We can think of the Ten Commandments, as found in the Exodus chapter 20 and Deuteronomy chapter 5. We can also think of the Sermons of Jesus in Matthew chapters 5-7. The CCC has presented these in its own way. They are all commands. We should do them. Let us also think of the rules and laws and norms of the Church and our communities. There are quite a number of them. In this essay when we see the word “commandment” let us put all these together in it. Let us put together the Ten Commandments, the commandments of Christ in his Sermon on the Mount, the commandments of the Church and the commandments (like constitutions) of your communities. They are all instituted for us to follow the will of God.
We can feel harassed by the word “command”. We might not like too much rules and laws and norms because we feel that they impose on us. Let us think calmly about this.
1. The commandments are within the context of the Covenant
The Ten Commandments were given in the context of the Covenant. The Covenant was an agreement between God and people that God will be their God and the people will be people of God. A relationship was established. This God was the one who liberated the people from Egypt and slavery. He was a liberating God.
God entered into the history of the people of Israel and proved his concern and love. He heard the cry of the people and he responded. When God liberated the people from slavery it also meant that the people will not anymore repeat the same misery among them. The Covenant therefore had laws—commands, especially the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments were given so that the people will not repeat inside their society the same conditions of Egypt. God gave the commandments to make the people continue with their liberation.
What does this tell us? How does it apply to us, Christians? We Christians do not define ourselves by our morality. We do not define ourselves by being nice and good always. We say we are Christians because we have a relationship with Jesus. It is about relationship. In this relationship we agree that we do not want to continue a life of slavery. Because we follow the footsteps of Jesus we do our best to lead good lives. So when we see the “commandments” we do not think immediately of impositions. What we think of is our relationship with Christ. We agree to be related to him, we agree to follow his footstep. So “commands” are understood to help us be truly disciples of Jesus. We agree to discipleship and we agree that we do not enslave and crush and destroy each other. We accept the Covenant.
2. The commandments are followed with the heart
The Ten Commandments are helpful and they are a minimum for living. Imagine removing the Ten Commandments. What will guide us? What will help us? At least we have the Ten Commandments. Of course it is the minimum we have—we follow some rules, commandments. There is something more than just following commandments. What is it? Love. We follow the commandments with love. We just do not follow, period.
In the history of the people of Israel the Covenant was often violated. Injustice became part of society. Why? One main reason was that the people looked at the commandments as something from the outside—imposed on them. They did not see the importance of living the commandments inside their hearts. They lacked the sense of love, social fraternity, concern, respect. The prophets had to remind them that what was important was what went on inside the heart.
The prophet Jeremiah explained it well. He said to internalize the commandments. The law is to be inside, not outside imposing. “I will place my law within them, and write it upon their hearts; I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (Jer.31/33). The prophet Ezekiel emphasized change of heart. The heart needs to be formed and shaped to understand the value of living properly together. “I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my spirit within you so that you walk in my statutes, observe my ordinances, and keep them (Ez 36/26-27).
Jesus himself explained that he did not reject the commandments but he wanted the heart to follow them. It was not enough to simply follow the rules without the heart. Understand the commandments and see that underneath them is wisdom. Appreciate that the commandments are not impositions. They are meant for real authentic living. (See Mt 5,17-48, Mc 10,17-22, Mt 18,21-22... etc).
3. The commandments are references to consult!
One reason why Jesus was so angry at the Pharisees was because the Pharisees were so focused on details of rules. The Pharisees did not focus on the wisdom underneath rules. The Pharisees were not interested in the spirit of the laws. #Even if there are rules and laws and commands we still have to work in discerning what we mus do. In a given concrete situation where we must make hard decisions what do we do? The commandments can serve as references. They open up horizons of further actions.
4. The commandments are meant for better living!
The commandments are meant for us to create a more fraternal society. We are constantly challenged by chaotic behavior, we are constantly tempted to engage in cheating, injustice, corruption, and other similar forms. Can we not try to put the chaos into order through the commandments? Think of a society that allows so much adultery. Adultery damages relationships; it destroys families. So we are told by a commandment “do not covet your neighbor’s wife”. We can understand this to mean that we regulate our relationships and respect the marriage and family life of others. We regulate our relationships so that we do not fall into the hands of chaos and damage. The commandments can therefore make us see that we have to put order in our social lives. We have to properly structure our existence.
If we understand things this way we can see that rules and laws are not meant to enclose us and jail us from joy and happiness. In fact commandments can help construct our freedom in a responsible way. Jesus himself showed this. The observance of Sabbath became very strict during his time. Jesus did not reject the Sabbath. He put it in the appropriate position. The Sabbath is to help the community live properly together. So Jesus said, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mk 2/27).
5. The commandments can help our motivations and decisions
Sometimes we feel that rules and norms are “too much” and we feel jailed by them. But let us try seeing things this way. We ourselves do not have a full command of our behavior. Our motives can be very distorted at times. If we turn to commandments we might just start to verify what are our motivastions and behaviours.
A commandment can awaken us to avoid crossing dangerous limits. We might be so motivated in doing something crazy and we are so passionate about it. Just think of the temptation to do corruption in the government. But then we have the command, “Do not steal”. That can awaken us and tell us about what motivates us.
There are so many things happening in this world and we can just follow them in any way we want. So people go for abortion and euthanasia and cohabitation. People may not anymore ask if they are doing things correctly—and if they are only harming society. The commandments can help people discern.
We can look at our relationship with Jesus and, like the ancient Christians, ask: what will Jesus do in this situation? What command from him is appropriate now?
6. The greatest command is love—which obliges us to turn to God for grace
We Christians follow the footsteps of Jesus. As the 4th gospel emphasizes, we love as Jesus loved. We are branches of the vine—we are branched into Jesus. So we stay vigilant about the demands of love. Remember that for Jesus the greatest command is to love… “I give you a new commandment:* love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another. This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (Jn13/34-35). ““You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it:* You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments” (Mtt22/37-40). Notice that for Jesus the foundation of all other commandments is love—relationship, covenant.
Following rules and laws may not be easy. Following Jesus and loving like him may not be easy too. Remember that the disciples of Jesus themselves had a hard time. But let us look at this condition in another way. Our difficulties prove that we are unable to take care of ourselves and our social lives on our own. We human do not have full mastery of what we should do. We can make many mistakes. So let us accept this. Let us be free from our pretention to know how to hold ourselves without fault. This then opens us to the fact that we really need God. We really need the graces of God. If we are to love like Jesus then let us ask Jesus to help us. Let us ask Jesus to guide us and give us the grace to love.