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"DECALOGUE"--The Ten Commandments Today
by Fr. Hal Stockert
Copyright © 3 June 1986 Fr. Hal Stockert
All Rights Reserved
I - THE FIRST COMMANDMENT
"I am the Lord your God; You shall have no other gods except Me."
In light of the foreword, how should a Christian view the first of all the Commandments? "I am the Lord your God...You shall have no gods except Me!" The peoples of the ancient world had all *sorts* of gods - gods of the sun, gods of the sea, gods of fire, darkness, death, health, wealth, beauty, wisdom and knowledge, war and destruction, lightning and thunder. God wanted the People of Israel to keep an identity AS *HIS* PEOPLE, not as just another silly little people with other silly little gods. And he wanted them, not just to worship Him, but to be BOUND to Him, bound to Him by the bonds of free will, choice - hence, by bonds of love. And so He commanded them to have no other gods except Himself. They were to see themselves *always*, even in the midst of all the other peoples with all their various gods, as the People of Yahweh, and of Yahweh alone.
Aside from its historical significance and the expression if it in the terms of the historical context of its own times, how can WE understand it, for those of us of a new dispensation, and a different century, and do so without destroying its meaning - either the meaning it held for the ancient Israelites, or the meaning it was intended to have for us? The core of the command is obvious - and so simple we constantly let it elude us. YOU MUST LET *GOD* BE GOD. You must not set yourself up as God. You must not try to determine for yourself what YOU would do if you were God - you must seek to understand what it is that God Himself has SAID He wished done.
The central value it holds is that of WORSHIP - not of terror, not of fear, not of submission (or even of "obedience" in the sense that obedience is so often conceived in Western life, a form of grudging submission). God, Yahweh, is not only now the God of the Israelites, but since the Incarnation He is also the Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ - hence He is also Father of us all...He is OUR FATHER, Who is in heaven. We might well re-state the central idea in terms such as these:
Give God, your Father, His place at the center of your life. Live in a world in which God *really* IS your Father. Open your heart, as well as your mind, to God, your Father in Heaven.
During those moments during which we reflect upon the Commandments during our moments or prayer and meditation, the commandment to which the *least* attention is paid is probably the First. Usually because we cannot visualize ourselves as falling down before idols, or "worshiping" something other than Himself - though we keep much too narrow a definition of "worship" close to mind. Probably in order to assuage a wounded conscience. Oh, yes, we may, as we begin to "examine our consciences" before a confession, begin to list it as the first of ten which we will scan as we pass before our mind's eye the acts which may or may not have been sinful since our last confessions; but we will usually pass it by quickly as having little real relevance to our lives. We're not savages, after all - we're *civilized*, high-tech peoples. We don't worship the sea, the sun, the moon, the stars. We're *far* more knowledgeable about the universe than those old Jews, aren't we? We don't worship graven images, either of wood OR of stone. We're FAR more sophisticated than they; we've gone WAY beyond the stage of really *needing* to worry about the First Commandment. Haven't we?
Not so fast, my friends. Not so fast. It might be well to remember that even within the history of those alive today - your editor included - we have witnessed the degradation of our sophisticated one of our Great Western Civilization's Great Christian Nations having permitted itself to be lured away from the service of the One True God to that of the God of Racial Purity. Another worships the God of the Common Man, and others the God of Profit. Other groups worship other causes, and they become absolute; they come *before* everything else - whether it is national security or social security; they come before and ahead of all others, and are above and beyond question or criticism. Some worship material progress. Others a higher standard of living. Still others, wealth for its own sake. For each of them, in the face of their "god" no other value matters quite as much. For most of us, our OWN "gods" are those twins of comfort and of pleasure. Self-gratification. As instantly as possible. Isn't it true that whatever it is in your life that is MOST important for you IS your god? Truly was it said by Our Lord: "Where your treasure is, there also will your heart be." It isn't hard to find a man's god...or a woman's for that matter. Look for what is most important to their hearts.
The First Commandment in fact DEALS with absolutes. An absolute is, by definition, "something which comes before anything and everything else." It is something "before which every other thing must be made to yield." It is that measure by which we measure everything else.
Yet, the First Commandment tells us that the ONLY absolute is God Himself. Yet we very *easily* create absolutes for ourselves. Oh, we don't CALL them absolutes - but watch which things we're willing to sacrifice in favor of others. Watch where the heart goes. We really DO worship these absolutes we create for ourselves. Be they money, power, position, wealth, or even the wives and children and husbands, mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers for whom we ARE willing to sacrifice our lives. It is *fine* for us to be willing to sacrifice OUR lives for them - it is NOT permitted to sacrifice them or place them before God Himself. We REALLY worship them, even though we do NOT bow down before them, or pray to them, or offer them gifts, or burn incense in their honor. Once we consider something especially good and helpful to ourselves, especially pleasurable and/or comfortable, there is a strange weakness in us that causes us to make it the beginning and the end of everything, like teenagers in love for the first time. In other words, WE TURN IT INTO AN ABSOLUTE. We worship it; we can *tell* it's worship because it has just begun to fill up the whole of our world, and consume the entirety of our attention and our energies. It has become the focus of our lives.
This "something," whatever it may be, might be no more than another way of praying, a fashion in clothing, a new car, a game, an entertainment idol (we used to call them "matinee idols" in my day.....I know, I know...that dates me), it might be a political movement, or a religious sect. It may, in fact, be a rule of life or a life-style. But, if it is NOT to become an absolute, if we are to prohibit that in our lives, it must ALWAYS be open to question, to evaluation, to RE-evaluation, to adjustment, to RE-adjustment. It must be open to examination and re-examination, to criticism by others as well as by ourselves. Else the only thing that DOES remain absolute is the way we FEEL about what is important to us. And we are in love, not with God, not even with each other. Not even with ourselves, but with "feeling that we've loved."
When God is NOT our absolute, our all-in-all, our first beginning and our final end - the most important thing in our lives - we move into the world of unreality, the realms of fantasy and dreams, fantasies and dreams which KILL. Often literally. Often of the body as well as the soul. We feel insecure and fearful because (silly thought) our "absolute" can disappear. What an irony....an absolute that can disappear! Or it can be taken from us. The future becomes uncertain and we become afraid. We begin to clutch at things, straws, literally. We move into worlds of superstition, proving the future, seeking "luck" in the present, warding off by various means (often only by "providing for our old ages" by acquiring wealth and power) those evils unseen as yet. It is superstitious people who step outside that real world where it is God who is Father of All. And it is exactly THIS that the First Commandment forbids - we MUST learn to live in the REAL world - the world where God IS King, and Ruler of all.
We must *remain* within a world wherein God IS our Father, the Father who raised Jesus Christ from the dead. We must CHOOSE to enter this world; we must accept God freely, and just as freely, give Him that which is rightfully His. It is especially through prayer, the prayer of the heart, that we do this best - and only in union with Jesus Christ, Our Risen Lord, and HIS prayer to His Father. The great and *positive* command that is commanded with the First Commandment is that we should PRAY!
Prayer is NOT the petitioning of the Lord for things we want. Or asking that things we do NOT want to be taken away from us. Or even asking for things for others. Or even asking. St. Paul has told us that we should "pray always." And if that is to be understood at all it MUST mean that prayer is NOT something we DO - it is a consequence of something we have *become*. It must be an AWARENESS...an awareness of who and what WE are, who and what GOD is, a constant awareness of His Loving Presence and care. And it is the Children of God, the People of God who will give Him his true place in the world - willingly, freely, cheerfully and joyfully.
The Second Commandment
The Significance of Speech
"You shall not utter the Name of Yahweh your God to misuse it!"
For the average person today, the second commandment has a clear but limited meaning. It forbids the inappropriate use of God's name. One should not disrespectfully use the name of God or Jesus Christ. It *also* forbids what people call "cursing and swearing," an expression which, in the mind of the average person, includes everything from blasphemy outright to the use of "damn" and "hell."
This interpretation of the commandment reflects attitudes which are prevalent in our society. They tend to emphasize the importance of external behavior and refined speech. "Bad language" and the use of coarse and unbecoming speech are offensive to others and, therefore, to God as well, who commanded us to behave toward others as we would behave toward Him Himself. However, without starting a campaign *in favor of* vulgar language, we should realize that the Second Commandment meant something quite different to the Israelites of the First Covenant.
His Name Unspoken
In the religious culture of the Old Testament, there was a very profound link between a person's name and his/her very being. So much so, in fact, that in many of those cultures a person received TWO names at birth - one by which he was known in the general world, and one which was revealed only to those most loved and trusted by them. When the Name of God was spoken, God Himself was at once *present*. To call on the Name of God was, for the Israelites, the same as inviting God to come down and be right beside them. To use the Name of God in *any* way was a religious act. The link between God's name and religion itself was much stronger in Israelite society than it is in ours. In fact, the Israelites of the covenant had such a great religious reverence and respect that they were reluctant even to *pronounce* God's name.
In view of this, the Second Commandment's significance is clear. Now, when we take away that significance and uncover the core of the commandment, we can say that this commandment underlines the link between speech and worship.
We are social beings. We are *made* in order to relate one to another. We face life and its tasks together. As we live together, we must communicate. Thoughts and feelings are shared. Speech - the words we speak or write - is our primary means of communication. A person's speech should reflect, should be indicative of, his or her inner reality. For the Israelite, then, speech *should* have reflected the Covenant and an attitude of deep respect for the God of the Covenant.
A Revolutionary Change
Though the Israelites would hardly pronounce God's Name at all, Jesus came and called God "Father." In fact, he called him "ABBA" - a term of very endearing *familiarity*. This change was revolutionary! It alone earned Jesus the opposition and the enmity of the religious leaders of His people.
We are the people of the NEW Covenant. We can *joyfully* call God our "Father." Because of Our Lord, this manner of address is much MORE than a free use of names and titles. In Him, the fatherhood of God and our sonship/daughtership are a glorious and a joyful reality.
Our acceptance of the New Covenant should be reflected in our speech. Speech is now more than the mere communication of ideas. Speech is now a means of sharing that Spirit which we have in common, that Spirit which cries out "Abba, Father," in each one of us. Our speech, in other words, should reflect our Christian personalities. We can now re-state the Second Commandment in *this* way: "Talk as a Christian should talk! Speak as a Christian should speak!"
Jesus showed forth the kind of person He was by the way HE spoke. People were "astonished at the gracious words that came from his lips." The kind of language you use always shows the kind of person you are. Gracious people speak graciously, without coarseness or offense. Coarse people speak coarsely; their speech testifies to a coarseness within. And as people speak crudely, they grow more uncouth in the process.
Most of our life is communication in one form or another. Our talking is both formal and informal. We talk formally, thoughtfully, with serious intent and purpose. We also talk Informally, chatting in a light exchange of words and comments. Since speech is communication, it has to follow convention, custom, agreed- upon symbols. Convention decrees what expressions are "gracious" and which are "coarse." It decrees which are "respectful" and which are "vulgar." Christians should accept and use the conventions of speech to display their Christian personalities.
Keeping the Commandment
If the basic thrust of the second commandment is "to speak as a Christian should speak," the following guidelines should be helpful.
First, speak as a Christian should in formal speech. Speak in truth - simply, clearly, without evasion. Jesus said: "All you need say is 'Yes' if you mean yes, and 'No' if you mean no; anything more than this comes from The Evil One." From this viewpoint, if speech shows forth the person, then we today are very UNchristian people, indeed. There is so much double-talk between us, so much selectivity in the facts we publish, so much eyewash in advertising, so many empty promises made; more and more, our speech, our communication in symbol, reveals our *lack* of Christian values.
Second, speak as a Christian should when you take an oath. To take an oath is to offer the truthfulness of what you say as an act of worship to the God of Truth.
Thirdly, speak as a Christian should in *casual* speech. We cannot accept God as our Father without accepting others as our brothers and sisters. TRULY Christian people have a deep respect for God, for every human being, and for all that appertains to human life. That respect should be reflected in our speech. We should speak graciously and courteously to everyone - the salesperson, the bus driver, the trash collector, the derelict. We should speak candidly, but respectfully, of birth and sex, of life and death.
Speech is communication. But communication does not end when we have spoken. Others speak, too. And we should listen. As we should speak with truth and respect, so we should listen with care for truth. Many of this life's problems would be solved more easily of people would really *listen* to one another, if they would try to grasp, honestly and forthrightly, what the other person is REALLY saying.
The Third Commandment
A Celebration of Faith
"Thou shalt remember the Sabbath Day, and thou shalt keep it holy!" There is no one of the commandments of the Decalogue which is quite so Jewish in its expression as this one. And none other is quite as non- Jewish in its present meaning. In one sense, this commandment is irrelevant to Christians, and has nothing in particular to do with them, per se. The Sabbath Day, technically speaking, is on Saturday - and we do not any longer observe the customary Sabbath strictures on Saturday. The Sabbath is - as Genesis indicates - the seventh day, the last day of the week - Saturday. The Jewish people still DO keep our Saturday as the Sabbath and as their special day (at least those who still observe their faith and its rituals still do), but we Christians do not.
It is very difficult for twentieth-century people like ourselves to grasp the meaning and significance of the Third Commandment unless one also understands how terribly deep the very IDEA of a Sabbath had been planted in the religious experience and psyche of the Jews.
It was the Sabbath that commemorated how God rested on the seventh day, and its observance sanctified that memory - and with it sanctified the very idea of creation and creativity itself. It was in memory of the fact that even God Himself rested on the seventh day to enjoy the fruits of His labor that the Sabbath observance was commanded - and commanded by God Himself. We are reminded that not only are we to "rest, and enjoy His Creation" (as well as those things we ourselves have 'created'), but the command is "TO KEEP IT HOLY." Is it not a little 'odd' that the Commandment instructs the Jews to "remember" something they already know very well? The FULL text of the commandment spells out the HOW of keeping the Sabbath "holy." It also spells out the WHY of it...and the benefits that accrue - since this IS a covenant, and all contractual relationships are based on a "quid pro quo."
No work was to be done on that day. Still, the eschewing of work was not considered an end in and of itself; the rest was "a Sabbath for the Lord," in the words of Scripture. A strange phrase. It was, in fact, a special way to offer worship to the Lord of Heaven and Earth, King of the Universe.
If we take away those elements of the Commandment which are specifically Jewish" in their nature and context, and bore in until we reach the core value, we might express the central significance of the Commandment thusly: "Into the natural rhythms of a person's life, there ought to enter holy moment, holy days, days which would encircle the remaining days of our lives and draw them into the circle of our worship.
The Day of Resurrection
Christian tradition hasn't lost that core value. The special day of the week on which Christians observe it has changed, true. It is no longer the Sabbath, but rather Sunday - or better still (in more Christian and less pagan terminology) on "The Lord's Day." Sunday - "The Lord's Day" is NOT the seventh day, the last day of the week, the day on which God rested from his labors. It is the first day of the week. What it commemorates is NOT the day of rest for God, but the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the Dead. In any of the Slavic languages, even in atheist Russia, the term for "Sunday" is "Voskresenije" - "Resurrection." Mutatis mutandis, the same is true of Greek and the Syrian languages as well, and, I believe, in the language of the Copts, Amharic.
The highest and holiest moment of history came, not when the world was created, but when the world was RE-created, in the New Creation, under the New Adam, Who, on that day, raised Himself from the Dead. The "new creation" began on that day, and thenceforth we who were created "a little lesser than the angels" were now destined for thrones from which to judge them. Whenever, therefore, we worship God, it is Through, With, and In Jesus Christ that we do so, that same Jesus Christ who died and rose again. OUR day is Sunday, the Day of the Resurrection, the Day of the Lord.
The observance of Sunday as a day of worship is a specifically Christian one. It is quite different from the Jewish Sabbath, and ought not be confused with it. Much of the confusion about "keeping the Lord's Day holy" originates in the confusion of the Sabbath with the Christian Sunday. They ought not be equated. Many of the demands made or rules laid down about what should or should not be done on the Lord's Day are, in effect, more relevant to the Jewish Sabbath than to the Christian Sunday.
Sunday is not primarily a day of rest, contrary to popular belief. Historically, the laws about servile labor on Sunday and on holy days of obligation owe more to the Church's concern about the exploitation of the populace by feudal lords and by employers and to the material well-being of the people by forbidding labor frequently enough to give the people a rest that their overlords and employers were unwilling to provide) than it does to celebrating the Lord's Day itself. Leftover concepts of Jewish custom and tradition, married to that social concern (which customs neatly reinforced the logic of the Church's prohibition on the powers- that-be to require labor of the peasantry on these days) simply strengthened the significance of the prohibition.
For us, however, with a forty-hour week and a labor union to fight for us where the Church once did, the primary significance of Sunday ought to take its rightful place in the forefront of our concerns - Sunday is the Day of the Lord, the day on which we celebrate the Resurrection of the Son of God. We ought, indeed, to keep this day "holy." The Hebrew word for "holy" means "set apart," "segregated," "different." For us, then, Sunday is the day in the week which is different, different in the sense that it belongs not to us but to God. It is different from the others in that it is a day on which we rest rather than work. It is different in that we set it apart in a special way for the worship and adoration of the Father, through the Son and in the Holy Spirit. A day of rest, however, need not mean, however, that, like the ancient Jews, we are tied down to a day of total inactivity and contemplation and meditation, though surely both of the latter are to be encouraged. Restful, healthy, entertaining activity does not destroy the quiet of the Lord's Day....at least, not by itself, it doesn't.
The new Code of Canon Law has an interesting way of summarizing what the Catholic community holds concerning the Lord's Day. "Sunday is the day on which the Paschal Mystery is celebrated in the light of the Apostolic tradition, and is to be observed as the foremost Holy Day of Obligation...On Sundays and other holy days of obligation, the faithful are bound to participate in the Mass; they are also to abstain from those labors and business concerns which impede the worship to be offered to God, and the joy which is proper to the Lord's Day, or the proper relaxation of mind and body." 0 Restating the Commandment Sunday is the Day of the Lord. It is forever consecrated by the Resurrection of Jesus Christ and by the Holy Eucharist. On Sunday we do not so much commemorate the past as we celebrate the present and anticipate the future Kingdom yet to come. God's love and forgiveness and help are available to us through Jesus Christ, who has Risen from the dead. The focus of our Sunday observance is the Eucharist, when we come together to celebrate the Resurrection of Christ in the one way commanded by Him -"Do this in remembrance of me."
So, when we speak of the Third Commandment, we might now rephrase it in this way: "Celebrate your faith at the Eucharistic Feast in the quiet of the Lord's Day." For the Christian, in other words, Sunday is mainly a day of joy, a day of celebration, not so much a day of rest in itself, a day that is different and set aside, a day that is "holy."
Until recently Sunday observance through faithful attendance at Mass has historically been one of the hallmarks of American Catholicism. It is clear, however, that since the Second Vatican Council there has been a drastic decline in attendance, both at the Liturgy itself, and at the Communion rail. The fact raises many questions. The reasons for the decline are doubtless varied and many. It is possible that in the past some Catholics went to Mass more out of a sense of moral obligation and social convention than out of a deep personal and internal conviction. But in the world and the Church of today, external factors are insufficient. Mature Christian conviction is essential. If one attends Mass solely to avoid punishment, one has not fulfilled the obligation and may as well have stayed home, for the command is to offer worship, not to avoid punishment.
Catholics are being called now more than ever before to deepen their understanding of the Eucharist. It is more than a social convention, more than a moral obligation. is the joyous celebration of the Resurrection of Christ, the celebration of our Exodus from the captivity of Sin, a ringing proclamation of our hope that God is with us in the struggles of our lives. It is a time of close attentiveness to the Word of God and to His Holy Spirit, spoken to our hearts. Our tradition of faithful attendance at Sunday Mass will survive only if more and more of us begin to appreciate in the depths of our hearts the full meaning of the greatness of the Gift of the Eucharist- the Gift to each of us, individually and one at a time, of the Living Christ, Resurrected, Ascended, and seated now at the right hand of His Father, about to come again to rule the Kingdom which has been given Him from all eternity.
The Fourth Commandment
"Thou Shalt Honor Thy Father and Thy Mother." When we discuss the Fourth Commandment we are essentially speaking of "family". that to speak of "family" is in some way always addressing society in general - since society at large is no more than a composite of the families within a community. Despite the changing patterns of family life - throughout the history of mankind, the family has remained in all civilizations and cultures throughout the entire recorded period of man's history (and, one suspects, long before recording began) the family has been and remains even now the cornerstone of society - even in that most atheist of atheistic states, the People's Republic of China. It is relatively safe to say that the health of any society can be measured by the general condition of family life within it. Healthy family life usually signifies a healthy society, a healthy culture.
Each of us is the product of a home and family. Even those of us who grow up in some measure abandoned or orphaned are in some odd way the product of family - family fantasized, family adoptive, family desired. But family is and remains the norm. Our lives have been shaped, marked and formed by the family life we experienced...or the lack of it. It is not surprising, therefore, to insist that the Fourth Commandment has a profound significance for each of us as individuals and for society at large.
Emphasis on Community
When the commandment was given (in the Book of Exodus) the background of the history and purpose of the Law was the intense love and friendship of God for His people: "...so that you may have a long life in the land that the Lord your God has given you."0 The Israelites had a very strong sense of being "a people," "The Chosen People," "The People of the Law," "The People of the Book." It was God's wish that it be so - it was the function of most of the ritual observances laid down later in the Bible to build this sense of "differentness" and bring them to a consciousness of "being different." The commandments themselves are expressions of the covenant which bound them, both to Yahweh and to the community of Israel itself. In the same way that the first three commandments have to do with God Himself, the remaining seven have to do with the community He had established by this covenant, and with the relationships between and among His people. As the first three say "Give to God the place that is rightfully His," the remaining seven say "Give to each person the place that is rightfully his/hers." The Fourth Commandment was the commandment of the covenanted people, the commandment of community....the commandment which ordered the people to BE a community.
The Core Value
What is the deepest central meaning behind this commandment, the element which endured and would be valid for the people of all ages and every nation throughout time? God has linked the lives of each of us with all other men. There is no such thing as a "private sin," or a "private virtue" in that we can have elements of our lives that have no impact on the lives of others. There ARE no sins we can commit by which we "are hurting nobody but ourselves."
We must, therefore, permit people to be what God wishes them to be for us. We are not to make those determinations for Him. We must also be, for ourselves as well as for the benefit of all others, whatever it is that God has wished for US to be. In Catholic terminology, it is known as "vocation," "call." The core value is RESPECT. RECOGNIZE AND RESPECT THE PLACE THAT OTHERS HAVE IN YOUR LIFE....not only those people and places that we find pleasant to our tastes.
For the Israelite, honor for father and mother was a realistic and practical expression of that respect. It fit into the social pattern of life as it was then known. Since that time, society has changed a great deal, not always for the better. Both the patterns of life have changed, and the significance of relationships. We live in a complex society. We belong to many different groups: family, the work team, the town, city, parish, club, bowling league, volunteer fire company. In the meantime, something has happened, something of profound significance for the People of God, for the lives of people living together. The great reality of the community of God's Kingdom has come among us. The Spirit of the Risen Christ. We are a people filled with the Spirit (or ought to be), the New Israel, the People of the New Jerusalem.
For Christians, the Fourth Commandment points to the sanctifying power of human relationships, such as those between parents and children, employer and employee, elected official and citizen, pope and laity, pastor and parishioner. We are all part of the New Israel. We are all part of a new community, a community of believers gathered together into unity and oneness by the Holy Spirit. There is a wide range of the gifts accorded each of us, but there is only one Spirit who works in each of us for the benefit of all. The togetherness of the Gospel is now the channel of God's redeeming grace. So, respect means a good deal more than simple reverence and obedience toward the head of the family. It means, instead: "Listen. Listen to all those whom God has given to you in your life. In a word, this commandment enshrines listening. Listening to one another."
The Art of Listening
No Christian relationship stands simply on the right of authority to command and the duty of submission and obedience from the rest. The primary Christian relationship is that of persons who have been drawn together by the unifying Spirit of God, who works differently in each of us, for the benefit of all of us. The primary duty we each have, in the light of all our relationships taken all together, is to listen. To listen to what it is the Holy Spirit is telling us through all those whom He has placed in our lives.
Parents are not parents merely because they have a God-given right to command; nor are children children only because they have an equivalent duty given by God to obey. In the New Covenant, there is more to it than that. A parent can and should command, but only if he or she has first listened to the child. A parent may say "are you serious? How do you listen to a gurgling infant or to the childish prattle of a five-year- old, or to the tantrums of a fifteen-year-old?" The point I'm trying to make is that the parent has to try to listen to what is growing in the child, not to the words of the child. The cry for love, the cry to be assured of love, the hunger to know what things are, to know the meaning of life, what to do and how to do it -- these are the significant things behind the gurgling, the prattling and the tantrums. And through the years there is the longing to become independent, to accomplish something worthwhile in life. The child will usually listen - if the parents have listened first.
We are all part of a group. Children cannot grow to full adulthood alone. God has so arranged it that they need the love, guidance, and direction of parents if they are to grow properly. Children should obey, to be sure; but obedience will be fruitless if all it is is submission, if they do not first listen to the concern and the greater wisdom of their parents.
A Failure to Listen
In a Christian sense, home may be described as a place where everyone listens and where everyone is listened to. Authority will be respected and honored, or spurned and mocked, depending on the fairness and wisdom with which it is exercised. There are two extremes to be avoided - as are, indeed, all extremes. A repressive, overly severe use of parental authority where parents fail to listen and become unreasoning, unreasonable and inflexible; and, what is perhaps an even greater danger today, a too permissive and too passive attitude on the part of parents. When children are allowed to do whatever they like, when parents seem not to care where children go or with whom, there is another failure in real listening. Why? Because parents fail to listen to what their children need and to what is growing in them.
The listening spoken of here in the context of family must touch all other Christian groups as well. It should touch the school, the workplace, the Church. It should touch even the relationships between and among nations themselves. This doesn't happen nearly often enough. In educational, industrial and in international relationships, all too often only force is listened to, only personal gain is attended to or heed Negotiation becomes a sparring match, a means by which to gauge another's weakness. We live in a society filled with calculated deafness.
In the Christian view of things, there should be no such thing as an "entrenched position." That is, a position which pretends to be self- sufficient, able to meet all eventualities alone and without assistance or accompaniment. There is no position so right that it can afford to close itself off to all others. In the Christian scheme of things, each gift, good in and of itself, must work together with the other gifts, given to others. There is a variety of gifts - but there is ONLY One Spirit.
THE FIFTH COMMANDMENT
Commitment to life - "Thou Shalt Not Kill"
Of all the commandments of the Law, this is the one most individuals are least likely to break. Right? I mean, after all, how many of us are likely to murder anyone? How many "murderers" do YOU know? Sure, this commandment demands that each of us take a stand on issues like abortion and violent crime, but far too many people think that that's about as far as it goes. On the contrary, the Fifth Commandment touches the most basic and fundamental attitudes each of us ought to have towards others - in the entirety of life.
"Thou shalt not kill." The words are direct, clear, and quite unequivocal. It might seem we could rephrase this commandment in twentieth-century English without any change at all. Right? And, true, the WORDS can stand without change; but we should be able to see MORE behind the words than the Israelites did...we should be able to see more deeply into the mysteries of God's intent since the arrival of the Word of God, to Whom the Father revealed all his mysteries, and Who, in His own turn, revealed them to us. For us God became man in Jesus Christ - and spoke to us the mysteries of His Own Heart.
The REAL Issue
The action which the words forbid is very clear, indeed: "to kill." But every human action is ALSO a human "word." Actions DO speak. What the killer SAYS to the victim is as significant as what he DOES to him or her. The killer says, in effect, "I do not want you on this earth. I want a world without you in it." Note the heavy emphasis on the I. This is the REAL substance of the Fifth Commandment.
Each of us exists because God chose, from all eternity, that we do so. GOD WANTS US TO EXIST. And to exist here, now, and in the circumstances in which we find ourselves. And another man has the audacity to decide the HE wants a world without another man. HE does NOT want him/her here. A man has usurped the prerogatives of God.
But more than that, the issue is not simply the fairly obvious fact that God is totally committed to life, since it is He who created it. The issue is that WE cannot be Children of God unless we, TOO, are committed to life - to the FULL life of EVERY person. Behind the four direct words of the commandment lie the indirect but positive challenge: "BE COMMITTED TO THE LIFE OF EVERY HUMAN BEING."
Public and Private Morality and the Mosaic Law The Coming of Christ
What has deepened our perception of this commandment is the fact of the Incarnation. God has become man in Jesus Christ. God stepped into human life so He could transform it from within. The marvelous destiny of every person is now revealed in the face of Jesus, who rose in triumph from the dead..."By Death He conquered Death," as the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom for the Feast of Easter has it. EVERY ONE OF US can now truly call Jesus "brother," since we have a common Father - He the Only-begotten Son, and we, adoptive sons....but sharing a human nature. The Spirit of the Risen Christ is even now at work in all of us. There is NO SUCH THING AS AN "EXPENDABLE" HUMAN BEING! In the Incarnation, God has shown that He is totally committed to life. Because of the Incarnation, we now see that "life" means much more than a breathing being and a pumping heart.
The entirety of the life of a Christian ought to be an effort to grow into the mindset and attitudes of Jesus, to become ever more like Him, each day to come a bit closer to thinking the way He thought, to feeling the way He felt. Each one of the commandments concerns itself with a specific area of our lives. As Christians, we are called to see each area in the same way as Jesus saw it. That's the whole point of an "ekklesia," a "koinonia," a "church." The Fifth Commandment deals specifically with "Life." It is our duty to see life as Jesus sees it.
Growth and Development
To "live" is to "grow within oneself." It is to "grow" as a child of God, to grow as a human being. As Christians, we are challenged by this commandment to be committed to the "life" of our brothers and their sisters, their existence on earth, and their full growth and development. Each of us is surrounded by a circle of people; the circle may be small, or large, depending on circumstances. We are called and challenged to be committed to the "lives" of these people, to their well- being and to their growth as brothers and sisters of Our Lord. We HAVE to be involved with their personal development. The Fifth Commandment reverses both the action and the attitude of Cain: we MUST be our brother's and our sister's keeper! Cain should have known the answer to his question was "yes." He never even received the courtesy of a verbal reply - he was simply marked and sent away. And even that mark was an act of mercy, to assure that none other than God Himself would touch a fratricide.
Public and Private Morality and the Mosaic Law Abortion
In some ways, our current culture seems very sensitive to the value of human life. Ever more people are revolted by the concept of war - and there is a growing and spreading conviction that nothing can justify a nuclear war. Even the idea of capital punishment is becoming more widely rejected - despite the fact that it has been re-instituted as a practice in several states. The idea even that a human life may be taken as punishment for a crime has become an affront to many.
There is a sad side to the story, though. There is a strange lack of logic and love. There is an inconsistency. While it is true that some forms of killing are becoming LESS acceptable, there is an increase in the social acceptance of OTHER forms of killing. The most notable and significant of these (though surely not the only one) is, of course, abortion.
Abortion-on-demand has become not only legal, but even morally acceptable on a WIDE scale. If we really accept the values inherent in the Fifth Commandment, we will never allow ourselves to be swept into permissive attitudes about abortion. Abortion terminates life. It terminates a life entrusted to a human being, a life which the mother and all of society (which is us) should in turn hold in trust. There is no doubt whatever that we should ALSO be concerned about alleviating the social, economic and family pressures which often push a woman into having an abortion in the first place; but under no circumstances should we close our eyes to the real evil of abortion itself.
Get Out of My Way
Murder and abortion are serious issues under the Fifth Commandment, but they are by NO means the ONLY issues. The "words" behind ALL killing are: "I don't like a life with you around. I don't want a world with you in it. You are in my way - get out of my way....for good!" You can say the same thing without ever raising a hand or striking a blow. For example, "I don't want people like you living next to me." "I don't want you in my country." "I don't want you in my church." "I don't want you in my school." The ultimate (and incredibly arrogant) message is: YOU have to fit into MY life. YOU have to serve MY needs. I don't care at all about whether or not you are alive. Who you are, how you grow, what you think, say or feel mean nothing to me. I want to live AS IF you were not here." There are an awful lot of us "AS IF" murderers running around, who never even dream we are violating the Fifth Commandment. What God wants, thinks and feels has become of no consequence. And so, the First Commandment is violated as well. "I am the Lord, THY God...," not the other way around.
Public and Private Morality and the Mosaic Law
Attitude toward Life
There are a thousand ways with which we can crush another man or woman in their life and growth. A child is tortured by the cruel remarks of other children. A teenager is less kind and loving because of the sneers of his or her peers. Initiative and joy - so vital for growth, are rushed in a junior partner by a senior partner at work. Most of us carry lifetime scars from wounds inflicted by "brothers and sisters." As each of us moves through life, we do so as builder or destroyer. And the choice is ours.
It is our attitude toward life which shows the stuff of which we're made. There are some who are committed to life, all right - but THEIR life only....to life as THEY want it to be. Their lives are totally SELF- centered. As such, there is nothing of the Spirit of God in them.
Others go through life trying to force everything into the shape THEY think it should be. Physical force is their way of "serving life." As often as not, the use of physical force is an admission of weakness - as, too, is the use of "emotional" force. Used in the home against family members, or used against others in a larger society, no matter...it is an admission that one has neither the imagination nor the patience to solve a problem without resort to violence of some sort. The person whose "word" is the fist, the gun, the knife, or the abortionist's instrument has given up the effort to bring life to others. And is a failure as a human being.
Jesus never shed a drop of anyone else's blood. The only blood He shed was his own. He poured his own out for us in complete, perfect and total love. He commanded us who claim to follow Him to love in the same way as He did...."A new commandment I give unto you. Love one another as [in the same way] I have loved you." REALLY observing the Fifth Commandment is the only way of doing that.
The Sixth Commandment
"Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery"
It took a while to decide how to treat this subject. The question arose as to whether, in a day and age so heavily sexually oriented, it would even be possible to say anything helpful in a short segment. Would it require a large segment? Possibly two, or even three? I mean, after all, the subject matter IS "sexual morality," and in this culture and environment sexual morality touches very nearly every one of the areas of human life; our ways of dressing, our reading, the things we do and watch for entertainment and recreation; our style of dating and relating to one another, whether those ways are intimate or only "social." It involves the way we stand, and sit, the ways we look at one another and speak to one another, the things we think, the ways we think about them, the things that are done and said, the things left UNdone and UNsaid.
But the simple fact of the matter is that the Sixth Commandment (some of other denominations title this the Seventh) is in itself absolutely clear, absolutely simple, and absolutely direct. There is no possibility of misunderstanding its meaning. Perhaps that is the very reason it has become such an item of controversy. Something so totally unequivocal must be either accepted or rejected in its entirety - it cannot be explained away or rationalized away.
It deals with only one very clear, easily recognizable, act: it absolutely forbids and prohibits adultery. No "ands," no "ifs," and no "buts." "Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery." In its very simplicity itself it seems unrealistically far removed from a subject which has become, for many reasons, quite so disparately complex. In fact, the striking contrast between the commandment itself and the complexity of our own sexual mores may BE the best way to approach the subject.
Is it realistic, for example, to assume that human beings have become more evil as centuries have passed? Or less evil? Has our increased knowledge about sexuality increased our capacity to sin? Or diminished it? An approach along these lines misses the point of the contrast entirely. The problem of "modern sexuality" is a cultural problem - it is the culture in which we live that has given rise to such a complex code of sexual morality, not the nature of sex itself.
The Sexual Explosion
Our culture is enormously preoccupied with sex. We are literally bombarded with it, deluged with it. Advertising uses of sex is increasingly blatant. Everything from boats to beer is sold with it. The "good life" philosophy, the "playboy" philosophy encourages the idea that frequent and casual sexual activity is the most necessary part of a life of "fulfillment," that one cannot BE "fulfilled" without frequent and "satisfying" sex - preferably whenever and as one wishes it, even more preferably without consequence. The "heroes" and "heroines" of our prime time TV and our smash-hit movies are very often sexually "permissive," if not outrightly promiscuous. Magazines, books, and TV talk shows (Oh, Philip, my son, where would you be without sex?) discuss sexual activity both inside and outside marriage literally endlessly. Societal restraints are few - and the pressures are great to render them even fewer. In the name of "personal liberty and freedom," of course.
In short, we are faced with an explosion of sexual activity within our culture - and with all the associated consequences of it. And the effects of it are all the more damaging because we HAVE just emerged from an era in which so much of the subject was 'verboten,' forbidden to discussion. Not very long ago, sex was something that you didn't talk about; it was not "forbidden ground," but it WAS "sacred ground." I cannot recall being taught that sex was "dirty" when I was young, but then I grew up on a farm, and sex around a farm is a very natural thing and quite obviously NOT an evil thing at all. But "sacred" things, too, are not subjects for light or loose treatment - and all too often, those curious about the "sacred" assume a "dirtiness" when not permitted to enter the discussions. Silence was construed as 'negative', particularly when IT had, in its own turn, followed an era in which it WAS often viewed as "dirty" (I refer here to the Victorian era - and to only the latter portion of it, at that). Where silence was characteristic of the past century and a half in matters concerning sex, the blatant exploitation of sex is typical of ours.
The Original Commandment
IS sexual morality a simple and uncomplicated thing by itself? Is sex even a human value in it self - but made evil in the context of our culture? The question should drive us to look more closely at the original commandment: "Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery." Obviously, the commandment as it is phrased does not obviously address the entire range of sexual behavior in the culture of late-twentieth-century America. But it certainly does give an approach to be followed by which we may search out an overall statement that does address all of sexual morality.
For the ancient Israelites, the Sixth Commandment had a social significance that was more important than its sexual aspects. That society was closely-knit, family-conscious, and respect for another person HAD to include respect for that bond which lay at the very root of his family's foundations. The evil to be avoided was the breakup of the family unit, the invasion of the sanctity of another's home. The commandment was not itself directly concerned with the misuse of the sexual faculty - in effect, it said to the Israelite: "You must not take or covet your brother's wife - because she is his wife, given to him by her very own self, and she is NOT yours." It was aimed at the HARMONIOUS relationships built with much suffering and great labor and sacrifice between a man and a woman, not primarily to the moral implications of the relationships between them.
In Good Company
The Sixth Commandment fits perfectly into the background of the Old Testament. In the Creation Narrative we are presented with the image of God creating the beasts and the birds because he does not want humankind to be lonely. But that wasn't enough. He created woman, someone like man, yet unlike, different from him, a sexually different person. Now it is indeed that man will not be alone. So, sexuality is NOT exclusively associated with procreation. It is in its very essence good, because it enables man and woman to be more as God wants them to be - not alone and isolated, but in a communion that is creative.
The morality of the Sixth Commandment was social. It began with the social reality of a man living in a communal relationship. It did not address the moral significances of the personal misuse of sex - not directly. In fact, in the culture of Israel, at that time, that wasn't even necessary - nor would it have been understood. All that is needed there is to remember good old Father Abraham, and Mother Sarah of the Happy Smile, David, Moses, and any of half a dozen prophets. But it did make a basic and fundamental point inescapably clear: SEXUALITY IS SOCIAL BEFORE IT IS GENITAL. It is quite clear from the context of the entire Old Testament that human sexuality is NOT simply a matter of "personal and private" behavior.
The New Testament
In the Gospels there is remarkably little mention of "sexuality" as such. Jesus is depicted quite clearly as a man quite totally comfortable with his own sexuality, and with the sexuality of all those with whom He came into contact. He was gentle, compassionate, loving, tender, warm - and surprisingly physical in His relationships. How very often we hear of him "laying on hands," or lifting children, or touching another to heal. He touched people with an astonishing regularity. He had both male and female friends. When he meets with sexual frailty, he shows an immense compassion - witness the story of the Woman Taken In Adultery. There surely is no suggestion of negativeness toward sex on His part. He insists on the "sacredness" of two people entering marriage. He emphasizes that it is fidelity that is the hallmark of TRUE union and love. He shows that sexual uprightness is NOT merely a matter of external behavior, but is a matter of the heart. One could even summarize things this way: "Sexuality is social. Sexuality is sacred. Sexuality is a matter of relationships. Sexuality is a matter of the heart, and not simply of behavior."
It is in and through "natural" relationships that we can enter the sacred relationships of sacrament and be sanctified. It is an upright heart, a redeemed heart, a committed heart that enables a person to enter into and live within such a sanctifying relationship.
The decisive factor in reshaping the Sixth Commandment for ourselves is the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. The whole person - in all his/her instincts, gifts, relationships - is now, for the first time in the history of the world, able to be healed and brought to the perfection for which it was originally intended. The Resurrection of Jesus has not just "saved our souls," but has saved us "body AND soul." It has given us strength "to control the passions," that strength guaranteed each of us at the reception of Confirmation, by which we are assured by Christ Himself that never again will a thing be "too" difficult, "too" hard, "too" burdensome to bear, because His own strength will be provided us as it is needed. "My strength is sufficient unto Thee." The Resurrection has touched (and saved) the WHOLE person, including sexuality, with all that the idea of "wholeness" means: thought, awareness, curiosity, desire, passion. ALL of these are made essentially good by the Redemptive Act of Jesus Christ; they are now part of our lives in our relationships with God and with others. We have become, in virtue of the Resurrection, "Temples of the Holy Spirit," sacred unto God, and, like anything dedicated to the special service of God, to be treated with the utmost respect and dignity. As one would not defile a Church, a Chalice, or any other holy thing, neither ought we then defile either our own bodies or another's, for it was not for a building, or a golden cup that Christ lay down His life. But for the wholeness of you and me, including the wholeness of our bodies, THAT He did lay down His life for. Even in our sexuality, now, we are "set apart for the special worship of The Lord." It is NOT (and never has been) a "purely private and personal thing, nobody's business but mine."
For the Israelite, the family unit and its life were part of the Covenant itself. For Christians, the sexual relationship between a man and a woman is part of the very Kingdom of God itself. Their sexual lives do not stand outside or apart from their growth toward (or away from) God and each other as Christians. Sexuality is NOT morally determined by its "biological" values; it IS a matter of redeeming and creative love, a love that heals, develops, creates.
Restating the Commandment
Maybe NOW we can restate the commandment for our days: "Love with all your being, uniquely, creatively."
If sexuality has to do with sacred and redemptive relationships that come from the heart, then one cannot use sex casually. Love is a choice, not a feeling. The use of sex should always be in connection with a mature, respectful, Christ-like choice.
If sexuality has to do with the redeeming love in a relationship, then one cannot use sex without commitment. The Christian use of sex should be in the context of the radical commitment of marriage.
If love is true, it must be creative. One cannot use sex without the commitment to create.
Choice, commitment, the service of life, all have to be woven into the life of a man and a woman who accept the teachings of Christ. It is evil to perform the sexual act without love - and I am NOT talking about "affection." I AM talking about LOVE. It is evil to accept love without accepting as well the full consequences of that love. In our culture we need to TIGHTEN the bond between sex and love. We need to recognize evil where it REALLY exists - in the ways and habits of a culture that exploits sex for its own purposes, and not even for sexual purposes themselves.
Sex is NOT evil. It IS good. Sexual pleasure is good. But to seek sexual pleasure, gratification, without the setting of a sacred and moral commitment of love is like mouthing words without any sound. It is truly "senseless," it is without meaning, and empty and void. The real problem in our society is that too many have confused affection and love - and the two are not at all the same. They are, in fact, not even necessarily related.
THE SEVENTH COMMANDMENT
Things in the Service of Love - "Thou Shalt Not Steal"
In the seventh commandment we see a marked contrast between an original, simple statement of the Bible and the present, complicated moral issue of Justice. The issue in the seventh commandment is: "You shall not steal." Four words. No more. To deal with Justice adequately in the environment of the Twentieth Century, however, seems to call for a bit more. It has already called for several lengthy encyclical letters on the part of several popes, for example!
"You shall not steal" was a quite adequate expression of the concept of Social Justice for a simple, nomadic and pastoral people. They didn't need any explanations of what the commandment signified; the implications were clear. The commandment simply presumed the existence of a specific system of property ownership - private ownership, in fact. It didn't make any express judgments on the desirability or undesirability of the system, it just took the existence of the system for granted as it was, good or bad. And within that accepted system, the issue was made clear: "You shall not steal."
The commandment did not have as its function or goal the upholding of the system of ownership, nor of sanctifying any specific form of ownership. It did not, for example, mean to indicate that the system of private ownership we call "capitalist" is inherently more or less moral than that which we call "communist" or "socialist." It looked in an entirely different direction. It aimed at upholding the Covenant just entered into between God and His People. It (The Covenant) drew the Israelite to God - but it also drew each Israelite to his or her fellow Israelites. The seventh commandment was not (and is not now) simply a matter of defending the concept of "private property", and guarding against misappropriation of it by others; the main issue is NOT the taking of "what belongs to another." The issue was, in fact, considerably more serious than even that.
The issue was one of harming a brother or sister through one's material goods. In short, the issue is a matter of exploitation - the exploitation of individual need and hardship, the exploitation of the weak by the strong, the enfranchised by the disenfranchised, the un-established by the established, the exploitation of another's dependence on me, my wealth, position, power or good will, such as it may be.
The prophets of the Old Testament had a great deal to say about the importance of Justice as an expression of Life Within the Covenant, Life As A Member of A Covenant People. The message of the prophets was quite clear. "You simply cannot be, you CANNOT BE, a genuine friend of God, or hold any close personal relationship with Him unless you really love and treat others JUSTLY." The prophets denounce as false a worship of God that is not accompanied by respect for the well-being of others, especially of the poor. As one example among many, listen to the Prophet Amos, who lived some centuries before the Birth of Christ:
"I hate and despise your feasts, I take no pleasure in your solemn festivals... Let me have no more of the noise of your chanting, No more of your strumming on harps. But let Justice flow like water, And integrity like an unfailing stream."0
THE MESSAGE OF JESUS
The coming of Jesus Christ into human history added a deeper dimension of Justice. The great reality for which Christ lived and died was a unity of real brotherhood for mankind: "Father, may they be one in us, as you are in me, and I am in you; so that the world might believe that it was You who sent Me."0 This is the supreme value of life. This IS Justice, for it gives every person his or her proper place, and it gives to each of them that which is rightfully theirs! From the viewpoint of the gospel, the good things of this world fit into this order of brotherhood.
According to the Gospels, the major task of each Christian is to build up a real brotherhood in the circle of life in which each of us moves. When we read Matthew 25, we cannot avoid the shattering conclusion that it is on our treatment of our neighbors that we will be judged by God Himself. MY property, MY rights, MY profit, MY comfort can never be the dominant value of my life, or the last word for a Christian. Christians should see all these things within the context of a concern for the needs of each of their brothers and sisters in Christ. In fact, a modern re-statement of the seventh commandment might be this: "Thou Shalt Use The Things That Are Thine To Serve Them That Are Mine."
In the society of modern-day America there is little difficulty about re- stating this commandment, but there is surely a great deal of difficulty in upholding it. Our understanding of Justice and Rights is so narrow and impoverished as to be virtually non-existent in a Christian dispensation. It is almost exclusively concerned with our own ownership of property and how that ownership is violated by the theft and unjust damage perpetrated by others upon US. Our concept of rights has become so contaminated by the same standpoint that we almost universally conceive of Rights as "something owed to us by others," instead of "something each of us owes another."
The solipsism and isolationism of these particular emphases has led to the impoverishment of virtually every area of modern life - except the possession of the tangible material wealth of the world. But it takes no account of real need, nor is it part of any real brotherhood - public propaganda about the generosity of Americans to the contrary notwithstanding.
Religion and life have too far been driven too far apart from each other. Too many understand what it means to be a Christian solely in terms of its individualism; "Just you and me, Lord....all the way." For far too many, religion is seen as something related solely to prayer and worship. Religion is something you do in Church, on Sundays. It's something kept in a separate airtight compartment, having nothing to do with the rest of our lives.
Living and working, making money and spending or saving it, improving one's financial lot - all these are definitely in VERY separate, OTHER compartments. They are "life," and religion doesn't have anything to do with life. Likewise politics. Religion shouldn't have any place in politics, right? Riiiiiiiiiiight. And water should flow uphill and night should become day.
It follows then, as night does follow day, if the last paragraph is true, that if one finds it needful to take advantage of others in the marketplace or even exploit them without mercy, then, "that's the way life is. Tough." "You know how it is. Business is business. After all, I'm not in business for my health." Bilge water. WHAT'S MINE IS MINE. In OUR society - as opposed to that of the early Israelites - we have a very complex economic order. As a result the range of ways of stealing and exploiting others is vastly wider than ever before. There are now HUNDREDS of ways I can harm others, as opposed to the relatively few of ancient days, though I may never see their faces, know their names, or know where it is they live. I may never know how many of them there have been I have injured, or how badly.
I can create a need others do not really have - and then exploit that very need I have created to their detriment and to my benefit. I can raise my profit-margin as high as the system will allow, and I can exclaim in horror when those who work for me demand an equivalent increase in wages. I can strike for what I want - no matter what the effect of my action is on the poor, the weak, the sick, the elderly. I can believe that having, in itself, is an absolute value. The plight of those others who have nothing is, of course, saddening, but (tongue in cheek) is not a matter of my concern. Beggaring me will not improve the lot of any others significantly. What I have is MINE; and what I can get I WILL get, even if it increases the misery of others.
We cannot dismiss these attitudes and attitudes similar to them as "good business," as something which has nothing to do with our Christian faith, with our worship of God, with our participation in the Eucharist. Through prophets like Amos, and, indeed, through Jesus Christ Himself, God calls us to see our possessions in terms of stewardship of things that belong really to the Lord; God calls us to see "our" possessions in terms of service to those others who belong to the Lord, redeemed by His Blood, by His Birth, Life, Death, Resurrection, Ascension and his Second Coming.
Now, more than ever, we are called to re-discover the inherent and supreme value of every human person, and to understand that we have responsibilities, in Justice, for one another. That, in a nutshell, is what the seventh commandment is truly all about.
The Whole Truth
"Thou Shalt Not Bear False Witness Against Your Neighbor."
For a large number of people, the most important of the Commandments have been dealt with once the sixth has been mentioned. Perhaps, if one wishes to stretch the imagination a bit, the seventh may be considered almost as important as the sixth. Once those two have been reviewed, either in a sermon or in examination of conscience, the attention begins to drift. The last three commandments are viewed not only as being of less importance, but, for all practical and practicable purposes, as of no importance.
The truth of the matter is of course that as the Ten Commandments progress they reach ever more deeply into the human spirit. If there is a high point to the commandments at all, in terms of reaching into the fundamental motives of the human being, that high point is actually reached in the ninth an that INNER conversion of the HEART - instead of the simple reformation of one's external behavior - that should result from the observance of the preceding eight commandments. Our sensitivity to the last three shows whether or not the previous seven have achieved their stated function.
You might think, at first glance, that the eighth commandment, "Thou Shalt Not Bear False Witness Against Thy Neighbor," seems to touch a very narrow area of human life and to make an equally narrow point. It refers to the giving of false witness against another, either in the formality of a court case, or in the informality of open conversation. The Jewish people could survive only through the enforcement of common codes of law. The law held them together. For their survival as a people, the law demanded truthfulness so that the proper order of things might be upheld.
A Profound Issue
Behind this negative and rather narrow wording of the eight commandment, however, there lies a profound human issue: the truth and its effect on human life. A person can grow and develop only if she or he lives in the truth! If one does not hear and accept the truth about oneself, one becomes closed to the grace of God. A healthy society is a society where the truth is spoken, welcome and listened to.
The Israelites, as has been frequently noted in this series of documents, were a people formed by covenant, by agreement, by contract. The covenant drew them as much to one another as it drew them as a people to God. The covenant deeply impressed upon them that their God not only was the One, True God - He Was TRUE - HE WAS TRUTH! Truth stood at the very heart of their relationship with God. It should stand also at the heart of their relationships with one another.
Human relationships are terribly fragile. The pain we experience from even one broken relationship gives us some sense of what original sin must have meant - and must now mean. At the very root of our beings there is a deep insecurity. Mistrust is never very far from the surface either of our hearts or of our minds. We are surrounded with vast amounts of evidence that people are as readily destroyed by words as with bullets and with bombs. People can be eliminated, eradicated, annihilated in fact by prejudice and contempt.
The Man of Truth
Jesus Christ is the Lord of the commandments. But he was also a man of the commandments. He was a man of God, a man of Truth. Jesus - He Who Reveals To Us Truths We Could Not Discover By Ourselves - was always himself, always true. He dared to be himself in complete openness to people. He played no roles. He did not have one "face" for one situation and another "face" for another situation. He could be angry, outspoken, joyful, amused - but he never compromised. He did not love people for what they might become; he loved them for whatever it was they were at that very moment - warts and all. He dealt with people in truth, in the realities of their situations, not on an idealized level.
Jesus made a most remarkable statement to Pilate: "...I was born for this, I came into the world for this: to bear witness to the truth; and all who are on the side of truth listen to my voice."0 Jesus stands for the truth - not only for the dogmatic truth, but for truth in life, and especially, for truth in relationships.
True to Ourselves
For those of us, then, who believe in Jesus Christ, the eighth commandment may be rephrased this way: "Speak the truth in love." The value enshrined here is truth. That means MUCH more than "telling the truth," or "not lying." It means that we must be true to ourselves as human beings and as Christians. It says something about the kind of people we should be: genuine, reliable, sound, worthy of trust. As God's people, we are challenged to become what he is - true. We should have an honest and accurate assessment of ourselves. We should know and openly admit our strengths and weaknesses, our virtues and vices.
We should, moreover, look for the truth in every area of life. All of us have prejudices. We view people and events with our opinions already formed and fixed. All of us are insecure and unsure. We tend to protect our insecurity by either falsifying the facts, or embellishing them. We are afraid we will get into trouble, or cause people to think less of us if we stand on the truth.
The Truth in Love
We have to learn (and the lesson does not come easily) how to speak the truth in love. Some people are marvelous at speaking the truth, always and everywhere. But without any spark of love. Much of the damage that is done to people is done because people tell the truth - needlessly. It is often forgotten that we are NOT free to say things about others HOWEVER TRUE, if there is no need for them to be said. For them, the truth becomes a stick with which to beat others, not something with which to build others up. Others are so anxious "to love" that they refuse to confront another with the truth when needed. Furthermore, we cannot speak the truth in love, if we do not have the fundamental honesty to listen. The truth we seek will shine forth, in a special way, from what our brothers and sisters have to say to us. The truth is saving when it tries to fit gently into the needs of others.
Doubtlessly, one of today's issues is that of truthfulness. Public life is too often two-faced and double-tongued. We live in an age of platitudes and bumper-sticker thinking, twenty-second answers to four-hour questions, where all the words sound right, but are either deceptively shifted in meaning, or are essentially meaningless. Business life, for example, is a place of undercover activity; the realities and real intentions are often concealed. Private life is full of gossip: the scandalous and the sensational are chosen for retelling, while the rest of the truth either ignored or deliberately suppressed. In the middle of all this, ordinary people are skeptical, nervous and circumspect. They conceal their true thoughts and feelings, and allow only a chosen few to know their real selves.
The Church and Truth
The life of the Israelites was expressed and protected by their religious institutions - the temple, and the synagogue. Among Christians, the Church should always appear among the People of God as the greatest lover of truth on earth. As author Juan Arias has pointed out, the Church should always prefer the sincerity that stings to the flattery that weakens and deceives. The Church should be a place where the truth is always spoken, always welcomed, and always heeded. For the glorious truth about the Church is that she is a Church of sinners. Among the blind, the weak and often mistaken men and women, the Spirit of God is at work! It is this Spirit who preserves the Church, in its heart and soul, free from error. But there is no such assurance that we, as individual members of the Church are so protected! Therefore, it is important that we, as sons and daughters of the Church, never try to distort the truth.
The lie harms; the truth heals. Behind every sin, there is a lie, an untruth. Behind every wounded human being there lies the cutting edge of untruth, distortion, bigotry, bias, lie. Such wounds are healed only by the truth - not by more deception and further lies. Jesus said of those who would follow him: "...you will learn the truth, and the truth will make you free."
The Heart of the Matter
"Thou Shalt Not Covet Thy Neighbor's House. Thou Shalt Not Covet Thy Neighbor's Wife...Nor Anything That Is His."In these two final commandments the Decalogue arrives at its final objective - a transformed heart! These two commandments (the Ninth and the Tenth) obviously stand together - so much so, in fact, that children in catechism ask why they are separated. They are the only two which do NOT deal with the world of EXTERNAL actions. They both deal with that fundamental motive power of human activity, the human heart, with a person's inner world, with his/her inmost essence, that which makes him or her uniquely what they are, with attitudes and with desires. None other need ever enter here.
The Ten Commandments deal, primarily (at least for the first eight commandments) with external behavior. The forms of expression are negative: "Thou Shalt Not..."; but their objectives are internal and positive. If one follows them, if one is committed to God, to His service, to life, to love, to justice and to truth, one's inner attitudes will be transformed. It cannot be otherwise. As the Prophet Jeremiah said: "...Deep within them will I plant My Law, writing it on their hearts..."0 A Religion of the Heart. Before we look at the particular message of the Ninth and Tenth Commandments, we would do well to reflect on what they tell us about the whole law. Without a renewed heart, religion is vain, in the classic sense of the Latin term: "empty, void, without meaning." Without good INNER motives and attitudes, upright conduct is a lie, a sham, a public fraud. THIS is the issue on which Christ confronted the religious leaders of His day - the Scribes, the Pharisees, the Sadducees. Oh, he upheld all the commandments, all right; He took his stand on the basic values enshrined in them. But on the religion of the HEART - He went to war. "Alas for you, Scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You who clean the outside of the cup and dish, and leave the inside full of extortion and intemperance and all manner of corruption! Blind Pharisee! Clean the inside of the cup and dish FIRST, so that the outside may become clean as well!"
"Alas for you, Scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You, who are like whitewashed tombs that look lovely and pleasing on the outside, but inside are full of dead mens' bones and every kind of corruption. In the same way YOU appear to people, from outside like good and honest men, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness!"0 In their Old Testament expression, the Ninth and Tenth Commandments speak of "covetousness." To "covet" your neighbor's spouse or goods or servant or donkey or anything else is wrong, even if you never actually make a move to take them. This is simple, practical religion of the heart, expressed in terms that the Jewish people of that day would readily understand. The terms and concerns of our lives today may be different, but the principle remains the same: to be true - religion must be of the heart.
That understanding makes it possible for us to express the Ninth and Tenth commandments in Twentieth Century English: "Your religion must be in your heart - not only in your actions." Expressed this way they challenge each of us to face the ultimate of Christian questions: what are you like inside? We would do well to pause once in a while and attempt an answer to that question. That, in fact, is the function of the "examination of conscience" the Church urges each of its members to make daily, as well as of the period of meditation and contemplation it urges be set aside each day. We slip into "externalism" with an astonishing ease. We build up a Christian picture, a profile, for and of ourselves by our practice of our religious duties and by our uncompromising stand on current moral issues - and then accept that self-constructed profile as evidence of our Christianity.
The Desire to Have
It is important to note that the Ninth Tenth Commandments describe the basic sinfulness or corruption of the human heart. The descriptive word is "covetousness," the desire to have and to possess at any price, not religious carelessness or sensuality or weakness. It is "covetousness." It is "possessiveness." In this regard, the Ninth and Tenth Commandments echo the story of Adam and Eve as described the opening chapters of the Book of Genesis. There, also, the basic sin of the human heart is described. Adam wanted to get his happiness and the control of his world into his own hands, instead of leaving them where they belonged, in the hands of He Who Created It All. He wanted to "have," to "own." He refused to live on the "Gifts" of God. He wanted to have his "security" within his own grasp. He refused to accept happiness as a gift and demanded it as a right. Yet, oddly enough, that is all happiness can ever be - a gift.
The basic sin of humankind has not changed. It is now as it always was - "possessiveness" - to have and to control all that can satisfy our desires. "Life is mine," is the cry of sin. Power is the issue between mankind and God - nothing else. To whom belongs the power to control the destiny of men? Do we accept life as a gift from the hand of a loving Father, not only in the moment of taking our first breath, but each and every day? Are we willing to admit that He IS "Lord" and to live our lives in dependence on Him, and in the full knowledge and acceptance of that dependence? Are we willing to loosen our grip on things and to commit ourselves, in faith, into His hands? It may be as terrifying a thing for us to do as it was for Peter to step out onto the surface of that lake at three o'clock in the morning in the middle of a storm. But that IS the real issue of faith. So, the Ten Commandments, then, have come full circle; and the issue in the tenth is the same as the issue in the first: "I am Yahweh, your God!"
In our society, America of the Twentieth Century, it is very difficult for us to have and to preserve a Christian heart. The odds against us are strong, for we are living our lives within a system and culture that is in many ways un-Christian. To a very large extent the very objectives of our society itself are contrary to the spirit of the Ninth and Tenth Commandments - the very raison d'etre of our way of life is at odds with it in many ways. Ours is a consumer society, and consumerism is based on the desire to have, to possess, to acquire material things, to control other things and other people through one's possession of material things. It is essentially self-oriented. There are many, very many, who will see nothing at all wrong in that. As Maurice O'Connell has pointed out, consumerism is directly opposed to the Ninth and Tenth Commandments because it is based on the perversion of the human heart. "In the consumerist society, the value of each man is not personal and intrinsic, but is measured by our purchasing power and our ability to compete."
Choosing to Resist
The terrifying thing is that a society which is fundamentally wrong inevitably collapse. It must collapse because it is false to the human heart, made in the image and likeness of God. In the course of history many such societies have collapsed; ours runs the very same risk, and, unless we change our course, it will collapse, either from rot from within, or from assault from without.
For us, then, the challenge of the Ninth and Tenth Commandments is a twofold one. First, we must look at the inward quality of our lives, and, where necessary, reform them! It is not sufficient to acknowledge them - or even to acknowledge the error. Secondly, we must resist the pressures of a consumerist society. Such a society will be reformed ONLY if it IS resisted. It must be TOLD, by actions more than by words or reason, that "we do not want your alluring offers; we are not going to be tricked by your glowing promises of the 'good life' into buying those things of which we stand in no need.'"
We must all become protesters, that is, a people who protest. We must protest the consumerist values which encourage poor people to live beyond their means, and encourage richer people to live as if there were no poor, as if no one else existed. It is hard to be a protester. It is simpler to retire within our little cocoons, bleed a little of the outside world in through a 25-inch piece of glass in brilliant, glowing, living color for a few hours each night, and convince ourselves that all is well. Let someone else do the protesting. I've got what I want!
Fortunately, one sign of vitality in the Church today is the growing number of men and women - bishops, priests, nuns, lay people - who ARE resisting and protesting. They are rejecting the values of a selfish international consumerist society. They are seeking the Gospel values of voluntary poverty, simpler lifestyle, generous sharing. Their example is a shining light to all the rest of us pilgrims who are trying to walk in the footsteps of Jesus Christ.