Philippe de Champaigne, Moses with the Ten Commandments
We are presented today with the Decalogue, or the Ten Commandments. This is one of those things with which we can be over-familiar. We usually find that we don’t know them well at all. Chesterton once said, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried”. The Ten Commandments fit that well.
Sometimes we might find that we are unhappy and that our lifestyles are not letting us flourish. Unfortunately, it’s not often that we think of examining our lives against the commandments. It’s easy to imagine them as part of the cause of our misery rather than it’s solution. Because we are familiar with it, it’s easy to assume they’ve not ‘worked’. We naturally tend to think of ‘commandments’ – any commandment – as something that restricts, or stands against our freedom, and hence our happiness. This idea comes straight from the Enlightenment. This was the time of the great divorce between freedom and law, faith and reason, man and God. What God had brought together, the Enlightenment philosophers set asunder. Immanuel Kant, the quintessential Enlightenment philosopher, thought that man could be free only if he was autonomous (autos = self, nomos = law). Man had to give himself the law. Even a divine law such as the ten commandments, made him heteronomous (hetero=another). Kant himself was rigorous about his ethics. He lived, immersed in a Judeo-Christian culture. For all his brilliance, he never realised just how much he had been formed by this culture and its morality which he took for granted. To have an external law, was an affront to his dignity as a free, rational being who knew right from wrong.
But that’s just one of the ways Kant, and even more, we, get it wrong. God is not someone outside, imposing himself against us. He dwells within. He is the source of our life. Which is why, even today, the Jews do not call these, ten ‘commandments’. They call them the Ten Words of Life. These commands are not arbitrary impositions on us by God. It is not as if God decided one morning that he would create a set of rules to keep mankind in check. The commandments are a gift of life, because they are a revelation of the author of life, God. This tells us something about who God is. Consequently, they say something about us, because we are created in his image. If we break them, we break the image. We die. First and foremost, spiritually, before we die physically.
This passage begins by saying ‘God spoke all these words’. It continues, ‘I am the Lord your God who brought you out…of the house of slavery’. God speaks to a people in the wilderness, freed from slavery. It was when God spoke in the beginning, that a dark, formless chaos became a beautiful, ordered world. Do you find your life a chaotic mess? Here are the words that God speaks over them, so it can begin to become ordered and beautiful. To a people whose lives have been crushed and reduced to nothing, God speaks. This word forms them, brings them new life. You were slaves and now I’ve made you free. Do you want to continue in freedom? Here is the prescription. God freed us from our slavery to sin in our baptism. He gave us his Spirit. It is through him that we can receive this Word. Let me only highlight some, maybe unappreciated aspects of these familiar commandments.
No other gods before me: All the commandments begin and find meaning in this one. This first tablet, the first three commands, is to do with God. The second tablet is to do with our neighbour, in that order. This was the primal creed for the Jews. The Lord your God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God. Why does God demand that we worship and love him? It seems the very anti-thesis of love, that someone demand you love them. If your boyfriend or girlfriend were constantly saying how they should be the first and most important thing in your life, demanding your love and attention, you would be wise to find someone else. Someone demanding your love in this manner would indicate an unhealthy neediness. The same reason why a creature cannot insist on your complete love, however, is why God can insist that we love him. Unlike creatures, he has no need of our love. He was God before we existed, he remains God without change now. But he chooses to love us. Passionately. Our loving God is for our benefit. The love of God rightly orders all our other loves and desires. Anything, anyone that we value more than God, will enslave us and destroy the freedom we value so much. Let us move on to a representative selection from the second tablet.
You shall not kill: Death is against God because God is life itself. We are not free to take an innocent life, even our own life. Think of every dictator down the ages, to our own day. The ultimate weapon they wield is to their power over the lives of those who oppose them. And the first enemies for every dictatorship are people of faith. Because their lives, morality, are rooted in something bigger than themselves. Because they understand their life comes as a gift from God, they have been willing to be martyred, rather than bow down to oppressive regimes. God would restore their lives. They were the ones who were truly free, not their oppressors.
Do not commit adultery: Why is the church obsessed with sex? So goes the common question. Or is it? Individuals could be obsessed, of course. The Church has a very clearly defined teaching on sex and sexuality. That’s clarity, not obsession. It might be truer to say that the world is obsessed with sex. When a yoghurt cannot be sold without some sexual innuendo, then yes, the world is obsessed. When this obsession is normalised, anyone, any institution which says there should be clear safeguards around this would seem neurotic, unhealthy, even obsessed. But what is the reason behind the Church’s teaching? It lies in the fact that sex has to do with life. It is through the sexual act that new life naturally begins. Therefore, it is sacred. It has to be surrounded with proper safeguards. We have drifted so far from this simple truth, that we actually need to argue it today. This is something cultures all across the ages instinctively understood. Issues to do with life had to be surrounded with the greatest protections. They were potent. They had to do with survival. Mishandle life and you ended up with death.
Today, we view everything through our personal freedom and desires. Sex is associated with pleasure, not life. Pleasure is the by-product of the act which brings life. This can be understood even from an evolutionary perspective. The pleasure is there to bond the parents together and to encourage one to take on this great responsibility and generous act. But when we reverse that, making pleasure central, it is no longer about the life, or even the natural bond it creates with the other. We end up using other people, leaving hearts broken. And end up killing the child when the situation does not suit us.
Even Kant worried about sex. He thought that the sexual drive was the only inclination that could not satisfy a universal ethics for man. Sartre, who famously lived in an open relationship with Simone de Beauvoirfor and for whom personal freedom was everything, said that sexual desire aims to capture the other’s freedom. Over the history of humanity, most thinkers, cultures and religions have thought of sexual desire primarily in negative terms. Contrary to that, Christianity has always viewed it as something positive. Like all things God created, it is good, and very good. But it has to have proper boundaries, especially within a fallen world. If the natural consequences of violation are bad, the spiritual consequences are deadly.
Though shall not covet your neighbour’s wife and goods: I’ve spoken of the famous cultural theorist Rene Girard before. Girard’s ground-breaking work was in showing how all our rivalry, wars, misery arise from our mimesis, our need to imitate the other. We don’t just desire what others have. We desire what others desire. We can easily see this even with children in the playground. When one child picks a toy lying abandoned, it immediately becomes an object of desire for another child. And this continues in every aspect of our lives. We compare ourselves with our neighbour. Our neighbours are those closest to us, be it in our fields, our homes, our workplaces. We envy others and when we do, we can’t love them. We cannot value anything we have. Once again, we are not free to be ourselves, to be those God created us to be. The antidote to this is the first commandment. The only way we can escape this tendency is when our love is rooted in God. Otherwise, we are always torn apart by what everyone else has, what everyone else does, what everyone else thinks of us. But in God we can find our own identity.
Maybe, as an exercise for Lent, go to the Catechism (2052-2082) and look these up. Look up at least one of them, something that you feel, you would like to explore in greater depth. You will be surprised at the richness of each of these commands. And may they transform the chaos of our lives into something of beauty.