In an effort to assist CWR readers in their Lenten journey, we shall be offering weekly reflections on the oh-so-maligned but oh-so-necessary Ten Commandments (commandments, we should note at the outset, not suggestions!). Our point of departure will be the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Each installment will conclude with the relevant “In brief” sections of the Catechism.
Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” asked the rich young man. Mark says the Lord simply told him to remember the Commandments. The youth replied: “Teacher, all these I have observed from my youth.” He must have spoken with great honesty and sincerity, for “Jesus looking upon him loved him.” (see Mk 10:17–22). So, the Lord sought to move him beyond the Commandments to a life of voluntary poverty; he was unprepared for that, and he walked away sad.
Usually we zero in on the young man’s inability to forgo his wealth and follow Christ. But that’s really not fair. After all, when he asked what he had to do, Our Lord simply told him to keep the Commandments. With complete integrity, he said he had done so since his youth – no small accomplishment! How many of us could say the same? Keeping the Commandments, then, must be the starting point on the road to eternal life.
This story may have been Mark’s answer to those Christians who doubted the continuing validity of the Ten Commandments. The incident is repeated in Luke 18. Both Mark and Luke were writing for Gentile audiences. Matthew, on the other hand, writing to Jews, hit upon a different angle in the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus, the new Moses, promulgates a New Law on a new mountain.
Lest anyone think that this new law renders obsolete the “old” law, Matthew records this passage: “Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil them” (5:17). Jesus then goes on to say that “whoever then relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven” (5:19). Conversely, those who observe these commands and counsel like behavior “shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”
Yes, the Commandments are the starting point in our quest for holiness, which is the same as our quest for God. Perhaps the rich young man’s problem was that he was a minimalist at heart, seeking to do as little as possible. However, the God of the Judaeo-Christian Tradition is extravagant and generous toward his creatures; it seems he expects a response in kind. Thus, for believers, it can never be a question of doing as little as possible or getting away with as much as possible, but of doing as much as we can.
Jesus highlights the reason for his conflict with the Scribes and Pharisees when he says that the holiness of his disciples must surpass that of the Scribes and Pharisees. It was not that these Jewish religious leaders were bad people; no, they were holy (otherwise why say that one’s holiness must surpass theirs?). The difficulty was that they were minimalists who wouldn’t (or couldn’t) go far enough. As St. John Paul II put it, we must “respond to love with love.” And obedience is a synonym for love in the human response to the divine.
The Source of the Commandments
But if it’s true that the Commandments are the first step in living a holy life, what was the source for the Commandments? The Decalogue or “ten words” have their origin in the Lord’s covenant with the Chosen People on Sinai. From the formation of the Hebrew nation by God at the time of Abraham, their leaders spoke of a unique relationship between the God of the universe and the Hebrews. This thought found expression in the Covenant or agreement which said, “And I will walk among you, and will be your God, and you shall be my people” (Lev 26:12).
In what did that “peoplehood” consist? A covenant was the usual form of business arrangement, specifying mutual rights and responsibilities. The covenant renewal on Sinai left no doubts as to how the Hebrew nation should show forth to the world their special relationship with God: by loving obedience to the Law of the Covenant.
Deuteronomy 5 presents the Ten Commandments, as does Exodus 19 and 20, in the context of a theophany (a divine revelation). As usual for such events, this one was accomplished by appeals to the senses of sight (smoke and lightning) and sound (thunder and the voice of God), thus taking in as much of the human person as possible. It was also a mediated experience, that is, shared with the whole community through Moses, the direct recipient of God’s Law and the representative of the people. The covenant was ratified in the response of the people: “All that the Lord has spoken we will do” (Ex 19:8).
It is interesting to note that the commitment of the Israelite community preceded the actual giving of God’s Law. How many of us would have such trust in the Lord? This response was not an accident or foolish enthusiasm; it was a learned response. From the time of Abraham and the other patriarchs forward, the Hebrews had learned to trust the Lord. They had become convinced that he had their best interests at heart in everything, so why not in this case as well?
Modem Americans tend to have an unhealthy attitude toward other eras of history and cultures. We judge other cultures by our own provincial standards, and thus fail to see our own flaws. One of our blind spots is in the realm of law. Law and lawmakers we routinely perceive as enemies of freedom and personal fulfillment. But if we can shed our prejudices long enough to see another point of view, we might learn a more wholesome approach to law from our Hebrew ancestors in faith.
A word-search for “law” on Biblegateway reveals its use in 676 instances! The most popular of the “Wisdom Books” is the Book of Psalms, which begins with a hymn in praise of the person who obeys God’s law: “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night.” Psalm 119, the longest in the Psalter, is a 176-verse reflection on the meaning and beauty of the divine Law, which is seen as both a command and a promise.
“All you need is love” was a famous song of the Sixties generation, a generation which thought it had discovered love for the first time in human history. However, the theme of the song had its roots in St. Augustine sixteen centuries earlier when he said: “Love, and then do whatever you will.” Of course, even Augustine wasn’t an original thinker in that regard, for he drew on Jesus’ insight that love was the fulfillment of the Law (see Mt 22:37-40). So, love is more important than the Law? Not exactly, because Jesus was not proclaiming a new teaching but merely quoting from the Hebrew Scriptures, specifically Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18. What’s the context of those two passages? Nothing other than the giving of the Law.
In other words, there is no conflict between law and love. The law springs from love (God’s); obedience to the law likewise springs from love (man’s). The Law actually guarantees love as the Commandments specify the precise meaning of love and do not allow for vague generalities which have the effect of diluting the power of love.
However, the Law can cause problems in at least two ways. First of all, by the time of Christ, the Law consisted in 613 separate laws, all of which carried equal weight according to most rabbis. The effect was an oppressive web of rules. Life, however, has mountains and valleys; and law should be an accurate and humane reflection of life. That means there should be a hierarchy of laws and, further, that all individual laws must also serve to bring the person into deeper union with the Law’s Giver. Otherwise, both laws and Law become obstacles to human freedom, a problem addressed eloquently by Paul in his Epistles to the Galatians and Romans.
Secondly, one must sift through obedience to the law, both in terms of its letter and its spirit. While Jesus was in substantial agreement with the Pharisees on many matters (e.g,, on the resurrection of the body, the existence of angels), it was in their approach to Law that he found most fault. For the mature believer, there is no tension between the letter and the spirit. A careful reading of the letter reveals the spirit; an honest appraisal of the spirit leads one to an accurate reconstruction of the letter.
As in so many other aspects of a life of faith, we’re not dealing here with an “either-or” case, but one of “both-and.” For example, sometimes we hear the question raised: ‘Do you want to be holy or a theologian?” The question suggests a conflict which does not exist, as though holiness precluded intelligence, or vice versa. The same is true in regard to the Law’s letter and spirit, which have their common source in God.
Are the Ten Commandments still relevant today, especially with all their “shalt nots”? One of the most valuable courses I ever pursued was a study of the Old Testament from a Jewish professor. Such questions as those we just raised are best handled by a story I learned from him – and from Jesus (in his parables).
A rabbi once lived on the opposite side of Chicago from his synagogue – a trip which usually took forty minutes by car. His greatest annoyance was the presence of a seemingly endless number of traffic lights. The rabbi was convinced that his travel time could be cut in half without the hindrance of the lights. Then one day a power outage occurred (be careful what you wish or pray for!): The forty-minute crosstown journey took nearly three hours, as total chaos reigned. The lesson? Restrictions can actually bring a person to his destination much sooner than one might suspect.
If we look on the Commandments with the mind and heart of a devout Jew, we will see in them a divine blueprint for human happiness. We need to embark on our study of God’s Law in a spirit of openness and gratitude, seeing in the Ten Commandments the keys to human liberation – keys which free us from our baser human instincts and cause us to respond to the best within the human heart.
That’s what the Lord meant when He said: “For this commandment which I command you this day is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. . . . it is something very near to you, already in your mouths and in your hearts: You have only to carry it out” (Dt 30:11, 14).
The Commandments in the Catechism
The Catechism‘s treatment of the Ten Commandments begins, like Veritatis Splendor and our treatment here, with the parable of the rich young man who desires perfection and has kept all the commandments from his youth. The point, of course, is that observing the commandments is but the first (even if necessary) step on the road to holiness, which is achieved by loving God and neighbor totally. Those who adopt an antinomian posture are brought to understand that “by His practice and His preaching, Jesus attested to the perennial nature of the Decalogue” (2076), that body of laws which lies at the very heart of the covenant between God and the Chosen People. Those who consider the Ten Commandments to be “too negative” are led to an appreciation of how they offer a genuine “way of life” which leads to holiness by bringing people to discover God’s holy will for them; hence, their inclusion in the Ark of the Covenant.
An excellent point is also made of the fact that these “ten words” are addressed by God to believers in the singular – not the plural – to underscore the very personal nature of the covenant relationship (although the covenant is obviously and equally a communal affair) (2063). The Decalogue, we read, imposes “grave obligations” (2072), but one is likewise promised divine assistance in the process of integrating these laws into one’s personal life: “What God commands, He renders possible by His grace” (2082).
2075 “What good deed must I do, to have eternal life?” – “If you would enter into life, keep the commandments” (⇒ Mt 19:16-17).
2076 By his life and by his preaching Jesus attested to the permanent validity of the Decalogue.
2077 The gift of the Decalogue is bestowed from within the covenant concluded by God with his people. God’s commandments take on their true meaning in and through this covenant.
2078 In fidelity to Scripture and in conformity with Jesus’ example, the tradition of the Church has always acknowledged the primordial importance and significance of the Decalogue.
2079 The Decalogue forms an organic unity in which each “word” or “commandment” refers to all the others taken together. To transgress one commandment is to infringe the whole Law (cf ⇒ Jas 2:10-11).
2080 The Decalogue contains a privileged expression of the natural law. It is made known to us by divine revelation and by human reason.
2081 The Ten Commandments, in their fundamental content, state grave obligations. However, obedience to these precepts also implies obligations in matter which is, in itself, light.
2082 What God commands he makes possible by his grace.
2133 “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your strength” (⇒ Deut 6:5).
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