Father Leslie Hoppe, OFM

March 3: Third Sunday of Lent

Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Beyond the Commandments

Ex 20:1-17; Ps 19:8, 9, 10, 11; 1 Cor 1:22-25; Jn 2:13-25

The Ten Commandments, which are the subject of today’s first reading, are among the most familiar passages in the Old Testament. We memorized the commandments when we were school children and many of us still run through them when we examine our conscience as we prepare ourselves for the sacrament of reconciliation.

Some Americans view the Ten Commandments as the core of the Judeo-Christian principles that are the foundation of our legal and ethical systems. They regard the Ten Commandments as a bulwark against “secular humanism.”

The Ten Commandments, however, are an expression of humanism at its best, since they promote behaviors that make it possible for people to live together in peace and harmony. A viable community cannot survive unless people care for their elders, tell the truth to each other and respect each other’s lives, marriages and property. Observing the Ten Commandments makes an authentic, life-giving human community possible.

The First Commandment is about the loyalty and commitment that people of faith owe to God alone. The rest of the commandments concern creating and maintaining a society in which everyone is respected and in which good, life-giving interpersonal relationships are possible.

The Second Commandment forbids using God’s name to support any assertion we know to be false. When we take an oath swearing in God’s name to tell the truth, we must tell the truth. Truth-telling is an essential component of any community.

Even the commandment about the Sabbath reflects humanistic values. We associate this commandment with the obligation to worship on Sunday, but that obligation comes from a precept of the church. The Third Commandment says nothing about worship.

The word “Sabbath” is derived from the Hebrew word for “rest.” The Third Commandment calls us to treat the Sabbath as holy, that is, unlike any other day. It is a day to rest from work, meeting a basic human need. Christians have chosen to shift their day of rest from that last day of the week to the first to honor the day of the Lord’s resurrection.

The remainder of the commandments list the minimum standards that are to guide the way people ought to relate to one another. The Ten Commandments reflect basic humanistic values. These values lead people to create and maintain a community life that promotes the common good, protects human rights and requires honesty and integrity.

What is the origin of the Ten Commandments? Did they come to Moses as Cecil B. De Mille depicted in his film “The Ten Commandments”?

The commandments derive from accumulated human wisdom. They are the fruit of careful reflection on experience that identifies those behaviors that promote the common good and the well-being of the human community and those behaviors that undermine the welfare of the human family. The content of the commandments is the fruit of collective human experience.

What is revelatory about the commandments is not their content but God’s determination to make people’s commitment to the well-being of the human community the measure of an authentic relationship with him. The Ten Commandments are an Old Testament variation on the saying found in 1 John 4:20b: “For whoever does not love a brother (or sister) whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.”

The Ten Commandments set out the minimal requirements for creating and maintaining the human community. Christians recognize that the law of Christ calls them to go beyond the commandments and do more to promote the welfare of the human family than just meeting the minimal obligations of the commandments.

The Christian life is more than avoiding behaviors that threaten the welfare of the human community. It is about doing what we can and ought to do to enhance the well-being of others.

We should not content ourselves with avoiding evil. We ought to embrace the opportunities that promote the welfare of the human family in positive ways. We recognize that obeying the commandments is the least we can do.

Jesus calls us to God beyond the commandments when he calls us to turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, give to those who beg, love our enemies and be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect (see Mt 5:39-42, 44, 48).


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