10 Commandments? Why Not The Beatitudes?

Grace and Judgment

This question was posed to the congregation this past Sunday: Why do we, as Christians, support putting the Ten Commandments everywhere? Why do we fight tooth and nail to support their placement on public property? Why do we do that when Jesus has given us a set of promises that form a more perfect society?

In Matthew 5:1-12 (which was the Lectionary yesterday), Jesus gives us the Beatitudes: the “Blessed are…” lines that form the first part of his Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s gospel. While the parallel passage in Luke contains the “Cursed are…” lines, Matthew’s is all about blessing.

The group at church was wondering why we don’t put the Beatitudes everywhere?

Why do we put up the Ten Commandments, 6 of which are part of our civil law and aren’t going anywhere? Why not the Beatitudes, none of which are incorporated into society and all of which are hopeful promises to those who seek to model Christ on earth? For sure, some people want us to equate our society with Christian principles, hence why they are put up at courthouses and places of public policy.  This is despite the fact that the 10 Commandments were not the basis of American law at all.

But beyond misplaced belief, I think the reason lies in the difference between a grace-based theology and a judgment-based theology, the latter of which is closer to the Empire than the Kingdom.

For civil society to function, we must have laws with retributive justice. They are the “or else” part of following the rules. There will always be people who do not function within these laws and they are punished.  To accompany this, there are many theologies that preach a God who sounds like civil society: don’t do this or you’ll burn in hell. Do turn your life to Jesus or you will go to hell. The proscriptive laws and retributive response of judgment fit nicely with the biblical stories and find much place to take root in both society and theology, Empire and Kingdom.

But for me, I find much more meaning in a grace-based theology as I see it as closer to God’s kingdom than the earthly empire.  Is there judgment in Jesus’ words. Absolutely. Is there judgment in John Wesley’s theology? Absolutely…far more than I’m honestly comfortable with! But it’s not the basis of the theology: the basis is God’s grace given to us without merit before we are born, when we turn our life’s trajectory to God, and as part of our continued seeking to walk with God fully and completely. God’s grace abounds!

In reading the beatitudes, the first section of the Sermon on the Mount that goes on for 3 chapters, I sit and think about “what would happen to society if we modeled these values?” We have already seen society advance to the point where six of the Ten Commandments are part of our law. We’ve won! Why not now seek a society where the peacemakers are lifted up, the merciful are contagious, the meek are admired, the persecuted are supported? Why not offer grace to these exemplars of Christian ideals? A heavenly society where the empire is reversed, stood on its head, and the marginalized are exalted and the powerful are brought down from their thrones?

What could our society look like if we started exemplifying the Beatitudes rather than the Commandments, if we held up grace-based theology rather than judgement-based theology? Are they both legitimate? Of course. But for me, I find much more meaning in exemplifying ideals and “standing up for the lookouts” than in advancing a theological system that supports the legs of the Empire rather than the enduring love of God’s kingdom.

Just a thought. Your thoughts?

(Image Credit: Brian MacArevey)

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  1. says

    But how can we expect people to behave without fear to motivate them? Better to appeal to the most base aspects of human nature and break the lesser commandment of “fear not” than to risk having people break one of the bigger ones like being attracted to their own gender and being tortured forever by a loving God.

    I’m just sayin’.

    • says

      I think scare tactics are pretty low on the totem pole of discipleship. It can get you in the door out of fear, but it can’t help you grow. I don’t do scare tactics or fear-based sermons with my youth, even though they are susceptible to that type of emotional manipulation. It would grow my church, but at a cost to theological integrity unacceptable to me.

      We’ve grown society beyond seeing the 10 commandments as ideals and instead 6/10 (the non-theological ones, admittedly) are part and parcel of every law. If our society has progressed, why not have our ideals progress along with it?

  2. Alan says

    I think the dichotomy drawn here reflects a theology in need of greater depth. Grace is so desperately needed precisely because we recognize the validity and value of the law. Diminish the significance of the law, and you diminish the significance of grace. A grace-based theology that seeks to distance itself from the law is mere, ungrounded sentimentality. And anyone who cannot see an amazing amount of grace in the giving of the 10 Commandments is just not looking. Having said that, I’d love to see the Beatitudes posted alongside the 10 Commandments.

  3. says

    As much as I love the beatitudes, I’ve NEVER stopped to think about why we “teach kids” the Ten Commandments and not the Beatitudes. I remember my 6th grade Sunday school told us that they are the “Quick Start” guide (if the Bible is the instruction manual). I ate that analogy up. Seems like Jesus may have given us a new Quick Start guide to the revised way of living :)

  4. says

    What if there is no dichotomy? Within context Jesus said that he had not come to destroy the law and the prophets but to fulfill them. The beatitudes may be read as the summary of the fulfillment.

    • says

      Yeah. But he wasn’t talking about just the ten commandments. He was also talking about all that stuff about not touching a woman who was menstruating, as well. Personally, I think that we ought to be pushing to have the entirety of Leviticus posted all over the place (starting with the windshields of the poor, beleaguered, law-loving minority).

    • rjwalker says

      Re Matthew 5:17 — “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.”

      The word “fulfill” in, apparently, Greek” and in English has varied meanings. It seems to me that those differences in meaning could be seen as lending that verse very different theological consequences depending on which definition is used.

      Strong’s #4137: pleroo (pronounced play-ro’-o)

      from 4134; to make replete, i.e. (literally) to cram (a net), level up (a hollow), or (figuratively) to furnish (or imbue, diffuse, influence), satisfy, execute (an office), finish (a period or task), verify (or coincide with a prediction), etc.:–accomplish, X after, (be) complete, end, expire, fill (up), fulfil, (be, make) full (come), fully preach, perfect, supply.

      2 a : to put into effect : execute
      b : to meet the requirements of (a business order)
      c : to bring to an end
      d : to measure up to : satisfy
      3 a : to convert into reality
      b : to develop the full potentialities of

  5. John Clemens says

    Look how the term, “meek” has been turned into a pejorative, probably going back to some of the earliest translations. To make it worse, it is used in a context (inherit the earth) which is antithetical to the notion of inheriting the kingdom of heaven (somewhere up there). If we had a deeper grasp of the Lord’s Prayer and the Beatitudes we wouldn’t be having this conversation. Great article.

  6. rjwalker says

    In the late 60s, at a peace demonstration at the federal min security prison in Allenwood PA, several of us visited with jailed peace activists in that facility. (Most were, as I recall, draft card burners and/or ‘doers’ of other non-violent civil disobedience.)

    The beatitudes were prominently displayed on one wall – the irony of reading Matthew 5:9- “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” remains with me to this day

  7. rjwalker says

    1: Thanks for the link to the “Ten Commandments” site – what an extraordinary discussion! The US House of Representatives should take a day to read that out loud!

    2: “The difference between a grace-based theology [the Beatitudes] and a judgment-based theology [the Ten Commandments], the latter of which is closer to the Empire than the Kingdom.

    Wow! A thought-provoking point!

    Thanks for this discussion.

  8. says

    Which of the 6 are you talking about? Killing, sure, stealing, sure, bearing false witness, only in the context of perjury sure. Adultery may be a divorcable offense, but it’s usually not a crime. There are still blue-laws in some places, but if they get challenged they usually don’t stand up in court. So it’s really 2 for sure, and the others are marginal.

  9. says

    The Beatitudes might be a better message, but they still don’t belong on public property. It’s pretty clear why some people want Ten Commandments monuments, creches, and In God We Trust posters on government property. They want to create an appearance of endorsement by government. If you really think it’s a good thing to expose people to, why don’t we see Ten Commandments monuments on the front lawn of more churches (I know, there’s some that have them).

    Last Christmas I remember two stories of creches on government property (one was a city hall or court house and the other a town square across from a city hall). In both cases when a complaint was made & legal action threatened, it was decided that it might be better to just move the display to the nearby church. The nearby church was right across the street. There was a church…right across the street! Why didn’t they have the display in the first place? The reason is simply that certain people want to have the display on government property in order to create an appearance of endorsement of religion (Christianity in this and all cases).

    • says

      Some people might say “so what, it doesn’t mean anything to me if there is the appearance of endorsement”. There are a lot of non-Christians who have an issue with it, for one thing. We want our government to have no appearance of bias. If we go into a courtroom, we shouldn’t see a Protestant Ten Commandments plaque over the shoulder of the judge. If we want to participate in city government, we shouldn’t have feel like we are second class citizens because each and every city council meeting is opened with a prayer by a (usually) protestant religious leader. Of course Congress does that (do you know how much we’re paying for that?), but that’s not right either.

    • says

      There is also the issue of it being used to divide people. I have had people tell me “This is one nation under God, if you don’t like it get out!” Who is the WE in “In God We Trust” that shows up on the currency (which was put there when Congress made a law). If it’s supposed to be Americans, does that mean that I’m not an American? Or just not a ‘good’ American. It makes some people think that it’s okay to tell others they are not welcome if they don’t accept the established religious messages that the government is endorsing(but at the same time they are tolerant…this one had me laughing and crying and going into apoplectic fits all at the same time, I woke the cat up and she gave me an annoyed look).

      So, put them up on your own property all you want. Keep them off government property. Sorry for the long windedness…your character limit kept cutting me off and I see the links aren’t showing up…

      • says

        Just for clarity, I don’t really advocate putting up the 10 Commandments, much less the Beatitudes. I was just curious why the people who do want a monument put up choose the Commandments rather than the Beatitudes. Which would lead society on a greater path?

        • says

          I couldn’t tell if you were advocating putting them up, or just wondering why other people were. I know plenty of people who would like to put them up on every government building they can find.

          If the issue is just ‘what’s best for society’ then why not promote Jainism? :-)


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