In one of the retreats I gave, while I was preparing the retreatants for confession, a young man kept passing me by looking quite distraught. From the way he looked at me he wanted to talk about something very important. So I called him and asked him what was the matter. He was rather shy which explained why he could not approach me in his own initiative. However after much coaxing he explained to me his troubles. Here he was preparing himself for confession and he could not think of anything to confess to the priest. “Am I plain dumb or am I just as saint?” Now I could not judge a man as plainly as that and so I told him to try to think of the ten commandments and examine his conscience using them as a guide. He said he did, “But surely I never committed adultery, I don’t even have a wife. And I don’t have false gods either nor used His name in vain, whatever that means.”
The innocence of this young man amused me. It amused me because he never discovered the full implications of the commandments beyond what was literally stated. It amused me further that in an era where the sense of sin is slowly disappearing I am recommending that he uses the guide to the path to life as a guide to know his sin. After such meeting I always feel having done disservice to God’s second greatest gift to mankind after his Son - the gift of his laws.
When I was already a priest a very concerned parishioner handed me a seven-page document that she wanted to print in the pages of Candle Light. I asked her what it contained and she said that she listed the commandments of God and their corresponding violations, which I discovered to be very, very detailed. I asked her why she thought it necessary for me to print them. She readily replied, “So that people would know the sins they’re committing.” I was happy for her concern but I was a bit disturbed by her reply. I felt disturbed because many of us like this well-intentioned parishioner never fully knew why God gave us His Ten Commandments in the first place. For most of us they are laws to be followed to the letter, obligations to be fulfilled. Some take them as parameters by which our behaviors are bound. No wonder, the commandments are seen as a heavy burden, as a restriction, and the psalm that says “the law of the Lord is perfect, they gladden the heart” seems alien to our feelings. No one feels “glad” while being burdened by laws and regulations!
What then are the commandments of God? What do they mean for us? Aren’t they mere laws thought out by some nomadic tribe, who knows how many thousands of years ago? Are they still relevant to our time and age, considering that we have a different environment and faced with new problems?
Beginning this issue we will try to reflect together on the Ten Commandments, norms of a Godly life which the bible itself calls “a gift from God.”
What are the Commandments
The expression “Ten Commandments” come from the Hebrew Translation, the “Ten Words” or the Decalogue. It was given by God to his people on the Holy Mountain (Sinai) and unlike the hundreds of legislation which found its way in the sacred scriptures, the Decalogue was described as one “written by the finger of God.”
The expression Decalogue as the “Ten Words” written in two tablets of stone are primarily found in the book of Deuteronomy (see Deut. 5:22). In Exodus the expression is secondary since the list includes twelve, and not ten. The Catholic tradition following the study of St. Augustine and the early Fathers of the Church followed that of Deuteronomy, while other denominations except the Lutherans (which follows the catholic tradition) follow Exodus 20.
The Decalogue sum up and proclaim God’s law. When Jesus came “to fulfill the law” He imbued it with a spirit - the spirit of love. In fact He summarized it further into two: the love of God and the love of neighbor. It is in this twofold command of Christ that the ten commandments are to be interpreted, a command which forms a single unity, the commandment to love - the fullness of the law of God.
Understanding the Ten Commandments
In its final draft, the Catholic Faith Catechism observed three values which somehow distract the Filipinos from the right understanding, and living, the Commandments of God. First it observed that our understanding is motivated by sin and they are explained to us solely in terms of breaking a law. I could not judge the beautiful intention of one of our parishioners who handed me a long list of sins and transgressions against the ten commandments, but to present it as such could distract us from the real intention of the Laws of God and why He gave such in the first place. It is this kind of thinking that makes God’s laws a burden, a restriction to our freedoms and makes the Lawgiver some kind of a spooky cop out on the watch for any misbehavior. Presented as “sins” the commandments earned a bad name and puts them side by side with the way we view, observe and treat our traffic laws - in the absence of a policeman we readily ignore them. External compliance becomes the rule with absolute disregard for the spirit of the law which is love, and confession becomes a washing machine (anyway we could always confess our sins!) rather than a sacrament which spurs us on to conversion.
Second, the Catechism observed that the Filipino’s observance of these commandments are “motivated by fear of punishment for sin.” In our observance of the comamndments, instead of being motivated by love we are motivated by the fear of gaba - we avoid trangressing the commandments of God because of the gaba or the punishment that may befall us.
Third, because of the second observation, we have with us “a legalistic and juridical mind-set characterized by minimalistic attitudes to morality.” As a priest I encounter not a few who would approach me and ask questions like, “Did I fulfill my Sunday obligation when I arrived during the homily? Do I violate the seventh commandment by petting around with my girlfriend? How much am I allowed to take money without permission before it is considered stealing? Is this included in this commandment or not? How far can we go before committing mortal sin?” We are fond of playing around with the commandments, stretching it to the limit by reasoning, to justify an evil heart.
Another observation which I would like to add to the list is the fact that we Filipinos tend to see the commandments of God separately from each other, independently from one another. Thus, we have the so called compartmentalized Christians today or Christians who could be so devout in their love and service for God in the church, but whose actions disregard the work of justice in their business. The commandments however are an organic unity. They bring together into unity man’s religious and social life. When we transgress one, we also trangress all others. Thus as the Catholic Catechism says “one cannot honor another person without blessing God his creator . . . or adore God without loving all men, his creatures.”
This is how we view the commandments of God and these observations merely show that indeed there is a lot to be worked out in the process towards Christian maturity.
The Ten Commandments should be understood in the context in which it is given. It was given by God on the Holy Mountain after He liberated the Israelites from the slavery of Egypt. It was given in the context of a covenant thus pointing to us the way and the conditions of a life freed from slavery and oppression.
The commandments can only be fully understood when we put it within this framework. God made a covenant with Israel, “not because they are the mightiest of all peoples” but because of His own free initiative - He “loved them,” He cared for them, and “took them on eagles wings” from the house of slavery. The commandments is Israel’s part of the covenant - it is their response to the love of God.
Secondly, the commandments were given when God revealed himself to the people in Sinai. Thus, it is to be considered part of the revelation of who God is for us. By revealing His will, by knowing it and embracing it with our whole heart we will come know who He is.
Third, it is a law not based on reason but written by the finger of God. It uses the second person singular “you” to show us the intention and the manner in which it was made - not by an arbitrary Law-giver, not by an oppressive King, but in the dimension of intimacy. God cares, God loves and wishes everything good for each one of us and that is why He gives us a path - a path to life.
With the coming of Jesus the commandments took with it a new dimension. He showed us the spirit at work in the letter of the law. He unfolded the demands of the commandments which exceeded beyond their letters by interpreting it as broadly as possible in the context of love. And He commanded us to follow it by preaching a righteousness which must exceed the holiness of the scribes and pharisees - a holiness which comes in merely fulfilling the law to the letter.
His liberating death for love of us was the new covenant and demands a response on our part. These demands are contained in the commandments which He imbued with the spirit of Love. Because of this liberating covenant ratified by His blood, Jesus must be permitted to affect us radically, from the way we think and speak, to the way we act. He must enter our affections, our values and our intentions. And to be so we must heed his command to do the commandments. It is in this context, in the person of Jesus, and in our relationship with him that we will reflect together the Ten Commandments not as a list of sins but as the path to life.