I am the proud father of a new book entitled simply The Ten Commandments (see at right). And you’ll be surprised, knowing me, at how brief it is—just 104 pages. But I wanted to keep it short, readable, connected to the catechism, and very practically related to living the Commandments on a daily basis. You can get it at the usual booksellers and there is also a Kindle version. I hope many will find it helpful, and it even fits neatly in your coat pocket.
A couple of thoughts on moral law, which is a very precious gift to us from God.
1. The moral life is not a burden; it is a precious gift. One of the dangers in trying to understand the Christian moral life is seeing it as simply a list of dos and don’ts. In addition, many Christians tend the think of the moral life in terms of something they must accomplish out of their own flesh and through their own will. This turns the great moral vision of God into a kind of heavy burden rather than a freeing transformation that God works through His grace.
But the Christian moral vision begins with grace; it is something we receive more so than something we achieve. The Christian moral life, then, is the life that Christ died to give us. It is a life in which, increasingly, we are freed from deep and sinful drives such as anger, greed, lust, pride, vengefulness, bitterness, and so forth. Christ died and rose to free us from such things and the Christian moral vision describes what the redeemed human person is like.
And thus the moral section of the Catechism of the Catholic Church is entitled “Life in Christ.” In effect, the title teaches us that the moral life is the result of us living in closer union with Jesus Christ. As Christ lives His life in us, we are increasingly changed and transformed. The Christian moral vision thus answers the questions, “What is the transformed human being like?”, “How does he behave?”, “What is his thought life like?”, “What are his priorities?”, and so forth.
In the incredible Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5-7), Jesus’ moral treatise, He paints a kind of picture of the transformed human person. He is saying, in effect, here is what happens to you if you let me begin to live my life in you. You will be poor to the deceptive riches of this world but rich in the things of God. You will long for holiness and proclaim the gospel even if it costs you. You will have authority over your anger and have tender love for your spouse and children. Purity and chastity will endow your sexuality and your thought life. You will love your enemy and not seek revenge. You will speak the truth in love and trust God more, calling Him your Father, and be less concerned about garnering the approval of the world or worrying about the things it says you must.
It is a rich picture of a person transformed by grace and living with increasing freedom and joy. It is among God’s most precious gifts; it is the gift of new life; it is the effect of His Love; it is the advance of the freedom that is His gift to his children. (Somebody say, “Thank you Lord!”)
2. By grace, the law is fulfilled and its “burden” lifted. In setting forth His vision of the law, Jesus says, Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them (Mat 5:17). To fulfill the law means to “fill it full.” In other words, we are called to observe the law not just in its narrowest legal meaning, but in its fullest sense, as a language of love and trusting fidelity. Lovers do not ask, “What is the least I can do to please my beloved?” Lovers ask, “What more can I do to please?” Love is, by its very nature, extravagant.
A young man who loves a young woman does not say to her, “Your birthday is coming and there is this silly custom that I am supposed to observe: I must buy you a gift. So, beloved one, what is the cheapest gift I can buy you to satisfy my obligation and not lose your affection?” This is not the language of love! The young man, if he truly loves the young woman, will be delighted to celebrate her birthday and will, if possible, buy her a gift that goes beyond minimal expectations.
And this is how it is with grace. The Holy Spirit sets our hearts on fire with love for God and trust in His goodness. Thus when God’s will or commandments are made known to us we are not angry or sorrowful, rather we are delighted and instinctively seek to know all the implications of what God asks.
For example, see how Jesus treats the Fifth Commandment and shows what it means to fulfill it:
You have heard that it was said to the men of old, ‘You shall not kill; and whoever kills shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother shall be liable to the council, and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be liable to the hell of fire. So if you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift (Mt 5:21-24).
Most of us can get through the day without killing someone. In a strict, legal sense we have “kept” the commandment. But Jesus calls us to the love that seeks to fulfill this commandment. Thus we must see that clinging to bitter anger, seeking revenge, using intentionally hurtful language, and refusing to be reconciled to others are all ways that we fail in observing the full implications of what God teaches in this commandment.
It is evident that in one sense Jesus’ understanding of the law is far more demanding than previous interpretations of it. Yet it is less burdensome because of the power of His love within us! Those who love undertake even supposedly burdensome tasks with joy.
Again, consider an example. Suppose there is a young man who seeks to win the affection of a young woman. Suppose further that she asks his assistance with some major project she is trying to accomplish. He will be delighted that she has asked, even if it involves a significant amount of time and energy on his part. Even if he has to cancel some of his own plans, he will do so with joy. If even imperfect human love can lighten burdens and transform them into joys, how much more so will the love of God transform the weight of law into fulfilling joy?
God’s Law is a gift, as those who love him know. Whatever its challenges, its gifts are far greater.
I hope you might consider my book. It is a modest beginning of taking forward some of the work we have done here together on the blog. I hope to publish more soon.