When God made a promise to Noah to never again destroy the Earth (Genesis 9:8-17) with a flood, He did not provide a list of commandments. When God formed a Covenant with Abraham, He did not provide a list of commandments, Abraham “put his faith in the Lord” (Genesis 15:6). When God formed a covenant in the desert with the Israelites, He gave The Ten Commandments on Stone tablets (Exodus 20:1-17, Exodus 24:1-8). If faith was possible for Noah and Abraham without the commandments, why did God give the Ten Commandments to Moses?
These commandments were central to the Israelites faith right up to the time of Jesus. After Jesus’ time on Earth, Paul writes to the Christians that they are no longer under the Law for now they live in the Spirit. Does this mean that Jesus got rid of the Law?
Among the Mosaic Law was the instruction not to eat certain foods (see chapter 11 in Leviticus). In Mark 7:17-23, Jesus says it is not what goes into the body that makes us unclean but rather what comes out, “thus he declared all foods clean.” Does Jesus replace the Old Covenant with a New as foretold by the prophet Jeremiah in 31:31-34? Ezekiel 36:26-27 of how he “will put my spirit within you and make you live by my statutes.” The Spirit makes it possible for us to follow God’s Commandments.
Jesus offers a New Covenant made possible by His Crucifixion. We enter into the covenant in baptism but the New Covenant does not erase what God taught in the Old Covenant. The prophets speak of the Old Covenant as written on stone tablets while the New Covenant is to be written on our hearts.
Does what Jesus says replace The Ten Commandments? In His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have not come not to abolish but to fulfill” (Matthew 5:17). Jesus gives us a new understanding of what it means to be God’s children. The Law comes from God and is good.
When Jesus came the Israelites understood the Commandments in a very legalistic way. They were rules to be followed, rigid, written on stone tablets. The Law had become a burden that was never intended. God did not give the commandments to burden the people. The commandments are given to help us understand what it means to be Christian. If we live in the Spirit, as Paul writes, the Spirit helps to understand and apply the commandments in our lives.
For the Jews there were 613 commandments. What we know as the Ten Commandments from Exodus 20:1-17 and Deuteronomy 5:6-2), are the most important. We struggle to keep ten! Imagine trying to keep 613!
When Jesus is asked which commandment is the greatest (Matthew 22:34-40, Mark 12:28-34), His answer is not found in the Ten Commandments, at least not in the same words. Jesus teaches that the greatest commandment is to love God and the second is to love our neighbor. You will not find these as such in the Ten but they are there. What Jesus does is gives us a different way of looking at them, with love. However, this is not completely new. Deuteronomy 6:4-5 calls us to love God with all our heart, soul, and strength.
So, Jesus tells us the greatest commandments center on love. This is the way we need to view the Ten Commandments, not as laws but teaching us what it means to love. If we love God, we will trust Him and follow His teaching. If we love our neighbor, we will not steal, kill, or lie to them.
So, let’s know take a look at what each of the Ten Commandments mean for us through the light of love.
The First Commandment – “You shall worship the Lord your God and Him only shall you serve.”
Many religions at the time of Moses were polytheistic, meaning they believed in many gods. Viewed in that context, this commandment would call us to reject the false gods and we should. Today we live in a world where most who believe in a God, teach that there is only one God. Long gone are the false gods of the Romans, Greeks, and the Egyptians. There is another way to look at this. In Matthew 6:24, Jesus tells us that we “cannot serve both God and mammon.” We live a very materialistic society where too much emphasis is placed on having material things. So much so that we give greater importance to money and things (mammon) than we do to God. In doing so we break the First Commandment. It’s not that we don’t need things but we can’t let them control who we are (cf. How Do Our Attachments Affect Our Relationship with Jesus?).
The Second Commandment – Do Not Take the Lord’s Name in Vain
Generally, our understanding of this commandment centers on not using the Lord’s name as a curse word, aka a swear word. There is another context that we look at the word “swear.” We can use the word to describe taking an oath. In Matthew 5:33-37, Jesus says, “let your ‘yes’ mean ‘yes’ and your ‘no’ mean ‘no’. Do we keep our promises? Do we say things to people just to get them to leave us alone or do we really mean what we say?
The Third Commandment – “Keep the Sabbath Holy”
Traditionally the Sabbath been a day of rest. God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh (Genesis 1). It is also a day worship God. In paragraph 2180, the Catechism still calls us to worship each and every Sunday and Holy Day of Obligation. Today it remains a day off from work but that doesn’t mean we get any rest. Our Sundays can now will filled with so many activities like sports that we can’t find time for God. People see these other activities as more important than God and fail to come to church. In doing so, they break the first and third commandments.
The first three commandments speak about loving God. The remaining seven speak of loving our neighbor as God teaches.
The Fourth Commandment – “Honor Your Mother and Father”
As children we hear “obey your parents” but this commandment is much more than that. First on all it says “honor” not “obey.” That doesn’t mean that as little children we don’t need to obey our parents. We do because they know more than us. As adults we no longer obey our parents but we can still honor them by listening to what they have to say and being attentive to their needs.
We should also not see this commandment as just one way. Parents must also honor their children. This means not given them orders to make the parents happy but putting the good of the children at the front. The Catholic Church also sees this commandment as saying we need to respect all who hold positions of authority, respecting laws as long as they do not contradict our faith and that those in positions of authority must always have the needs of the people be central to what they do.
The Fifth Commandment – “You Shall Not Kill”
I hope it is obvious that we should not kill others randomly or for personal gain. On the other hand, when absolutely necessary, we can kill in self-defense as a last resort. This is true but we need to understand it with a consistent outlook of life. We need to value all life, beginning in the womb and ending only in a natural death and at all points in between. This means abortion is wrong. It also means not hastening death when we are ill or sick by using lethal drugs or any other means. It also means realizing that even when someone else takes a life, we must not use the death penalty except when absolutely necessary (cf. "Social Teaching and the Respect For Life").
Keeping this commandment also means helping people have a good life. We must carry out The Corporal Works of Mercy that Jesus describes in Matthew 25:31-46. We call this a ‘consistent life ethic.’ We need to promote a culture of life.
Here is a homily by Fr. Jeff on our diocesan Public Policy weekend on the issue of Physician Assisted Suicide.
We need to avoid wars that are unjust and to even think about the meaning and dignity of life in medical research with things like stem cells. It means recognizing that life is a precious gift from God to be cherished at every moment.
(For more on Catholic Pro-Life teaching see our series, Treating Life with Dignity and Love.)
The Sixth Commandment – “You Shall Not Commit Adultery”
Viewed narrowly, this commandment means not having sexual intercourse with a married person. Viewed more openly, it means seeing sexual intercourse not as an action that is centered on physical pleasure but as an expression of love. It means seeing the other person and ourselves as a person and not as a means of pleasure. The act of sexual intercourse is an expression of love between a male and a female who totally give themselves to each other in a committed marriage. This is turn means masturbation, seeking sexual gratification on our own, misses the point and hence is sinful.
It also means that even when a man and a woman are married, sexual intercourse remains an act of love and not something done for physical pleasure. In thinking this way, one remains chaste. Chastity is not just waiting for marriage but it includes how we view the other person.
(For more on Catholic teaching on sexuality, check out Fr. Jeff's blog articles on sexuality.)
The Seventh Commandment – “You Shall Not Steal”
Basic to stealing is taking something that does not belong to us. It can be simple as taken a shovel left out the yard. It can a child taken a toy from another child. It can be stealing from work whether it stealing money or other things. It also includes theft of time. If you are paid for forty hours, then you must work forty hours. To do less work then you are paid for is stealing. Likewise, expecting an employee to work more hours than they are paid for is theft of wages.
Stealing can also involve overconsumption. Sometimes we think we can have as much as we can afford but sometimes when we take more than our share someone else has to go without. This constitutes stealing. It can be as simple as someone who places a dam in a river that stops all the water for their own use while depriving people downstream of water.
In today’s age, stealing also includes downloading music or software that is copyrighted without paying for it.
The Eighth Commandment – “You Shall Not Bear False Witness Against Your Neighbor”
The commandment against lying starts with formal testimony but it includes any distortion of the truth. Now, we can all have a time when someone asks us to do something that we just aren’t interested in and have no obligation to do. We make up an excuse because we don’t want to hurt their feelings by telling that we aren’t interested. What happens if they find out the truth? Isn’t it best to say want to go home and rest if that is the truth?
How about exaggerating the truth? How about omitting the truth? Then we need to ask ourselves why are doing it. Are we doing it to protect someone or are doing it make ourselves look good (pride)? Are we doing it to deliberately mislead someone for our own good?
Why is telling the truth important? How can we function as a society if no one tells the truth? Ephesians 4:25 states “Therefore, putting away falsehood, speak the truth, each one to his neighbor, for we are members of one another.”
On the other side, we do not have to tell everyone everything for as we read in CCC 2489 “no one is bound to reveal the truth to someone who does not have the right to know it.”
The Ninth Commandment – You Shall Not Covet Your Neighbor’s Wife
How might we covet our neighbor’s wife (or husband)? One way is with lust. This way goes back to the Sixth Commandment in how we view other people. Jesus speaks about lust in Matthew 5:27-30. Our thoughts reflect what is in our hearts. Here we need to realize we can’t stop the thought before it comes into our head but how quick are we to dismiss the lustful thought when we have it?
We should also consider how our actions or dress lead others to think. If a person dresses in a way to deliberating stimulate lustful thoughts in others, then one is causing others to sin and will be judged according. In this case I would say you are hurting yourself in a way because you are causing the other person to see you as an object rather than a person. Why would you want to others to see you as an object? Your worth goes far deeper than your physical works.
We could also covet another out of love. This way may treat the person as human rather than an object for sexual pleasure. This is still wrong in its desire for what is not meant to be for us.
Lastly we might covet another as a slave who could do work for us. This treats the person as a machine for work rather as a person. When we view anyone this way, married or otherwise is wrong.
The Tenth Commandment – You Shall Not Covet Anything That Belongs To Your Neighbor
Greed and Envy are among the Seven Deadly Sins. To even desire the property of others leads us towards violating the Seventh Commandment. It also says a lot about is in our heart. Is having things more important to us than the person we seek to take them from? Is having the things more important than loving as God commandments. Again, we can’t stop the thought before we have it but better controlling it can lead us to not even thinking that way.
In concluding I return to the idea of life in the spirit versus under the Law. Being a Christian is not about following laws. It’s about loving God and loving our neighbor. The Commandments are our guide in doing that. May God help us to keep our hearts pure and full of love.
Catechism of the Catholic Church. Second Edition, Libreria Editrice Vaticana. 1997. Available online at http://www.usccb.org/beliefs-and-teachings/what-we-believe/catechism/catechism-of-the-catholic-church/.
For more information on the Commandments:
"Are They Rules or a Way of Life: A Look at the Ten Commandments and the Beatitudes" - The Ten Commandments are given to us by God. They are often viewed as legal code to be followed. They are more than that. The Beatitudes speak of how we receive what we give to others. In this video presentation, Fr. Jeff speaks about both the Commandments and the Beatitudes are a way of life that helps be better Christian disciples.
"Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age."
"A clean heart create for him, God; renew in me a steadfast spirit." Psalm 51:12
Renewal of Faith