I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means
Deuteronomy 5:1-11; Isaiah 1:1, 10-20
Good morning! And, wow! That sounds like a lot of condemnation coming from Isaiah. Last week I said I rarely preach about God’s judgment, but when you hear that passage from Isaiah after a reading from the Ten Commandments, maybe you’re wondering if this is the week that I’m going to call down the wrath of God on someone or something.
Nope. Not this week. Maybe I’ll preach some judgment next Sunday.
The title of my sermon comes from one of my all-time favorite movies, The Princess Bride. There’s a character in the movie, an outlaw named Vizzini, and he is fond of saying, “Inconceivable!” when something doesn’t go his way. Finally, another outlaw, named Inigo Montoya, gets frustrated and says, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” This has become a popular meme on the Internet.
I mention this because I think that a lot of us misunderstand the Third Commandment. Even though we no longer use the King James Version of the Bible in worship, many of us still hear that old translation: “thou shalt not take the name of the Lord in vain;” yet we don’t fully understand what it means to take the Lord’s name in vain. I don’t know about you folks, but the lesson I kinda learned from Sunday school was that I wasn’t supposed to swear, gosh darn it!
Specifically, I thought it meant that I wasn’t supposed to call for God’s judgment or damnation upon anyone. Which is why we use work-arounds, like gosh darn it. You know, I don’t think I ever said, “gosh darn it,” “golly,” or, “oh, my goodness” until I went into ministry.
Fortunately for me—and maybe one or two of you, too—the Third Commandment isn’t about swearing or cursing, per se. Which is good, because I’d probably have to spend the rest of my life in prayer and penitence for all the cursing and swearing of my youth. And my twenties. And my thirties. And, well, maybe this isn’t what you want to hear from your pastor, but the truth will set you free, right?
First and foremost, the Third Commandment is about maintaining an exclusive relationship with God. In ancient times, when people swore an oath, they would swear by the name of whatever pagan deity seemed most appropriate to the situation, whether it be a storm god, a fertility goddess, or whichever supernatural being might be offended if the oath were broken.
What God is saying to the Israelites is, “you can’t swear by the name of any other god; you can’t swear by my name when it suits you, and then swear by the name of some other god.” That’s what it means to take the Lord’s name in vain, or in vanity. It is sheer vanity to think that the Lord would listen to our pleas for help, if we also swear oaths on or say prayers to other gods. This is consistent with the First and Second Commandments.
In the Third Commandment, God reminds the Israelites that it was God who brought them out of Egypt, and thus it is to God alone that the Israelites owe their loyalty. The way to remain in covenant with the Lord is to remain in and exclusive relationship with God. Swearing oaths by God alone is a sign that the Israelites are holding up their end of the contract.
This is probably one of the reasons why this verse is translated in the NRSV as, “You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God.” That’s very different from a commandment that says, “don’t swear,” but it’s still vague; it doesn’t define wrongful use.
In the Jewish tradition, the personal name of God was thought to have tremendous power. According to the scholar, Patrick Miller:
It is by this name that God is revealed. It is by all the words and deeds associated with this name YHWH that one shall know who and what God is, what God is like, and what God does. Through this name, human beings have access to the knowledge of God. By this name God is present and through this name God is worshiped.
Miller suggests that the name becomes a manifestation of the presence of God. In other words, God is present the second we speak God’s name. God is present in our prayers, because we have spoken God’s name. God is present here in worship with us because we have spoken God’s name. That’s powerful stuff!
With great power comes great responsibility. The power of the name of the Lord should not be called upon for trivial or vain matters. We shouldn’t call on the name of the Lord for things that don’t matter to the Lord. God doesn’t care which team wins the Super Bowl. God doesn’t care if you sink that tricky putt on the fourteenth hole at Hominy Hill. If you’re still not clear, think of the song “Mercedes Benz” by Janis Joplin. You know the song, right?
Praying for God to buy you—or me—a new car, especially a really fancy car, is making wrongful use of the name of the Lord; it’s a prayer of vanity. God doesn’t care what kind of car anyone drives and if any of you really want to have a Mercedes, well, you can find a job where you can earn enough money to buy one. I don’t think God is going to stand in your way. And I know that a couple of you do own a Mercedes or two. So, you’re off the hook—sort of.
Our reading from Isaiah points toward another understanding of the Third Commandment. In this passage, God, speaking through the Prophet Isaiah, compares the religious and political authorities of Judah and Jerusalem to the authorities at Sodom and Gomorrah. He is suggesting that they are about to bring the wrath of God down on the people because of their unrighteousness.
This text is concerned with worship and righteousness. God names all the things that people give as offerings: the meat or fat of animals, the blood of bulls, lambs, or goats, or even incense. God rejects these offerings. God also despises religious festivals and celebrations. These are all services of worship in which God’s name is invoked, in which God is present, yet God rejects these services, and then God says that the prayers of the people of Judah will fall on deaf ears.
Under ordinary circumstances those offerings and festivals would be righteous and God would listen to all the prayers of the people. But God rejects them because the rulers are not acting with true righteousness outside of worship. God urges them to repent, to “cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” The ruling classes weren’t doing these things; they weren’t loving their neighbors as themselves, they weren’t doing justice. They were taking the Lord’s name in vanity by not living into the whole of the covenant. They were only righteous in worship.
What about us? There’s no easy formula for righteousness. We all have different definitions of justice, and I’m not about to tell you there’s one right way to do justice. What I am going to say is that we all fall short. None of us can do this on our own. We can’t do justice without calling on the name of the Lord.
That’s the grace in these stories and that’s the grace in our lives. The grace in the Ten Commandments is in the covenantal relationship with God; the grace in Isaiah is the opportunity to repent for our shortcomings. To live into this grace, we have to love one another as God loves us.
Again, there’s no formula for this. We can’t love perfectly; only God can do that. But we call ourselves Christians; we take Christ’s name as our own, which means we have to work toward that ideal. Our actions have to be consistent with our identity in Christ, or all our worship is in vain, like the rulers of Judah and Jerusalem before us.
To achieve consistency, we have to examine all of our actions and interactions. We have to ask if we have treated others with love and mercy, and we have to examine all of our financial decisions, too. We have to be consistent in the way that we use all of our resources. This means we all have to ask some uncomfortable questions of ourselves.
I said before that there’s nothing wrong with owning a Mercedes Benz—sort of. I have a nice car, too. I also spend a lot of money on Scotch and cigars. The tough question I have to ask myself is, do I spend more on these luxuries than I give to the church? Honestly, sometimes I fall short on this measure. Sometimes I’m not consistent. But I’m working on it.
I encourage all of you to work on it, too. Let us examine our whole lives and strive for consistency. To do this, we must call on the name of the Lord and ask for help. In doing so, we reject the vanity of being Christians in name only. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Now, beloved, as you depart from this place, examine your lives and strive for consistency and fidelity in living into God’s covenants. Call on the name of God as you do this. Then go forth and be instruments of God’s peace and love and reconciliation. Do not return evil for evil to any person, but know that we are all loved by God, and that we are called to reflect that love to everyone we meet. Share the love and peace and joy of our Lord with your children and with the world! In the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord, let all God’s children say, Amen!
 Patrick D. Miller. The Ten Commandments. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press (2009), p. 78.