The first reading this Sunday (Year B) 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 to a set of rules. It is sad that many people today resent the Church for her “rules” because of this reductionist notion. Every group or activity has rules. If you join a bowling league there are rules; if you drive on the highway there are rules. There are rules at work; there are rules at the grocery store. Languages have rules. Whenever people interact, rules are necessary.
However, to see the Christian moral vision or the Ten Commandments simply as “rules” is to miss the point entirely. The goal of the commandments is not so much to enforce obedience as to open us 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 Ten Commandments do not merely prescribe; they describe the transformed human person. They are expressed in imperative form not to order us about, but rather to convey the power that comes from God’s Word. 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 prolepsis, many would be far less resentful and far more joyful in what the Lord offers. Let’s consider aspects of the Ten 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.
The First Commandment
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 quickly becomes disordered and miserable. If we live for money, power, sex, possessions, popularity, or anything other than God, we are not happy.
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 it is 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 He can do this for us.
The Second Commandment
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. To revere God’s name is to have a deep love for Him, a deep sense of wonder and awe. It is also to have experienced God’s tender and abiding love for us. With this gift to love God comes a heart that is sensitive and open to every gift He 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 Him, to 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.
The Third Commandment
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.
Many people today consider attending Mass a duty, but to those who are transformed by God and abide in His love, it is the greatest privilege of their lives. What a joy it is to go and be with God and among His people, to hear the joyful shout, and to praise Him whom we love! What a privilege it is 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 start 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. God promises this and can do it for us.
The Fourth Commandment
Honor your father and your mother, that you may have a long life in the land which the LORD, your God, is giving you.
This is a promise by God to give us a deep love for our parents, elders, and lawful authority, and an openness to the wisdom of those who have preceded us. He promises to cool our pride and the rebelliousness that closes us off from the blessings of reverence for the wisdom of elders.
One of the chief problems in 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; we tend to be dismissive of previous generations.
Because of our pride, there has emerged a hermeneutic of discontinuity, of disconnectedness from the past. We do a lot of foolish things today; 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. He taught our ancestors and guided them over and through many trials, difficulties, victories, and joys. In this commandment, the Lord promises to quell the rebelliousness and pride that lock us down and turn us inward on ourselves.
The Fifth Commandment
You shall not kill.
In this commandment, the Lord promises to subdue the anger, hate, resentfulness, and vengefulness that eat away 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. He 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! God can do this for us.
The Sixth Commandment
You shall not commit adultery.
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 marriage and the sacredness of human life.
Too many people today are slaves to sexuality through addiction to pornography. Many struggle with fornication, masturbation, and adultery. Participation in homosexual acts is also a terrible problem today. The consequences of all the sexual bondage of our times are high: STDs, AIDS, abortion, teenage pregnancy, high divorce rates, single motherhood (absent fatherhood). All of this takes a huge toll on children who are raised amidst this confusion and lack of proper family foundations.
God wants to set us free. He wants to subdue our lust, 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.
The Seventh Commandment
You shall not steal.
In this commandment, the Lord wants to instill in us a gratitude for what we have, to overcome our greed, and to cool our fear. Some steal out of fear that they do not have enough. Others do so on account of greed; 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. 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. God promises us a new and generous heart. He who commands it is He who will accomplish it.
The Eighth Commandment
You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
God promises a great love for the truth and 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. He is not interested in sharing or hearing unnecessary information about others; he says only the good things and only those 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.
The Ninth and Tenth Commandments
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 wants to quell the fires of greed within us. Greed is the insatiable desire for more. When it takes off, we are miserable—never having enough, always wanting more, always thinking we need 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 can do this for us.
Do you 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.
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 is that you sell yourself short by accepting mediocrity. We sell our souls to the world, the flesh, and the devil, accepting in exchange 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. Our totally transformed life, the life described in the Ten Commandments and the moral vision of the Scriptures, is the life that Christ died to give us. Don’t settle for anything less!