Wired for the Ten Commandments


A sermon preached on March 11, 2012 based upon Exodus 20:1 – 17 and John 2:13 – 22.

 The Ten Commandments, given to Moses by God over 3000 years, are often thought of as external laws imposed on human beings to keep in check our inherently immoral natures. 

But I’ve read a lot of stuff over the years that suggest that the morality we associate with the ten commandments is actually hard-wired to the biology of our body and brains.  This wiring is part of what we can point to in understanding what it means when the Bible declares early on to that we are created in the image and likeness of God.  – that we are created good. We may have fallen from our true natures as the story of the Garden of Eden suggests, but that doesn’t mean we are inherently evil.  Quite the contrary; we were created with an inherent goodness. 

Take, for example the commandment that says, “You shall not steal.”  A Yale psychology professor named Paul Bloom has recently been studying infants 6 to 10 months of age, in which the babies were shown a little puppet show.  First they watched, a puppet being helped by another puppet, which we’ll call the “good” puppet.   Next the babies watched the same puppet being harmed by another puppet, which we’ll call the “bad” puppet.  The harming included stealing the first puppet’s stuff.

After the puppet show, the babies were offered both the “good” and the “bad” puppets on a tray.  Overwhelmingly the babies reached for the “good” puppet instead of the thief.

The results surprised professor Bloom, who had previously believed that babies were blank slates upon which any kind of morality or lack there of was shaped solely by their upbringing.  From the results of his experiment, Bloom concluded instead that “Some sense of good and evil seems to be bred to the bone.”  (For more on Paul Bloom’s research, read the recent New York Times article “The Moral Life of Babies” at http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/09/magazine/09babies-t.html )

Consider also the commandment, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” – or in other words, always tell the truth – don’t tell lies.  With the exception of sociopaths, human beings can’t tell a lie, even a little one, without setting off a kind of smoke alarm in our nervous system — the sudden discharge of nerve impulses and certain hormones.  This is why lie detector tests work:  they measure responses of our physiology that we can’t control that happen every time we tell a lie, causing a kind of strain on the system.  As Lewis Thomas, a medical doctor put it:  

“Lying, in a pure physiological sense, is an unnatural act… Now I regard this as a piece of extraordinary good news, meaning… we are biologically designed to tell the truth to each other.”   

Lying damages our spirits and bodies on levels we aren’t even aware of. 

Even the commandment “to keep the Sabbath Day”– to set aside one day a week during which we refrain from all work and simply rest – is, in a certain sense, wired into our nervous system. 

My lay person’s understanding of this is as follows:  Our nervous system is divided into two parts.   One, called the “sympathetic nervous system,” takes over whenever some kind of threat arises in our environment.  A fight or a flight response is instantaneously mobilized, and on a totally unconscious level a whole host of internal bodily functions — the most obvious being our rapid heart beat – are set in motion in order to channel maximum energy towards carrying out either the fight or the flight. 

In contrast, the “parasympathetic nervous system” is the part that takes over when the threat is gone and we are able to rest.   In this mode the body digests food, stores up energy, strengthens the immune system, heals wounds and fights off disease.

In more primitive times, it was pretty clear when each nervous system would do its job.  A lion appeared in a person’s environment, causing stress, and immediately the sympathetic nervous system would kick into gear to deal with the threat to the person’s life.  Once the lion was gone, the body could shift back into its restorative mode. 

But in our complicated, modern society, the threats we experience are vaguer than the threat caused by a lion.  We may feel threatened by the possibility that we’ll lose our jobs, that our kids might get hooked on drugs, or simply that we won’t be able to get our taxes done in times.  These kinds of threats tend to just hang around in the background of our consciousness, causing our nervous system to get stuck in a perpetual state of danger alert.  There’s always something more I might do to keep the threats at bay.

And so when, in our modern sophistication, we figure we don’t need to pay attention to the ancient commandment to keep the Sabbath holy, what this means is that we never fully enter into the rest mode, and a profound toll is paid by our bodies and spirits.   Life loses its vitality and joy; it’s inherent sense of blessing and God-given goodness. 

We are wired with a need for Sabbath rest. 

“You shall not commit adultery.”  In this instance I turn not to science but to history.  Many historians see a correlation between the collapse of theRoman Empireand the loss of fidelity in marriage and the resulting breakdown of the family.  The result was a broad social instability and a sense of meaninglessness.  When orgies become acceptable and a notion of “if it feels good do it” trumps marriage vows, society pays enormous costs.  

One of the reasons that Christianity prospered as theRoman Empirefaltered was that people recognized in the faith the moral bearings they desperately needed in a culture that no longer provided such bearings. 

And so we seem to be hardwired to thrive when there is fidelity in marriage. 

“You shall not kill.”

“You shall honor your father and your mother.”

Underlying these two commandments is the capacity for empathy.  You can not take another person’s life if you can empathize with what it feels like to be that person.   And you can’t help but honor your father and mother in their old age if you have the empathy to recognize that you, too, will one day be old and frail, and in need of compassion and respect. *  

There is a growing body of scientific evidence that we are, in fact, hard-wired to experience empathy towards others.  

For instance, one recent study showed that when people simply imagined giving money away to a charity that benefits others in need, scans of their brain activity showed that the same primitive parts of the brain normally associated with food and sex were activated. 

The study suggested that the desire to help others is “hard-wired and pleasurable”, in the words of those who conducted the study.  (Research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA in October, 2006.)

Thirty years ago some Harvard psychologists found that samples of the saliva of people who viewed a film about Mother Teresa and her work with the poorest of the poor showed elevated levels of a certain secretion that is the first line of defense against colds and other viral diseases.  When they were shown other kinds of films, no such reaction took place.  Feeling compassion apparently strengthens our immune systems.   (Harvard psychologists David McClelland and Carol Kirshnit)

A couple of years back a working class black man made headlines in New York City by jumping onto subway tracks with a train bearing down to rescue a young white college student who had fallen unconscious onto the tracks.   He risked his life to save the stranger’s life, managing to hold him down just underneath the train as it passed inches above them.

It was a remarkable story that got people talking.   Everybody viewed this man as quite extraordinary to do this.

But what I’m suggesting here is that he did what came naturally to him, and perhaps, to the human species itself, as those who were made in the image and likeness of God. 

I think it’s significant that he didn’t have any time to think about what he was going to do.   He responded without his thoughts getting in the way – the fact, for instance, that the man lying in the tracks was of another race and social-economic status.  His instinct to care about another suffering human being just took over. 


So… if we are, in fact hard-wired for such things as empathy and honesty – if in fact the ten commandments are in a certain sense written into our brain chemistry – why, then do we witness so much immorality – so much selfishness and cruelty and hardness of heart in human relationships? 

Both science and our Biblical wisdom can shed light on this question. 

I read an article that summarized seven different experiments that point to the clear conclusion that when a person’s wealth and status rise, so also does their tendency to act in unethical ways. (The findings were announced Feb. 27 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.)

The experiments varied.  Here’s one to give you an example.  

A four-way intersection inSan Franciscowas monitored, taking note of the makes and models of automobiles passing through, with the value of the cars taken to be a reliable indicator of a person’s socio-economic status. 

They also tracked rude behavior:  whether drivers cut off other vehicles and pedestrians.   Their finding?  “Rude behavior rose with status, and high socio-economic status drivers were roughly twice as inconsiderate as low-socio-economic drivers.”

Other studies showed that the higher a person’s socio-economic status – the more money they possessed — the more likely they were to cheat on tests to get advantage over others. In trying to account for this fact, one of the researchers wrote: 

“Occupying privileged positions in society has this natural psychological effect of insulating you from others.  You’re less likely to perceive the impact your behavior has on others. As a result, at least in this paper, you’re more likely to break the rules.” (Psychologist Paul Piff of theUniversityofCalifornia,Berkeley.)

Now this may call to mind some familiar scriptures:

Jesus saying,

“It is easier for a camel to get through the eye of a camel than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Or Paul saying,

“The love of money is the root of all evil.”  

Or this, the last of the ten commandments:

“You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”

Or maybe this story that Jesus told.

A man on the road to Jericho is robbed, beaten up, and left half dead at the side of the road.   A priest walking down that road passes on by and doesn’t stop.  The same with a Levite – someone employed in the Temple.   But when a Samaritan comes by, he has compassion on the suffering man, doing what he can to help him. 

You know the story.  

If we are wired for empathy and compassion, then the question isn’t why the Samaritan stopped – he did what should come naturally to human beings.  The question is why didn’t the Priest and the Levite stop?  What blocked their innate empathy?

The findings of those experiments suggest an answer.  

The Temple hierarchy, in which they had a place – was the primary determiner of economic and social status in their society.  The priest and the Levite were up there on the ladder of privilege, rewarded financially for the place they held in the system.  

The first commandment is God declaring,

“You shall have no other gods before me.”

But their status, power and wealth had become for them a kind of god, commanding their worship from them, and over-riding their natural, God-given empathy for the pain of others. 

And so now, finally, in this long winded sermon, I come to the story of our Gospel lesson. 

There aren’t many stories that show up in some form in all four of the Gospels.  The story of Jesus driving out the money changers and the people selling animals in theTempleis one of them.  It was the single most troubling thing Jesus did in the religious authorities, because he was in fact challenging their devotion to their false god.

The Temple was intended to point people to the One, living God who alone was worthy of their worship.  It was outrageous to Jesus that instead theTemplehad become a place where the love of money and status was now the thing.  “Stop making my Father’s House a marketplace!” he screamed. 

When the market place becomes god, then we lose our true humanity, the innate goodness with which God knit us together is blocked for the addictive attachment to money and status. 

It is helpful to remind ourselves that underneath this sickness is a health, is a grace, is a capacity for goodness that is the birthright of all us, waiting to be rediscovered.  And this is what Lent is about; it’s a time to strive to remove those things that get in the way of our God’s given nature as God’s beloved children. 

I just want to say to you that if you’re feeling discouraged about yourself, there truly is wonderful stuff inside you.  You have a profound capacity for love, compassion and creativity.  That is who you were made to be.  What’s getting in the way of that beauty and goodness?  Jesus came to set you free from such things.

 * “The nonprofit Edge Foundation recently asked some of the world’s most eminent scientists, ‘What Are You Optimistic About?  Why?’  In response, the prominent neuroscientist Marco Iacoboni, cites the proliferating experimental work into the neural mechanisms that reveal how humans are ‘wired for empathy.’”

“We know from neuroscientific empathy experiments that the same affective brain circuits are automatically mobilized upon feeling one’s own pain and the pain of others.” (Gary Olson,”Hard-Wired for Moral Politics”)