Getting Slavery Out Of The People
Exodus 20:1–21, Matthew 22:34–40, Hebrews 10:1–18
I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds . . .
Most of us spend a lot of our lives trying to get out of something old and confining and into something new and free. That’s why we so easily identify with Moses and the freed Hebrew slaves on their journey through the wild wasteland known as the wilderness.
The truth is that we’re all on a wilderness journey out of some form of slavery. On a personal level, we know what it is to be enslaved to fear, alcohol, food, rage, worry, lust, shame, inferiority or control. On a social level, in today’s version of Pharaoh’s economy, millions at the bottom of the pyramid work like slaves from before dawn to after dark and still never get ahead. And even those at the top of the pyramid don’t feel free. They wake up each day driven by the need to acquire what others desire, and they fear the lash of their own inner slave-drivers: greed, debt, competition, expectation and a desperate, addictive craving for more, more, more.
'...the whole system survives by plundering the planet...'
From top to bottom, the whole system survives by plundering the planet, purchasing this generation’s luxuries at the expense of future generations’ necessities. Exiting from today’s personal and social slavery won’t be easy. It will require something like a wilderness journey into the unknown. We know who we have been: slaves. We know who we’re going to be: free men and women, experiencing aliveness as God intended. And right now, we’re a little bit of both, in need of the identity transformation that comes as we walk the road to freedom.
So we have much to learn from the stories of Moses and his companions. We too must remember that the road to freedom doesn’t follow a straight line from point A to point B. Instead, it zigzags and backtracks through a discomfort zone of lack, delay, distress and strain. In those wild places, character is formed – the personal and social character needed for people to enjoy freedom and aliveness. Like those who have walked before us, we need to know that grumbling and complaining can be more dangerous than poisonous snakes or the hot desert sun. Like them, we must be forewarned about the danger of catastrophising the present and romanticising the past. Like them, we must remember that going forward may be difficult, but going back is disastrous.
As they made a road through the wilderness, Moses and his fellow travellers received a mysterious food that fell from the sky each morning like dew. They called it manna, which in Hebrew, somewhat humorously, meant, ‘What is this stuff?’ Like them, we will receive what we need for each day, too – often in mysterious and sometimes even humorous ways, just enough for today, provided one day at a time. And like them, we will learn that we can’t survive on bread alone: we also need moral guidance, spiritual nourishment, manna for the soul.
So along with bread for their bodies, God gave the travellers inner nourishment in the form of ten commands that would become the moral basis for their lives in freedom.
1. Put the God of liberation first, not the gods of slavery.
2. Don’t reduce God to the manageable size of an idol – certainly not one made of wood and stone by human hands, and not one made by human minds of rituals and words either, and certainly not one in whose name people are enslaved, dehumanised or killed!
3. Do not use God for your own agendas by throwing around God’s holy name. If you make a vow in God’s name, keep it!
4. Honour the God of liberation by taking and giving everyone a day off. Don’t keep the old 24/7 slave economy going.
5. Turn from self-centredness by honouring your parents. (After all, honour is the basis of freedom.)
6. Don’t kill people, and don’t do the things that frequently incite violence, including:
7. Don’t cheat with others’ spouses,
8. Don’t steal others’ possessions, and
9. Don’t lie about others’ behaviours or characters.
10. In fact, if you really want to avoid the violence of the old slave economy, deal with its root source – in the drama of desire. Don’t let the competitive desire to acquire tempt you off the road of freedom.
Through the ten plagues, we might say, God got the people out of slavery. Through the ten commands, God got the slavery out of the people. God also gave them a set of additional practices – rituals, holidays and so on – to help them develop and deepen the character of free people. One of those practices was setting aside a special holy place. They started with a simple ‘tent of meeting’ that was replaced by a larger, more elaborate gathering place called the ‘tabernacle’. That holy space in the centre of their encampment reminded them that the God of liberation was journeying with them – not only above them, visualised as a cloud of smoke and fire, but among them, walking with them in the desert dust as they made the road to freedom.
In that central holy space the people offered sacrifices. Animal sacrifice had already replaced more primitive and brutal rituals of human sacrifice. But the whole idea of appeasing God through blood-shedding of any kind was gradually being replaced with the idea of communing with God over a meal. So sacrifices were seen increasingly as gifts of food, as if to say, ‘God is calling us to gather around the family table.’ At certain times of the year, and at special moments when the people realised they had done something horrible, they would come to God’s big tent. They would bring the makings of a feast, as if to say, ‘God, we’re sorry for our wrongs. We want to have our family meal again – reconciling with you and with one another. So here’s some food to express our desire to sit down at the table of fellowship. We won’t turn back. We’ll keeping walking this long road to freedom . . . together.’
Of course, Jesus gathered his companions around a table one night and encouraged them to do the same. We call it a meal of communion. We could also call it a meal of liberation and reconciliation. Around this table, we remember where we’ve been, where we are, whom we’re with and where we’re headed, as we make a new road by walking . . . together.
The wilderness journey is always difficult and seems to last for ever. Like children on a car journey, we keep whining, ‘Aren’t we there yet?’ But the truth is, if we arrive before we’ve learned the lessons of the wilderness, we won’t be able to enjoy the freedom that awaits us in the promised land beyond it. There is wisdom we will need there that we can gain only right here. There is strength and skill we will need in the future that we can develop only here and now, on the wilderness road. There is moral muscle we will need then that we can exercise and strengthen only through our struggles on this road, here and now. There is a depth of connection with God that will be there when we need it in the future – if we learn to trust and follow God now, on the long wild road to freedom.
The struggles will make us either bitter or better. The trials will lead to either breakdown or breakthrough. We will often be tempted to return to our old lives, but in that tension between a backward pull and a forward call, we will discover unexplainable sustenance (like manna) and unexpected refreshment (like springs in the desert). Against all odds, walking by faith, we will survive – and more: we will learn what it means to be alive.
There are no shortcuts. The road cannot be made by wishing, by whining or by talking. It can be made only by walking, day after day, step by step, struggle by struggle. It’s easier, it turns out, to get people out of slavery than it is to get slavery out of people. So, people, let us walk the road – right through the middle of the desert.
Meditate and Contemplate
1. What one thought or idea from today’s lesson especially intrigued, provoked, disturbed, challenged, encouraged, warmed, warned, helped or surprised you?
2. Share a story about a significant wilderness experience in your life – either literal or figurative.
3. What do you think it means in today’s world to ‘get the slavery out of the people’? What kinds of slavery do you think we are still stuck in?
4. For children: What’s the longest trip you’ve ever taken? What was one of the best parts of the trip? What was one of the worst parts?
5. Activate: Each day this week, reread the ten commandments as worded in this chapter. (Maybe send them to yourself and others via e-mail or social media.) Look for ways this ancient moral code is relevant in today’s world – and in your life.
6. Meditate: Relax for a few moments in God’s presence in silence. Think of the Sabbath not as being deprived of activity, but as a day of liberation from the 24/7 work-week of a slave. Breathe deep. Let go. Thank God for rest.