The first reading today contains the Ten Commandments and thereby communicates a brief but sweeping summary of the Christian and biblical moral vision. Too often, there is a tendency to reduce the Christian moral vision merely to a set of rules. And it is a sad fact that many resent the the Church for her “rules” because of this reductionist notion of our moral vision.
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 to the image of the transformed and glorious humanity that Christ died to give us.
The Commandments do not so much prescribe, as describe what the transformed human person is like. And their imperative form is not to order us about, but rather 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 will become fully the case later), many would be far less resentful and far more joyful in what the Lord offers. Let’s consider aspects of these Commandments that may help us come to a richer understanding of the Christian and biblical moral vision. 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 this first commandment is the promise that we experience increasing love of God above all things, above all people, and above life in this world.
We were made to know God and to have our life centered on Him. This is what properly orders and orients us. Whenever we value any person or thing above God, our life becomes miserable and disordered very quickly. If we live for money, power, sex, possessions, popularity, or anything other 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, one that loves Him and His heavenly kingdom above all earthly things. He promises us freedom from the shackles of this world, which seeks to claim us, divide our hearts, and misdirect our life from its true goal.
In this commandment, 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 a promise, to have our petulant, divided, 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 commandment, the Lord promises a heart with which to love Him. For to revere the Name of God is to have a deep love for God, a deep sense of wonder and awe. It is also to have 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 us.
When we love God we keep his ways, not because we have to but because we want to. To fear His name is to revere and love Him, to have deep gratitude to Him, 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 today see Church as a duty. But to those who are transformed by God and abide in His love, Holy Mass is the greatest privilege of their lives. What a joy to go and be with God and among God’s people, 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!
As the Lord begins to transform our heart, we begin to look forward to the greatest day of the week, Sunday. We joyfully anticipate being with our Lord, hearing His voice, and having deep communion with Him and all the angels and saints.
Yes, God can give us a heart for worship, a desire to 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 by God, a promise to give us a deep love for our parents, elders, and lawful authority, and an openness to the wisdom of those who have long preceded us. He promises to cool our pride and the rebelliousness that close us off from the blessings of reverence for the wisdom of elders.
One of the chief problems of the modern age is disrespect for elders. Even those who are not perfect (and none are) have important things to teach us. I probably learned as much from my parents struggles as from their strengths.
Without reverence and respect, there can be no teaching, no handing on of wisdom and knowledge. We live in times that are largely cut off from the past and we tend to be 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 today and we seem to lack the wisdom that was common in the past. In this commandment, 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 commandment, the Lord describes and promises to quell the rebelliousness and pride that lock us down and turn us inward on ourselves.
V. You shall not kill. In this commandment, the Lord promises to quell the anger, hate, resentfulness, and vengefulness that eat at us and unleash terrible destruction.
The Lord describes a transformed person, one who has authority over his anger and is able to love even his enemies, one who is able to forgive and maintain 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 tearing it down.
He describes a person who reverences the sacredness of every human life and sees in it the hand and the love of God.
God describes here one who is joyful in this life, ecstatic over the prospect of eternal life, and eager to share life and love with others, both here and in the life to come. What a gift it is 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 and for marriage.
Too many people today are slaves to sexuality through addiction to pornography. Many struggle with fornication, masturbation, and adultery. Homosexual acting out is also a terrible problem today. And the consequences of all the sexual bondage of our times are 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 amidst this confusion and lack of proper family foundations.
God wants to set us free. He wants to cool our lusts, to give us authority over our sexuality, and to bring us to sexual maturity.
The transformed human person God describes here reverences the gift of sexuality and knows its purpose and place. God can give us pure hearts and minds, and He 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, to quell our greed, and to 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 have.
God also wants to give us a love for the poor and a desire to share our excess with them. For if I have two coats, one of them belongs to the poor. To withhold my excess from the poor unreasonably 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. 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 respect 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 out their gifts, even while some 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 speaks the truth in love. He 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 and 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 focused upon and satisfied with the good things waiting for us in Heaven. Once again, the Lord describes the transformed human person as one freed from enslaving passions.
God who commands this is also the God who can do this.
See how different this understanding is from merely seeing 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, saying that 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, taking 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 100!