III. You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses God’s name.
Onto the Third Commandment – you shall not misuse the name of the Lord. It is, in many ways, a continuation of the first two commandments. For again, we are ensuring that we honor who God is. That we not abuse who God is meant to be in our lives. And just like the first two commandments, this one has often been misunderstood.
Why? Probably because the phrasing of the commandment is very, very difficult to translate. It is almost Presbyterian – there is a range of meaning that is acceptable. Here are a few ways the commandment can be translated:
- Do not use the name as if it has no significance.
- Do not use the name as with irreverence.
- Do not take the name in vain.
- Do not use the name thoughtlessly.
- Do not misuse the name.
In other words, we should be extremely mindful of how we use God’s name. For the ancient people, they knew there were two key places this would play out. The first and main way was when they were taking oaths. And the second, the one we all think of, is being careful not to abuse the name in curses.
In terms of oaths, God actually doubles down on this one a bit later on in the list with the commandment against bearing false witness. However, our commandment today is reminding us that when we swear by God’s name, we should hold ourselves to the highest level of veracity. Of truthfulness. Of faithfulness.
Now, an interesting fact from the ancient world – in the days of Christ, there were men who would find a way around the gravity of oaths. They would take people for a ride down some path of vision of a better world and swear by anything and everything up to the very name of God. But never actually the name. And then they would break the oath because it was not actually made by God. However, Jesus was not fooled by these charlatans. What he taught us is that our God is everywhere. And our word should only be given, our oath, when we mean it. With truth behind it. It should not matter if we are holding a bible or if God’s name is uttered. And with God’s name’s meaning, that is doubly true.
But before we talk about that, let us look at the second part of what is prohibited in abusing God’s name. Many of us think that this is a prohibition of cursing. On some level, we would love that, wouldn’t we? It would give us an excuse to be holier than thou when people say things that we think are inappropriate. Now, it is suggesting we beware of using God’s name flippantly in our everyday speech – which does mean that certain curse words might be not the best idea in most contexts.
However, what is it that I always teach about sin? Sins are those things that break our relationships – with God, with each other and with ourselves. They are rarely so simply defined as this is consistently a sin and this is not. And our utterances are no different.
For what is protected in the midst of this commandment is our prayer and praise of the Lord our God. When we invoke the name of the Lord. When we call upon God. And when we cry out in times of trouble.
Now, I don’t know about you, but there are moments in my life, when the name of God is the only thing that will do in my prayers when I receive devastating news. And it was my mother-in-law, one of the most faithful Christians I have ever known, who taught me that at times cursing is the only form of prayer that will do. Because there are moments when it hurts too much. When there is nothing else that can express our distress. And I am convinced that when we cry out in the agony of those times, our God will understand.
Which brings us back to the far more important part of our conversation this morning. Let’s talk about the actual name of God. For what is prohibited is that we not abuse the name of God, right? Perhaps we should consider what it is. So, go back to Exodus 3. God’s name is translated as “I am.” The root of the word is life. Being. Existence. One translation of the prohibition in this commandment is that we should not use God’s name for “unreality.” Which begs the question, what if in all our focusing on cursing we have missed the entire point? What if we dare not take God’s life, the life that God breathes into this world, in vain?
We hear the judgment coming at the end of the commandment – the only commandment with this statement. It brings to mind other moments in scripture when God sits in judgment over those who have not followed God’s commandments.
In my mind, I hear a very familiar story. When the Son of Man comes in glory to judge the living and the dead and separates them as sheep and goats. He tells them that he was hungry, and thirsty, a stranger, naked, sick, and in prison. And in all these things, the people either cared for him or did not in the very least of the people around them. In those messy situations of life that require presence. That require courage. That require a willingness to live openly as those who are willing to give their lives in the service of their neighbors. For if God is life, and ours is a God of justice, then when we ignore places in life where life is in danger and justice is not present, we are taking God’s very name in vain.
Yesterday, on the newest of our national holidays, my house was filled with the smell of specially chosen cooking food and the sounds of movies and special children’s books. You see, though there are members of my family for whom Juneteenth was much more a cause for celebration, I very willingly acknowledge that it is not my holiday. Instead, it is an opportunity for a whole lot of learning and conversation.
So my sons and I spent the day watching and listening to stories. Some of them easier and harder than others. They are four (five now), so they went in and out of paying attention, as I knew they would this year, which is a fine place to begin.
At one point, when I had the movie Selma on, my son Lucien was paying attention right at the moment the little girls were killed at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. He asked me what had just happened. And I explained that a bomb had killed those little girls. He asked, “who would do that?” Yes, who would do that to four little girls. Little children?
You see, we are having these conversations now. Yes, even with children as young as mine. For if young children of color their age are old enough to experience racism, then mine are old enough to learn about it. And from my family members and friends who have children that young, yes, that is still a thing. Their lives are still disrupted because of the color of their skin. Maybe not and usually as openly as they were 150 or even sixty years ago. But there is still injustice in our midst. There are still stories to be told and fights that must be fought if we are ever to see a world where all of our children can truly have the freedom, justice, and life that God created us for.
So, what do we do with this commandment, then? We remember that if God’s name means “life,” then life is sacred. Then we are meant to feed the hungry. Give drink to the thirsty. Welcome the stranger, even the strange ones and the outcast ones. Clothe the naked. Care for the sick and make sure they have what they need to be well. Visit and ensure the care of those in prison. Loose the bonds of injustice. Let the oppressed go free. Bring the homeless poor into housing. To satisfy the needs of the afflicted. Then our light shall rise through the shadows, making any gloom like the noonday. For our word is not merely what we say or the oaths we give. It is the very testimony we give with our lives to the God who loves us. And the right use we make of God’s name, the ways we make it known through all the earth, the reality of the kingdom of God we make visible, is far more important than any prohibition we get twisted in our minds. That is how we live out the third commandment this day and always. It is just that simple. And it is just that hard.