It Is Good To Be Bound To An External Standard
Today’s Old Testament reading confronts us with one of the most bitter conflicts between the Church and the world we inhabit. For us, the 10 Commandments are a sign of God’s love, of goodness, beauty and truth. For us also they are in fact commandments of God, not a consensus opinion, not refined thoughts, not a product of legislative compromise, not even an expression of mankind’s highest sentiments. They are the commands of God; they do not come from us.
So we are at odds with much of the modern world simply in thinking that God can communicate with us. But that’s only a small part of the difference. We believe that this Law of God is good for us, that it is good to be bound to an external standard, and that we need it.
That places us at odds with the contemporary world because one of its dominant myths is that we should be controlled by nothing outside the imperial self, that I alone have the right to determine what is right for me, that I can even have my own personal truth. In a word: no one can tell me what to do.
Now, there is something right in that – although the idea is badly distorted. Individual liberty in those things that should be free is a great value, and the compulsion of conscience, so common throughout history, is a great evil. And the uniqueness and value and contributions of every individual are something the Church vigorously affirms. Every saint is unique.
But contra the myth of absolute personal independence no sane person can think that there should be no external controls on our behavior, that we should be free to drive as fast as we like or to refuse the very idea of taxation or that some things are not crimes that should be punished by law.
Still, the myth abides that no one should tell me what to do. And for many the assertion that God gives commandments is itself reason to deny the existence of God, since he might tell me what to do.
Our response is not to get into a shouting match with our opponents about these ideas but rather to immerse ourselves deeper into the truth and wonder of the commandments of God.
Remember: Moses delivers them to a newly freed people. They had been slaves in Egypt and have escaped into the desert. That had its own perils certainly, but they were free. The commandments, then, are delivered to a freed people so that they can shape, enjoy and live up to the freedom they have received. So it is that in giving the commandments God identifies himself: “I am the Lord, your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, that place of slavery.”
Then, and only then, does he utter the first and most basic of all the commandments: You shall have no other gods.
The commandments, we are thus reminded, are the gift of a good God, who has freed his people from slavery. We as Christians connect our freedom from sin and death to Israel’s liberation from slavery. Our Passover, our Easter, celebrates liberation from sin and death, as the Jewish Passover observance celebrates freedom from slavery in Egypt. We hold to the Commandments of Israel for the same reason the Jews do: God has freed us to be his own.
And because we have been given true freedom from God, the freedom to love and to serve and to strive to be saints, we do not see God’s commandments as restrictive or dictatorial. We see them as the way of life and light.
Or to use a somewhat simplistic example, the Commandments are like the rules in a sport. They make it possible to play the game. A baseball or football game with no rules would make no sense. It would just be chaos. That frankly and painfully is why so many lives these days make no sense – they are lived without any governing reality. The Commandments, then, are rules that direct life along the paths that it should take.
The first three commandments – to have no other gods, to avoid taking the name of the Lord in vain, and to keep the Sabbath – direct us to the central reality of our lives and of the universe: the existence of a loving God, whom we should worship, whose name we should honor in prayer, praise, and witness, and for whom we should make time.
Some have noticed that we don’t keep the Sabbath, the last day of the week, as do the Jews. This is true. The Church already in the New Testament began to assemble on the first day of the week, the day of the resurrection. So powerful was the reality of the resurrection for them that it disrupted and altered Sabbath observance, but the Eucharist (the temple of Christ’s resurrected body) created a new and equivalent center of worship. The commandment thus still holds.
Jesus summarized the commandments by saying we should love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, and our neighbors as our selves. The first three commandments, the first table, cover our relationship with God and remind us that it is for our good. The remaining commandments cover our relationship with our neighbor.
While some find it easy to disregard a relationship to God, no one can avoid the reality of the neighbor and at this point the commandments are totally consistent with clear reason, rightly used. The last seven commandments require that we respect family, life, property, marriage, truth, and the necessary boundaries between ourselves and others.
Where parents are honored and the family structure is solid, children and adults flourish. Where marriage and family fail, society suffers. Amidst all the noise about school shootings, for instance, very few news stories have noted that few if any of the perpetrators come from an intact home and have a father present. The fourth commandment is good for us.
You shall not kill lays down the simplest and most basic limit for human flourishing. To be sure, the Hebrew verb means “murder,” and the Old Testament and Catholic moral teaching alike assume that there are circumstances where life must be taken to secure the peace and safety of the community. But most of the taking of life in our culture – including the most common, abortion, and the growing threat of euthanasia – can find no justification. Where life is cherished and protected everybody is a whole lot happier.
The commandment against adultery protects the institution of marriage. The destruction wrought by infidelity and sexual misconduct of all sorts is rubbed in our faces continually, and the sexual revolution has been a disaster. So it falls to us Christians and to the Church as an institution to celebrate the beauty of marriage and to call young people to consider this most fundamental vocation.
You shall not steal calls us to honor one another’s property, even as it calls us also to share with those who have less. Money and private property are not evils, but neither are they ends in themselves. Their value is the role they play in sustaining and beautifying life and enabling charity.
Then there’s the matter of the truth, which is taking a horrible beating in our culture. We can be guilty of telling ourselves comforting lies, and the world around us does so at a dazzling rate, and society suffers.
Finally, we need to remember that the commandments against coveting are not just there to fill out the number of ten. Coveting is not the same as desire. It is desiring what properly belongs to another. It is at the root of the violations of many of the other commandments and it completes a circle back to the first commandment, for our greatest temptation is to want to displace God and take the authority that belongs to him alone.
Imagine what the world would look like if the commandments were kept. Even more – and this is a good Lenten reminder – we are to create a model of that world by our own obedience. When we do so, we benefit as does the world around us. The Commandments come from a God who loves us. And the Lord who purified the temple calls us to a purified life, marked by a joyful acceptance of the commandments of God.