has already been delivered. God has set them free from Egypt. Now, this is their obligation to God. That’s why it starts with, “Don’t worship any other gods.” That’s why Moses says what he does about chickening out or keeping their end of the deal.

Truth be told, freedom is a fearful thing. It’s much easier when someone (even if it’s a nasty Egyptian boss) is telling you what to do and when to do it. Slavery, grunt work, as unpleasant and back-breaking as it is, doesn’t require any imagination or risk. You do what you’re told, and you get what you expect.

Freedom, on the other hand, always requires responsibility. In the case of the Israelites in the wilderness it was the responsibility to build a vibrant, meaningful, inter-generational community with God at the center of it’s life. These commandments reflect that priority.

Your responsibility, your calling, may be different. But if you’re free then your freedom comes with responsibility to do something great – and that something is exactly the thing you’re most afraid of succeeding at. The particular terms of your freedom contract may differ from those enumerated here. But whatever they are, they come with the fear and force of God behind them. In the presence of that fear you can say, like the Israelites did, “I’d rather not hear that,” and ask someone else to handle it for you. You can always chicken out and go back to being a grunt for someone else.

But God (along with the rest of us) is hoping that in spite of your fear you’ll, keep your end of the freedom bargain, and do something that changes the world.

Living the Uncertainty of Our Conviction

Mount Hood
Photo Credit: Dennis Stilwell

Exodus 33:12-23

Moses said to God, “Look, you told me to bring these people, but you haven’t given me anyone to help. You’ve said on all my job reviews that I’m a stand-out, your favorite employee. So, if that’s really true, show me how you want things so I can understand you and be your favorite. And, don’t forget, they’re your people.”

God said, “My avatar will go with you, and I’ll give you some time off.”

Moses said to God, “If your avatar won’t go, don’t bother sending us up there. How’s anybody going to know I’m your favorite, how are your people going to know, unless you go with us? How else are your people and I going to be any different from anybody else on the planet?”

God said to Moses, “I’ll do what you ask, because you’re my favorite, and you are a stand-out.”

Moses said, “Please, show me who you are – not the avatar, the real you.”

And God said, “I will show you my whole self, and tell you my real name. And I’ll be generous with whomever I please, and I’ll kind to whomever I please. But you can’t see my face. I’d show you my face, but then I’d have to kill you.” God continued, “Look, you stand over here on this rock and while I pass by you can hide in the big crack in the rock while I cover you with my hand until I’m past. Then I’ll take away my hand and you can see my back. But you can’t see my face.”

There are three difficulties with religious leadership, even for the stand-outs like Moses:

  1. you don’t get much help,
  2. it’s hard to get time off, and
  3. all you’ve got to go by is a symbolic representation (an avatar) of God.

At the end of the day, when you come back down the mountain, all you have is your word against theirs that what you’ve heard and are convinced of is real. Whenever you make a move, you do it with the conviction that God will be faithful to the promise you heard on the mountain, but you don’t ever get to see God. The best you can do is see, in hindsight, where it appears to you God has been. You can see God’s back (and maybe pick up a trail), but not God’s face.

This is particularly problematic because people generally want convincing proof. Especially when the stakes are high. Especially when you’re asking people to give their lives (a religious commitment) to a project. People turn to religion when their lives are disrupted and they want answers. But concrete answers are the one thing good religion cannot provide – the whole religion project is to help people live more fully with the questions.

If Moses is any indication, the temptation for religious leaders is wanting to be able to finally provide answers. But as Moses talks with God, every one of Moses’ demands for relief is answered by some version of, “you’re just going to have to live with it.” Even the question, “How will people know we’re different from anyone else?” is answered by “I’ll do whatever I’m going to do.”

And that’s the point. However strongly you may feel that you are specially favored, there is no way to tell that one group is any better than any other on the planet based on religious conviction. From the outside, they all look equally plausible (or implausible). So all that is left is to follow your conviction (religious or otherwise) through life’s questions.

Royal Wedding Gets Crashed: A Parable

Prince William and Kate MiddletonMatthew 22:1-14

Jesus told yet another story:

The goal is like this:

Prince William was engaged! So the royal family began making plans for the reception, and when the time came the Queen sent couriers to bring the invited guests. But they wouldn’t come. She sent them out again with the message: “Hey, the reception is ready. I’ve even got fillet mignon and caviar. Come! But they made fun of the whole affair. One went on a cruise, another went to her corner office instead. More than one of the couriers were kidnapped, mistreated, and some even executed as spies.

Well, the queen was furious. She sent shock troops out to round them all up, brought them in and slaughtered them all, and laid waste their lands and businesses. Then she sent her couriers out again into the streets. “The wedding is going ahead regardless,” she told them. “Invite everyone you see.” So they did. They brought in everyone they could find, saints and scoundrels alike. Soon Westminster Cathedral [Abbey] was filled to capacity.

Then the queen came in, and looking over the crowd she saw a fellow who wasn’t wearing a suit. She said to him, “Sir, how did you get in here without a suit?” But he just stood there in shock. So the queen said, “Arrest him. Shackle him. And send him to Siberia. He belongs with those haunted by regret and anxiety.

Many get the chance. Some take it.

Of course, the real wedding didn’t go that way. It’s a story to engage your imagination. What if… And the location in which Jesus tells the story (while leading a people’s occupation of the Temple court during the run-up to Passover) is significant. He’s holding a “teach-in” with a story about the people occupying a place once reserved for only the elite. In that moment, it’s their story. In this moment, it’s ours.

If you mistake the Queen for God, you end up with the spoiled-rotten God of today’s Exodus story without Moses to talk her down. Be careful! Jesus never says, “God is like the king who…” but “the kingdom of heaven [the goal] is is comparable to a king who…” It’s an important distinction. Jesus is trying to get us somewhere: to the kingdom, to the goal. The parable is not about the character of God. Rather, it imagines how we might get there. And how we might not. And how we might seem to get there, but miss.

The goal (the kingdom of heaven, the wedding banquet, Westminster Abbey) begins as something the well-connected, powerful movers and shakers, rich and successful in business seem to have at the beginning. And yet, when they are invited to participate in the goal, they don’t realize what they’ve got. They turn away. They ridicule it in pursuit of other things. On the other hand, ordinary folk are excluded. The great reversal happens when (again, as in the Exodus story) the failure of those who have it all to claim it all ends up in their losing it all.

So, the parable suggests the goal is within reach of everyone and anyone who wants to claim a ticket. Only the ticket does require doing a little work. You’ve got to put on a suit. Your best suit, no matter the condition, will do. It doesn’t matter if it’s old and ratty, but you’ve got to put it on. Failure to change yourself on the way is every bit as much a misunderstanding of the goal as the elite folk ignoring and making fun of it. If you arrive as you were, you haven’t really arrived. And that, too, ends in oblivion, albeit of a different sort.

While much has been (rightly) said of “God’s preferential option for the poor,” the parable is a warning that to reach the goal, even the poor, the average, the ordinary people need to claim it or miss the opportunity. That’s the anxiety and regret.

The upside: Now, this moment, is your opportunity. Many have the chance to make something of it.

Will you take it?

Dangerous Diversion

Merrill Lynch Logo
Photo via Reuters

Exodus 32:1-14

When Moses didn’t come down from the mountain right away, the people went to Aaron, saying, “Make some gods for us, something we can put on a flag-pole. Moses brought us out of Egypt, but now he’s disappeared.”

Aaron said, “Rob your own family members of all their money, and give it to me.” So they did. They brought it all to Aaron, and with it he designed a logo. It was a fancy calf on a gold background. When they saw it, they all exclaimed, “Here it is: we work for this now. And this logo stands for our freedom.” Aaron set up an altar under the logo and made a proclamation: “Tomorrow there shall be bread and circuses!”

Early the next day, they all brought everything they had and gave it up to the new corporation. And they partied.

Meanwhile, back up on the mountain, God said to Moses, “You’d better get back down there. Those people of yours from Egypt have sold out. They’ve broken their contract with me, and they’ve designed a new logo, given up their freedom to a false god, and credited an imposter for all that I’ve done.” God said, “If this is the way its going to be with these turncoats, get out of my way: I’ll nuke them right now and we can start over with you.”

But Moses replied, “Why are you so angry? You’re the one who picked these people from Egypt! And if you do what you say, everyone will (rightly) say that you’re a pretty lame-ass God to bring a no-account people out into the wilderness and annihilate them. Chill out! Don’t do it! Remember how you promised Abraham, Isaac and Jacob that you would do right by their descendents and get them to the promised land.”

So God didn’t nuke them after all.

It’s hard to say whose behavior is worse in this story.

  • Is it Aaron, who sets himself up as the CEO of the world’s first Halliburton?
  • Is it the people, who willingly sacrifice their freedom and prosperity for a false sense of national security?
  • Is it God, who – let’s say it – really ought to know better?

As great as freedom sounds, the reality is it’s not so easy. Not even for God.

It’s much easier for Aaron to replicate the familiar oppressive religious-economic-political system where manipulating a logo and charging a lot of money (or collecting everyone’s earrings) gives the appearance of knowing what you’re doing.

  • It’s much easier to tell people what they want to hear than to ask them to live with uncertainty.
  • It’s much easier to give people a prefabricated symbol than to help them forge their own identity.
  • It’s much easier to pacify people’s desires with bread and circuses than to engage their creativity to form a meaningful community.

The story of the people’s complicity in the disaster is a parable of the last 10 years of American life. And the depiction of a God tempted to take the easy way of oblivion rather than the hard way of engagement is the temptation of those in power. Indeed, Moses speaks for all of us who are disgusted by those who insist that God must be nothing more than a child-despot with a finger on the red button.

There comes a moment of truth in every freedom story – whether it’s in the Old Testament desert, in the modern United States, or in an individual life – when the uncharted territory of real freedom appears so dark and terrible that any excuse to turn away, to recast God into our preferred image, to pretend life can be orderly and secure regardless of the cost, becomes alluring.

Mortal or immortal, it’s in that moment that we stand on the razor’s edge between new life and utter annihilation.