The scriptures referred to are Exodus 20:1-17.
For the last decade the 10 commandments have gotten a lot of press, both good and bad, because of petitions and lawsuits to either put a copy of them in or to remove a copy of them from various public places. One thing I haven't heard from the critical side of the debate (perhaps because I rarely read the comment sections of internet news sites) is a condemnation of the specific passage that might have made you wince when listening to the reading. It is the sentence “For I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and fourth generation of those who reject me...” When you heard that, did you ask yourself, “Is that fair?” And further along that line of thought: “Do I really want to worship a God like that?” Those 2 questions are what we are going to tackle today.
“I the Lord your God am a jealous God.” Today it's politically incorrect to be jealous. But jealousy is natural if you are in love. In fact, it is impossible not to be jealous if you are in an intimate loving relationship with someone and that person switches their love to someone else. If the person you are in a relationship with leaves you for someone else and you're not jealous, you didn't really love that person. God really loves his people Israel. This is not a stalker situation or unwanted attention on his part. God heard the cry of his people who were slaves in Egypt. He rescued them. Nobody had to leave with him if they didn't want to. Now he is making a covenant with them. The 10 commandments begin with the prologue to that covenant. The people are going to swear to keep their end of that agreement and God will swear to keep his part of it. So asking the people of Israel to be faithful to their God is no more unreasonable than asking a bride or a groom to be faithful to the person they are marrying.
The reason we are justifiably wary of jealousy is entirely due to our experience of the human variety of it. We see a guy or girl go ballistic if their mate has innocent contact with the opposite sex. Or we hear of crimes of passion where a man kills his ex-wife, her lover and sometimes even his own kids. And we say, “Wow! Jealousy is terrible!” But these are examples of inordinate jealousy that crosses the line and goes over into being a sin. Is jealousy always a bad thing?
Let's consider another heated emotion: anger. Anger over injustice can be a good thing. It can motivate reformers and those who set up, campaign for, join or contribute to charities and activist groups. It can also be a bad thing, motivating anarchists, abusers and terrorists. It's all about whether you control the anger and how you channel it.
On a more personal level, wanting your children to behave justly and kindly is healthy. And so is anger if they don't. If you don't react when your child does something clearly wrong—beats up another child or steals something—the child gets the message that you really don't care about these things. The child may even conclude that you don't really care about him or her enough to correct them. In this case, reacting with anger to their clear violation of someone else's rights, and letting your child see that anger, is appropriate. That way he or she understands that justice and kindness are important values. But displaying the appropriate amount of anger is essential. Beating your child senseless for what they did would not be appropriate and would in fact send a whole different message. Anger, like any emotion including love, can motivate people to do either the right or the wrong thing. What you do with an emotion depends on your moral code and how well that code is integrated into the way you think, speak and act.
Jealousy is a naturally occurring corollary to a healthy desire for an exclusive romantic relationship. A psychologically and physically healthy person cannot have a sexual relationship and not feel the urge to bond. After all, during sex your brain releases oxytocin, the same hormone that causes mother and baby to bond. This bonding during sex makes human relationships much more complex that those of many animals, who can mate and then move on, letting the mother raise the offspring alone. We have seen the damage done when human fathers treat their children the way tomcats treat their offspring. But for us, intimate relationships are usually much more than an expedient response to a biological urge or instinct. As Christians we recognize that people are minds and spirits as well as hearts and bodies and we yearn to connect on all levels. Since pair-bonding is normal and nearly universal, threats to that bond arouse strong feelings. Problems arise when feelings of jealousy or reactions to those feelings are disproportionate. If your spouse is jealous of any co-worker of the opposite sex that you have, that's disproportionate. (Unless, say, your spouse used to be a co-worker of yours whom you stole away from someone else. Then your spouse might merely be recognizing it as your sexual modus operandi.) Likewise, while asking a cheating lover to move out is appropriate, setting fire to a lover's clothes or car in a jealous rage is disproportionate. But what if instead jealousy motivates your partner to try harder to be romantic than a supposed rival or to talk about actual relationship problems you are having? That would be a good outcome.
The real problem with jealousy is that we humans rarely react to it rationally. That's why it's so hard to talk of God being jealous. We project human jealousy onto him. So it's good to remember that all language about God is metaphorical and all metaphors have their limits. In this way it is just like talking about quantum physics in any language other than mathematical formulae. (Atoms, by the way, are not really those tiny colorful balls orbiting around each other, though that is how they are depicted in every science textbook.) When we talk of God we are using pictures and analogies that illustrate some truth about him but always with the knowledge that they pale and ultimately fail in comparison to the reality of the God to which they are pointing. The mystics recognize this when they talk of seeing God in his creation. They say, “This also is you; this is not you.”
Obviously there are differences when we are speaking of God being jealous. There is no taint of sin in God's jealousy. There is no insecurity or self-pity. Plus our relationship with God is not one of equals. He is our creator. Whereas it is wrong when a human presumes to treat another human as a possession, we actually do belong to God. That makes the freedom he grants us all the more amazing. But he loves us and he wants us to return that love. He works with those who respond to the offer of his love, beginning with Abraham, and then Isaac, and then Jacob. And now, in Exodus 20, we have come to the point where the people of Israel are promising to commit themselves to God. And he is committing himself to them and their welfare. So if Israel subsequently turns to another god, it is akin to adultery. Or worse.
You can't give up God for something better. There is nothing better. God is the source of all goodness. The things we worship in place of God, be they country, family, money, sex, art, power, human love or other stuff, even if they are good things in themselves, do not measure up to the goodness of God. They are but fragments of the whole, mere drops compared to the ocean of God's graciousness. When we put them in place of God, when we make them our ultimate goal and the source of our values, we distort our lives. Flowers orient themselves toward the sun and live by its light. A string of Christmas lights just won't do as a replacement for the sun. In the same way, we are created to orient ourselves toward God and live by his light. Lesser things, however shiny and attractive, are no substitute for God.
And this goes a long way towards explaining how the negative consequences of a parent's decision are visited upon his children and grandchildren. In the physical world, if a parent feeds his child junk food rather than proper nutrition, the child will be the worse for it. He will suffer for what his parent has done. In fact, thanks to the science of epigenetics, we know that things a parent or even grandparent does to his or her own body can have effects on the health of any descendants he or she has, by passing on genes that are already turned off or on, for both good and for ill.
Also affecting people throughout their entire lives are the things they experience as kids. In the 1990s two doctors noticed how their patient's medical conditions correlated with adverse childhood experiences. So they formulated the ACE test, 10 questions that they asked patients about any abuse, neglect or household dysfunction that occurred while they were growing up. They found that patients who answered “Yes” to 4 or more of the questions had much higher rates of diabetes, stroke, heart disease, cancer, COPD, depression, suicide attempts, alcoholism, severe obesity, and more. Just as you can inherit good traits and benefit from having good parents, you can inherit bad traits and suffer from the sins of bad parents. You can see this as merely the results of biological forces, or, since all things ultimately go back to the creator, you could chose to see them as punishments from God.
But in Ezekiel 18, God says that children are not held guilty for the sins of their parents nor vice versa. These consequences are simply results of the way the universe works. We are connected and what one person does can affect others, especially those who are close to him or her. And if we were created to worship God alone, then on the spiritual level there are inevitable consequences to ignoring that fact. Just as the rules of physics are not magically lifted because an innocent child is in a car that a drunk driver is about to hit, so also the moral laws are not suspended when a parent neglects to follow such laws or fails to teach his or her child about God by word and example of life.
Many studies have confirmed the huge drop in people in this country who identify themselves as Christians or even religious. Other studies show that there are negligible differences in the lifestyles of Christians and non-Christians in the US, casting doubts on the validity of the profession of faith of many people who claim to follow Jesus. Meanwhile, still other studies tell us that within the next 24 hours, 1439 teens will commit suicide, 2729 teenage girls will get pregnant, and 15,006 teens will use recreational drugs for the first time. Every 4 minutes a youth is arrested for an alcohol-related crime, every 7 minutes a youth is arrested for a drug-related crime, and every 2 hours a youth is murdered. Yes, some of these kids come from good homes; sadly, these things tend to cluster around those who do not.
Studies also tell us that children who regularly attend church have a significantly lower rate of using alcohol, tobacco and drugs, a much lower risk of committing crimes, reduced risk of binge drinking in college, a dramatically lower risk of suicide and they rebound from depression 70% faster. So are the ills suffered by those who don't worship God arbitrary punishments from him or are they in a sense self-inflicted wounds from unhealthy personal behaviors that are then passed on to their children?
And is God's jealousy then all about him or is it a passion to protect those he loves from the consequences of defying our own natures, about which he knows a lot more than we do because he created us?
It is God's jealousy, his unwillingness to abandon us to the consequences of our abandoning the relationship of love we once had with him, that has led him to woo us back again and again; that has led him to reveal his loving plan for the restoration of this planet and its inhabitants to the state he intended for us; that led him to send his unique son Jesus to teach us, to die for us, to rise again to kick off the resurrection of all good things through the growth of the Kingdom of God.
So do we want to follow a God who is, in this high and exalted sense, and for our sake, jealous? Ask anyone whose spouse has never exhibited the least bit of jealousy in any situation even when someone was hitting on them. Ask children whose parents let them do anything they want, if they would be willing to trade some of that freedom for a sense that their parents cared about them enough to set limits. Studies show that neglect is even worse for children's mental and physical health than abuse! Benign neglect is still neglect. And it still feels like indifference.
God is not indifferent to us. He wants the best for us. There are times when we wish he'd leave us alone, just like kids wish Mom or Dad would stop with all the restrictions and questions and just butt out of their lives. And if we wish that our whole life, he will leave us alone; the God who is love will accept our rejection and withdraw from us. There is a word for the source of all goodness truly leaving us alone forever: hell. We need to heed Joni Mitchell when she reminds us that “you don't know what you've got till it's gone.”
There is a way to avoid the negative effects of God's passionate love for us: love him back. We don't need to cease loving other things. They are his gifts after all. We just shouldn't love them disproportionately. To correct that doesn't mean we need to love them less but that we need to love him more. If we put him at the center of our life, all the other things will fall into their proper places. The reason we rebel against this is that we are used to living lives that are askew, that are out of balance. If you lived your whole life on the side of a steep hill, standing on level ground would feel weird. It would take readjusting, shifting things around, perhaps even learning to walk a new way.
God loves us. If we respond to him in love, he promises not to leave us or forsake us. Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ. If that seems oppressive, perhaps your conception of God is too small. Look around you. He is the source of all that is good. He is the redeemer of all that is not good. And ask any neglected child. If your biggest problem is that your Father loves you too much, then you're lucky. Or to use the Biblical term, blessed.