Carlin’s Commandments

Preacher: The Rev. Dr. Donna Ialongo

Preached on: July 2nd, 2017

Pentecost 4, Year A


No recording

Scripture Text:

Romans 6:12-23


The reading from Paul’s epistle to the Romans today is all about sin. My favorite part is definitely, “What then? Should we sin because we are not under law but under grace?” I love his answer to his own question, “By no means!” You can almost hear him say, “By no means, you idiots!”

It makes me laugh, and when I think about sin and I laugh, I think about George Carlin. Mr. Carlin was a brilliant satirist. He was a comedian, an author, an actor, and a social critic. He was also a devout atheist who peppered his sermons with four-letter words. I would love to show you a video of his analysis of the Ten Commandments, but not in church.

He begins the video asking why there are ten, and proclaims that ten is actually a very . . . satisfying number. There’s something pleasing about it. We have the Top Ten, the Ten Best Dressed, the Ten Most Wanted. And, after all, we do use the decimal system, and count our lives in decades.

He humorously contends that the number of Commandments was actually inflated to ten simply for marketing purposes. So, logically, he argues, that number can . . . and should be reduced.

So he sets about doing that. He gets rid of the first three commandments right away. He’s an atheist after all, and he argues they are full of “spooky language designed to control primitive people.” These three commandments are, of course: don’t make idols; don’t take the name of God in vain; and keep holy the Sabbath.

You would expect an atheist’s perspective to be very narrow on the topic of God, and Carlin’s is. His position is that these three commandments were designed by men in power to control the unwashed masses.

He rejects the fourth commandment – to honor one’s father and mother – for the same reason: that it is another attempt to control behavior. Carlin argues that parents should not automatically get the respect of their children, that parents need to earn that respect.

So, he’s down to six. He then combines two commandments: “Thou shalt not steal,” and “Thou shalt not bear false witness.” He does this because, for him, stealing and lying are both dishonest behavior. So, he’s down to five, combining these two as “Thou shalt not be dishonest.”

While he’s at it, he decides to merge two other commandments: “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” and “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife.” Now, I know some of you have memorized the Protestant commandment list and you’re mentally checking off each commandment as I name it. And you’re saying, “Whoa! A commandment just about coveting the wife?”

OK, you think. The wife gets mentioned in the 10th Protestant commandment, but what about the slaves, the ox, the donkey, and the house. On our list, the Protestant one, all those are found in the same commandment with the wife. But George is using the Roman Catholic list, which is arranged a little differently. It’s the same stuff, slightly different order.

Roman Catholics have a special commandment just for coveting wives. It is considerate of them not to lump wives in with the rest of the “property,” including, tragically, slaves. But the reality is that property is what wives were when these commandments were written.

Now, looking at these two commandments about adultery and coveting wives, Mr. Carlin concludes that marital fidelity is, indeed, a very good idea, so he combines these two, as “Thou shalt not be unfaithful.”

So, he’s down to four.

Being in the mood to aggregate, George then decides to combine “Thou shalt not be unfaithful” with “Thou shalt not be dishonest.” He gives the new commandment a positive spin and it becomes “Thou shalt always be honest and faithful.”

And now he’s down to three.

He then completely rejects the prohibition against coveting goods — that is, houses, slaves, oxen, and donkeys. Because — and this is a very perspicacious comment on his part — coveting is what keeps our economy going.

Your neighbor gets a brand new Mercedes; you covet it, and go out and buy a brand new Mercedes. “After all,” Carlin says, “coveting creates jobs.” In that example, jobs in Germany.

And so, he’s down to two commandments. What’s left? “Thou shalt always be honest and faithful” and “Thou shalt not kill.”

Carlin then points out what atheists always taken great glee in pointing out: history shows us that religious people have never had a problem with killing others in the name of God. He cites Northern Ireland, the Middle East, the Inquisition, the Crusades, and the World Trade Center. Unfortunately, that list could be so much longer, and so often, it’s an example of Christians killing Christians. As Carlin states quite accurately, the more devout the religious fanatics are, the more they see murder as a negotiable sin.

So, he finally leaves us with only two commandments: “Thou shalt always be honest and faithful.” and “Try not to kill anyone.”

Of course, George Carlin wasn’t the first person to distill the commandments, but he only started with 10. Jesus started with the 613 traditionally found in the Torah. And he really knew Hebrew Scripture, the whole scope of it, the arc of salvation history.

Jesus was an observant, passionate Jew. He didn’t come to start a new religion, to abandon his beliefs. Those first believers in his resurrection, his followers in the first century, were the Jewish people for whom Matthew wrote his Gospel. They understood what Jesus wanted to do, that he was focused on reforming Judaism. After all, he said he didn’t come to abolish the law and the prophets but to fulfill them. Every thing he taught, every thing he said, pushed religion away from violence and toward love, love that would heal the world. He shaped the law in a different way: toward mercy and acceptance and radical generosity.

Do you remember the story from the Gospel of Luke in which a lawyer asks Jesus the question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Now, when we hear the word “lawyer” in this context, we need to get all those Perry Mason/Law and Order images out of our heads. For Judeans in the first century, law was religious law. So, this lawyer talking to Jesus knows his Bible backwards and forwards. Jesus recognizes that; he knows he’s being tested, so he turns the tables on the lawyer and asks him, “What is written in the law?” And the lawyer, like a good schoolboy, answers promptly with the Great Commandment:

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart,
and with all your soul, and with all your strength,
and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.

Jesus tells him, “Good job. Now that you’ve recited the commandment, ‘Do it. DO it, and you will have eternal life.’” Jesus affirmed that these two laws — love God and love your neighbor — were the whole of the law; that those 613 laws could be summed up in those two positive statements in the Great Commandment.

George Carlin got one of them right when he reduced the Ten Commandments to “Thou shalt always be honest and faithful” and “Try not to kill anybody.” Those two are pretty good stand-ins for “Love your neighbor.”

But Mr. Carlin skipped over the “Love God” part. Atheists have a habit of doing that. But we understand that without the love of God, the love of neighbor becomes extremely difficult — and vice versa.

Could these two laws be any simpler?
Love God; love your neighbor.
Could they be any more challenging?

Uploaded on July 2, 2017 in by

Comments are disabled for this post

close window

Service Times & Directions