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Commands are Cures for A Christian – A Reflection on the First Reading for the Third Sunday in Lent

March 10, 2012

The first reading today contains the Ten Commandments and thereby communicates a brief but sweeping summary of the Christian and Biblical moral vision. Now, there is a tendency to reduce the Christian moral vision merely to a set of rules. And it is a sad fact that the Catholic Church is often identified by many more for her rules than anything else.

TO be fair, EVERY group and activity has rules. If you join a bowling league there are rules, if you drive on the highway there are rules, if you go work or even to the store there are rules. If you speak a language there are rules. Rules are a necessary reality whenever two or more people interact.

But to see the Christian Moral vision, or the Ten Commandments  simply as a set a rules is to wholly miss the point. For the Commandments seek not so much to have us obey as to have us be open to what God can do for us. They seek not so much to compel us as to conform us unto the image of the transformed and glorious humanity that Christ died to give us.

The Commandments do not so much prescribe, as describe the what the transformed human person is like. And their imperative form is not merely to order us about, but rather is to convey the power that comes from God’s Word. For the same God who commands: “Let there be light” and thus there is light,  also says, “Be holy” and thus conveys to us the power to actually become holy, if we will accept his transformative work. He thus commands to create in us the very holiness he announces.

If we would but see the Commandments as promises, as power, as proleptic (i.e. announcing ahead of time what we will become fully the case later), we would be far let resentful and far more joyful in what the Lord offers. Lets consider aspects of these Commandments today that may help us come to a more helpful understanding of the Christian and Biblical moral vision. For they describe the life Jesus died to give us, a wholly transformed and increasingly glorified life, as we see sins put to death and every kind of virtue come alive.

I. I, the LORD, am your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, that place of slavery. You shall not have other gods besides me. You shall not carve idols for yourselves in the shape of anything in the sky above or on the earth below or in the waters beneath the earth; you shall not bow down before them or worship them. In the first Command, is the promise that we experience increasing love God above all things, above all people and above life in this world itself.

We were made to know God and to have our life centered on him. This is what properly orders and orients us. Whenever we prize any thing or person above God, our lives become miserable and disordered very quickly. If we live for money, power, sex, possessions, popularity, or anything less than God, we are unhappy and our life goes out of order very quickly.

In the first commandment God promises us an increasingly well ordered heart that loves him and his heavenly kingdom above any earthly things. He promises us freedom from the shackles and slavery of this world which seek to claim us, divide our hearts and disorder our life from our true goal.

In this command the Lord seeks to heal our duplicitous and adulterous hearts and to order us to the “one thing necessary,” which is to know and love God above all things. What a blessing, what promise to have our petulant, divided and wounded hearts made whole and directed to God.

So much serenity comes from being focused on the ONE, who is God. And God can do this for us.

II. You shall not take the name of the LORD, your God, in vain – In this command the Lord  promises a heart with which to love him. For to revere the Name of God is to have deep love for God, a deep experience of wonder and awe. It is to have also experienced God’s tender and abiding love for us. And with this gift to love God, comes a heart that is sensitive and open to every gift the Lord wants to give.

When we love God we keep his ways not because we have to but because we eagerly want to. To fear his name is revere and love God, to have deep gratitude and to be docile and open to his every word. We love God’s name because we love him.

God can give us this gift to love him in a deep and  abiding way. He promises it in this commandment.

III. Remember to keep holy the sabbath day. Six days you may labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the sabbath of the LORD, your God. In this Commandment the Lord promises us a joyful sense of resting in him and of allowing him to minister to us.

Too many see Church as a duty, but to those who are transformed by God and alive in his love, Holy Mass is the greatest privilege of their life. What a joy to go and be with God and among God’s people, and to hear the joyful shout, and to praise the God we love. What a privilege to be taught by God and fed with his Body and Blood, to be strengthened for every good work.

And as the Lord begins to transform our hearts, we begin to look forward to the greatest day of the week, Sunday. We joyfully anticipate going to be with our Lord and hearing his voice and having deep communion with him and all the saints and angels.

Yes, God can give us a heart for worship, a desire for praise, a hunger for his Word, and for the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus. No more is Mass a tedious ritual, it is a transformative reality. Again, God promises this and he can do it for us.

IV. Honor your father and your mother, that you may have a long life in the land which the LORD, your God, is giving you. Here too is a promise of God to give us a deep love for our parents, elders, lawful authority and an openness to the wisdom of the elders who have long preceded us. He promises to cool our pride and the rebellion that close us off from the blessings of obedience and reverence for the wisdom of the elders.

One of the chief problems of the modern age is our disrespect for elders. Even parents and elders who are not perfect (and none are) have important things to teach me. I learned probably as much from my parents struggles as from their strengths.

But without reverence and respect there can be no teaching, no handing on of previous wisdom and knowledge. We live in times that are largely cut off from the past and we are dismissive of previous generations.

Because of our pride there comes forth a hermeneutic of discontinuity, of disconnectedness from the past. We do a lot of stupid things and lack wisdom that was common in the past. In this command the Lord promises us a heart that is docile, i.e. open to instruction, a heart that reveres and listens to the wisdom of elders, lawful authority and past generations.

The Lord wants to unlock for us the collected wisdom of thousands of years of experience wherein he taught our ancestors and guided them over and through many trials, difficulties, victories and joys.  In this command the Lord describes and promises to quell the rebellion and pride that lock us down and turn us in ourselves.

V. You shall not kill. – In this Command the Lord promises to quell the anger, hate, resentfulness and revengeful spirit that eat at us and unleash terrible destruction.

The Lord describes a transformed person who has authority over his anger and is able to love even his enemies, who is able to forgive and keep serenity even under trial.

The Lord describes a person who loves and respects life, a person who works to build up life in others rather than tear down.

He describes a person who reverences the sacredness of every human life and sees in it hand and the love of God.

God describes here one who is joyful at life, ecstatic over eternal life and eager to share life and love with others, both here and in the life to come. What a gift simply to love others. And God can do this for us.

VI. You shall not commit adultery. – Here the Lord promises to quell the often unruly passions of lust. He declares that the transformed human person has authority over his or her sexuality. The Lord also offers us a joyful reverence for the sacredness of human life in its origins and for marriage.

Too many people today are enslaved to sexuality through terrible addictions to pornography. Many have difficulty with fornication, masturbation, adultery. Homosexual acting out is also a terrible problem today. And the consequences of all the sexual bondage of our times is high: STDs, AIDS, abortion, teenage pregnancy, single motherhood (absent fatherhood), high divorce rates, cohabitation, and the huge toll all this takes on children who are raised in all this confusion, and lack of proper family foundations.

God wants to set us free. He wants to cool our lusts, give us authority over our sexuality and bring us to sexual maturity.

The transformed human person God describes here reverences the gift of sexuality and knows is purpose and place. God can give us pure hearts, and minds and promises it in this commandment.

VII. You shall not steal. – In this commandment the Lord wants to instill in us a gratitude for what we have, and to quell our greed, and cool our fear. For some steal out of fear that they do not have enough, others on account of greed, still others because they are not satisfied with what they already have.

God also, in this Commandment wants to give us a love for the poor and desire to share our excess with them. For if I have two coats, one of them belongs to the poor. And to unreasonably withhold my excess from the poor is a form of theft.

The transformed human person God describes, is generous, grateful, and increasingly free of the fear that makes him hoard. Here too, God promises a new and generous heart and he who commands it is he who will accomplish it.

VIII. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. – God here describes and promises a great love for the truth and a reverence for the reputation of others. In a way there is nothing more precious in human terms than our reputation for by it all other doors are opened.

The transformed human person loves others and is eager to point to their gifts when others would detract or calumniate. He is not interested in sharing or hearing unnecessary information about others and says only the good things that people really need to hear.

The transformed person also speaks the truth in love. He or she has a well trained tongue and speaks only to glorify God. His conversation is always full of grace, seasoned with salt (Col 4:6). God who commands this is the same God who can will do this for us.

IX & X . You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, nor his male or female slave, nor his ox or ass, nor anything else that belongs to him. Here the Lord whats to quell within us the fires of Greed. Greed is the insatiable desire for more. And when greed takes off we are miserable, never having enough, always wanting and needing more.

The Lord wants to set us free from the aching desire to possess what another has.

He wants to give us a heart that is increasingly set upon and satisfied with the good things waiting for us in heaven. Yes, the Lord describes the transformed human person as once again freed from enslaving passions.

God who commands this is also the God who can do this.

See how different this understanding is from understanding the Christian and Biblical moral vision as rules? They are not rules, they are releases. They are not hoops to jump through, they are hopes that inspire. How do you see the Commandments?

In the Gospel today Jesus cleanses the temple and says they have turned it into a marketplace. But you are the Temple of God, and the danger for us is that we sell ourselves short by accepting mediocrity. We sell our souls to the world, the flesh and the devil, and take, in exchange, their false and empty promises.

The Lord enters the temple of our souls and seeks to drive out every huckster who seeks to buy us out. Jesus has already paid the price of our redemption. And our totally transformed life, the life described in the Commandments and the moral vision of the Scriptures is the life that Christ died to give us. Do not settle for anything less. 99 1/2 won’t do, Got to make a Hundred.

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Comments (4)

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  1. Sherry says:

    What a beautiful way to describe the Ten Commandments!

    In these challenging times, it is too easy to lose sight of the “big picture”. But this portrayal brings us back to recognize the enormity of God’s love and that He wants us to experience the fullness of that love.

    In these trying times, it is important to not let our negative feelings overwhelm us and lead us to talk and act in a way contrary th His love.

  2. John says:

    They need to be renamed the “Ten Transformations” of the devout heart. Wonderful reflection!

  3. CS says:

    That was really illuminating Father, and gave me a whole new perspective. Keep it up and you’ll drive me back to the Confessional!

    I didn’t know that God wrote in Phoenician? 🙂

  4. Cynthia BC says:

    One time I pulled out this reading to point out #4 to my daughter. My attempt at a mini-catechesis failed…she pointed out #3 and suggested that it is a basis for not being asked to do any chores on Sundays. 🙁