The Rosary Light & Life - Vol 66, No 6, Nov-Dec 2013
The Ten Commandments: Introduction
By Father Reginald Martin, O.P.
Covenant and Commandment
The Great Commandment
In St. Matthew's gospel account we read that a
Pharisee, to test Jesus, asks him, "Teacher, which is
the great commandment of the law?" Jesus replies:
"You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart,
and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is
the great and first commandment. And a second is
like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On
these two commandments depend all the law and
the prophets." (Mt. 22.36)
This question occurs rather late in Matthew's
account. Jesus is very close to falling into the hands
of his enemies, and he must have felt quite sad to
see this "test" as a sign of their unrelenting hostility.
Nevertheless, he replies to the question with his usual
patience, and his answer, one modern writer says, "laid
down the complete definition of religion."
Economy of Jesus' Reply, & Its Demands
We should remark two things in Jesus' reply. The first
is its brevity; Jesus wastes no words. The law is a very
simple matter; it may be summed up in a single word: love.
And this is the second thing we must consider. Jesus is
not describing the sentimental or romantic feeling we so
often find on greeting cards. The love Jesus describes
is total, demanding, and all consuming.
We should not be surprised that St. Paul echoes
Jesus when he writes, "The commandments, 'You shall
not commit adultery, you shall not kill'...and any other
commandment are summed up in this sentence: 'You
shall love your neighbor as yourself '." (Rom. 13. 9)
The Ten Commandments: The Foundation
The commandments Jesus and Paul refer to, of
course, are what we call the Ten Commandments, the
Decalogue or "Ten Words" God revealed to Moses on
Mount Sinai. Like Jesus' reply to the Pharisee, God's
words to Moses are concise and to the point. In the
Books of Exodus and Deuteronomy, Moses will interpret
and add to these simple and direct statements, and
they will become the cornerstone for the entire moral
framework of God's People in the Old Testament. In
themselves, though, they could not be simpler or more
direct. God had centuries of dealing with our limited
attention; He knew how prone we are to stray from the
point, so he made certain to state His case very clearly,
without unnecessary details.
God's Words & God's Word
And lest we ever forget that God's Words were intended
for our guidance and improvement - and so that we might
have no excuse for ignoring them - God's Word took on
our flesh and went through every moment of our lives. Not
so that we could avoid the experience of being human,
but to show us how to "get it right." Thus, our remarks,
"...it is in the New Covenant in Jesus Christ that their
full meaning will be revealed." (CCC, 2056)
The Gift of the Commandments
The Catechism teaches that the Ten Commandments
must be understood within the larger picture of God's
great intervention in the History of His people, the
Exodus. The Ten Commandments "point out the
conditions of a life freed from the slavery of sin" (CCC,
2057), but they do so because they reflect the conditions
of a people who have been freed from a life of slavery.
"The Decalogue is a path of life," the Catechism reminds
us, because God freed the Israelites from subjection
to their Egyptian taskmasters, thus giving them the
freedom to yield themselves to Him.
We see this very clearly when we look at the
commandment to "keep holy the Lord's day." This is
an obligation that would be altogether impossible to
fulfill if we did not have the liberty of a day without
other demands. To keep God's day holy is a positive
command - a command to "do" something, rather than
refrain from an action. It is a privilege, and when we
consider the many ways in which we fill our days (even
the Lord's Day) we should remember the great honor
we have received, the honor of a free people, to enjoy
freely a day in the Lord's company.
In the Book of Deuteronomy we come to understand
that the Ten Commandments set the seal on what God
began with the Exodus. Moses calls the Israelites
together and reminds them:
Not with our fathers did the Lord make this covenant,
but with us, who are all of us here alive this day. The
Lord spoke with you face to face at the mountain,
out of the midst of the fire, while I stood between the
Lord and you.... (Deut. 5.3)
Our Response in Love
The law is God's gift, given when the Israelites
acclaim the Lord to be their God and acknowledge
themselves willing to live by his rule. In this way, the
Ten Commandments are a reward for our willingness
to embrace the sovereignty of God, and the Catechism
The gift of the commandments and of the Law is
part of the covenant God sealed with his own...
after the people had committed themselves to
'do' all that the Lord has said, and to 'obey' it.
The Decalogue is never handed on without first
recalling the covenant. (CCC, 2061)
This covenant - the loving relation between God
and His people - is the source of our moral life. It is
not something we initiate; it is altogether God's gift, the
result of His reaching out to us. One of the Church's
early writers, reflecting on the Book of Exodus, said:
Since there was a passing from the paradise of
freedom to the slavery of this world, in punishment
for sin, the first phrase of the Decalogue, the first
word of God's commandments, bears on freedom:
"I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the
land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery."
The Ten Commandments, the Catechism observes,
"come in second place: they express the implications
of belonging to God through the establishment of
the covenant. Moral existence is a response to the
Lord's loving initiative" (CCC, 2062). Moreover, it is a
personal response. The Catechism remarks that God
employs only first person singular pronouns in the Ten
Commandments, "I" and "you."
A Personal Gift & A Personal Response
This may be something we take for granted, but many
of the world's religions do not share our belief in a God
who takes such a personal interest in His creatures.
Many non-Christians follow edifying moral codes, but
these laws are the result of trial and error, experience,
reflection, and hard work. As we read the words God
has given us, and especially as we take them to heart,
we are meant to understand that these words are the
personal revelation of a God who wants to draw forth
the very best of His creation.
A Response in Freedom
Our surrender to the Ten Commandments is not -
or should not be - the servile response of a prisoner
who fears punishment, but that of a child who longs
to carry out the will of a loving parent, understanding
that the parent wants nothing except what will benefit
the child and bring the child the greatest happiness. At
the beginning of the 3rd Century, St. Irenaeus wrote:
The Lord prescribed love towards God and taught
justice towards neighbor, so that man would be
neither unjust, nor unworthy of God. Thus, through
the Decalogue, God prepared man to become his
friend and to live in harmony with his neighbor....
An Irrevocable Response
St. Irenaeus continues, reminding us that although
God gave the Ten Commandments to His people under
the Old Law, they have not been abolished under the
New. Indeed, "...they have received amplification and
development from the fact of the coming of the Lord in the
flesh." Jesus' reply to the Pharisee who wished to test
him is an elegant summary of the Ten Commandments.
It is proof that He placed them at the center of the moral
doctrine He came to share, to teach by the example of
His word and life - and especially by the example of
His unselfish death.
The Proper Order of Love
Not surprisingly, Jesus' answer to the Pharisee makes
clear that God must take first place in our moral universe.
"You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart,
and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is,"
Jesus says, "the great and first commandment," and
summarizes the first three of the Commandments of the
Decalogue. When Jesus continues, "And a second is like
it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself," He gives a
fair summary of the remaining seven Commandments.
The Catechism expresses this very succinctly,
The Ten Commandments state what is required in
the love of God and love of neighbor. The first three
concern love of God and the other seven love of
neighbor (CCC, 2067).
St. Augustine echoed this very imaginatively when
As charity comprises the two commandments to which
the Lord related the whole Law and the prophets...
so the Ten Commandments were themselves given
on two tablets. Three were written on one tablet and
seven on the other.
We shall never know whether Augustine was right in
his conjecture regarding the arrangement of the text on
the tablets Moses brought down from Mount Sinai, but we
may be certain he was absolutely correct in his judgment
that the Ten Commandments form one unified whole.
Each "word" refers to each of the others and to all of
them; they reciprocally condition one another; the two
tablets shed light on one another; they form an organic
unity. To transgress one is to infringe all the others.
One cannot honor another person without blessing
God his Creator. One cannot adore God without
loving all men, his creatures. The Decalogue brings
man's religious and social life into unity. (CCC, 2069)
The Power of Love
This reflects the theology we have received from St.
John, who taught that love is "...not that we have loved
God but that he loved us..." (1 Jn. 4.10) God, as we have
seen earlier, initiates the loving relationship with us that
enables us to love God in return. The result is that we
come to love God's creatures with a love that, over time,
comes more and more to resemble God's own love. The
first of the creatures we love, of course, is the one we
know most intimately: ourself. This may sound selfish
- indeed, supermarket tabloids are filled with tales of
individuals filled with an overweening self-love. This,
we may be certain, is something entirely different from
the love we owe ourselves as God's creatures.
Once we have learned to love ourselves, we may then
turn to one another, and finally, to the world around us.
Each act of love touches the world with God's love for
us, and to reach out in love to another is to reflect the
love that God instilled in us; to turn away from another
is to besmirch the image of that love.
The Commandments' Power to Transform
Our Catechism rather generously assures us that
although the Ten Commandments belong to God's
revelation, "they bring to light the essential duties, and
therefore, the fundamental rights inherent in the nature of
the human person" (CCC, 2070). As we look at ourselves
and the ease with which we fall into sin, we may question
whether these are truly "inherent," and whether we would
ever - without the prompting of grace, manifested in
gifts such as the Ten Commandments - realize how
noble we are, and what this nobility demands of us.
When our First Parents closed their eyes in the garden,
one of the many realities we grew blind to was our
inherent worth and goodness. The Ten Commandments
helps cure that infirmity. St. Irenaeus preached:
From the beginning, God had implanted in the heart
of man the precepts of the natural law. Then he was
content to remind him of them. This was the Decalogue.
A Most Serious Reminder
Because the Ten Commandments describe the essential
relations that unite us to God and one another, and because
God is their author and source, the Ten Commandments
describe the most serious relations in our lives. They
cannot change, and they oblige every person in every
place and circumstance. "The Ten Commandments are
engraved by God in the human heart" (CCC, 2072).
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