March 8, 2015
Third Sunday of LentFirst Reading: Exodus 20:1-17
The idea of law often conjures up images of courtrooms and briefs, reams of legislative chicanery and bureaucratic machination, or perhaps even a statue of justice blindfolded holding her perfect scales. Sometimes laws can feel constricting. Rather than the representatives of the beautiful ideal of justice, laws can put limits on our freedom, force us to pay taxes, restrict our business practices, or fine us for driving too fast. If things get bad, we might come face to face with “the Law,” and he might have a car with flashing lights. But law does have a purpose that is for us, not against us. Law shows us how to live.
In this Sunday’s first reading from Exodus 20, we get a front-row seat at Mount Sinai, where God appears in lightening and thunderclaps to deliver the heart of his law to his people Israel: the Ten Commandments. By this point in the story, Moses has encountered the Lord at the burning bush, the plagues have come upon Egypt and he has led the people through the Red Sea. They come to Mount Sinai to worship God and there, he comes to encounter his people in a highly dramatic scene. The Lord even asks the people to prepare themselves for this encounter for several days before he comes to speak with them. When he does, his voice sounds like a trumpet; smoke rises from the top of the mountain, which quakes amidst thunder, while the Lord’s presence descends like fire (Exod 19:16-19). All of these divine special effects are no mere show, but they are God’s way of revealing his power to his people, his divine right to prescribe the law.
The Ten Commandments teach us about two aims: what is due to God and what is due to man. According to one tradition, the laws pertaining to our relationship with God were on one tablet of stone, while the human-directed laws were on the second tablet. If you read Exodus 20 and try to count up the number of commandments, you might have trouble coming up with the number ten. In fact, Protestants and Catholics count the Ten Commandments differently. Generally, the Catholic catechists divide the command against coveting into two laws—one against coveting you neighbor’s wife and one against coveting his goods. But the Protestants divide the first commandment into two—one regarding not having other gods and one against making graven images. However they are counted, everyone agrees that there are ten. And sometimes the Ten Commandments are referred to as the Decalogue (deka meaning “ten” and logos meaning “word”).
What is Due to God
Nobody likes to owe, yet we do not find ourselves as independent, autonomous beings with power to make whatever universe we want. We are creatures, contingent beings, born not of our own choice into a universe not of our making. We were welcomed here, but we did not make ourselves and we certainly don’t own the place, so we do owe our very being to someone else. Yet some of us run from this reality, trying to re-invent the world in our image. But our very embeddedness is a clue that our life’s meaning lies not in whatever creative career path we come up with, but in something beyond ourselves, outside of our own doing. When the Lord’s voice thunders out “You shall have no other gods before me,” he is not being demanding or selfish.
Rather, his law against idolatry reveals to us how we were designed from the beginning. We were made for communion with our Creator, the one true God. For us to worship anyone or anything else—the “creature rather than the Creator”—is to fall into a trap, to jump onto the existential hamster-wheel of meaninglessness. By chasing the Creator out of our lives or running away from him, we cut ourselves off from the maker of the universe where we actually are. Rather than restricting our freedom, the command against idolatry invites us to embrace reality as it is.
The command to honor our parents is often lumped in with the latter commandments, but some Jewish traditions actually include it on the first tablet, under the aegis of our duty to God. Through that grouping, we can see that our parents are not merely random individuals, but our creators. Yes, God is our Creator ultimately, but he chose to let human couples share in his creative power as “co-creators” (see Catechism §372). So when we honor our parents, we pay due respect to our “creators” and our Creator.
What is Due to Man
The man-related commandments can feel obvious. Other ancient law codes forbid murder, adultery, and stealing, so why are these so important as to include in the Big Ten? Essentially, they define all man-directed sins as a deconstruction of creation. If you kill, you undo God’s creation of a person made in the image of God (Gen 1:27). If you commit adultery, you interfere with God’s plan for procreation (Gen 1:28). If you steal, you rob a person of his very life—the hours or days of work that went into acquiring whatever you steal. Work itself is a kind of co-creation with God (see JPII, §6). Bearing false witness disrupts the man-to-man harmony that existed in the Garden of Eden, bringing discord into the world like the serpent did. Coveting, which is an internal sin, disrupts one’s own harmony with creation by introducing desires opposed to the order of creation. All of the human-directed laws flow from the laws about our relationship with God. If we get our relationship with God in order, our relationships with others should start to come into line. Likewise, if we are failing at our relationships with others, we are likely failing in our relationship with God.
As I said before, we often think of law as constricting, but good law, divine law, is not merely about boundaries. Rather, it reveals to us what true freedom really is. “To do whatever I want” is a deceptive definition of freedom, since following this principle, one can actually become enslaved to sin. Yet, if we re-think freedom in light of the Ten Commandments, we can find a freedom for the good, a freedom to live in accord with the creation where we are, according to the wise plan of the Creator who made us. Rather than seeking a freedom from outside influences, we can find a freedom for the purpose for which we were made: communion.