Friday of Week 16 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on Exodus 20:1-17

Yesterday we saw Moses go up Mount Sinai at the invitation of Yahweh. God repeated his warnings about the people not approaching the mountain, but made an exception when he told Moses to go down to the people and then return with his brother Aaron.

Immediately after this and with no introduction, we are given the Ten Commandments and the Book of the Covenant, a book of laws dealing with matters of worship and moral behaviour. These are clearly developed documents and not to be understood as words literally dictated to Moses. They have been artificially inserted into the narrative here.

The Decalogue is the core of the Mosaic Law and hence is put at the beginning. In Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes hold an analogous position in the New Law of the New Moses. As instruction and deterrent, the Decalogue is still valid in the New Law, but Jesus pushes its interpretation to a much deeper level. St Paul’s attack on the Law in Romans and Galatians, is not directed against the essential teaching of these commandments, but rather at the way they were being interpreted.

There is a dispute in the actual listing of the Ten Commandments as Catholics following one listing and many Protestants another. The First Commandment of Catholics is divided into two by Protestants. It is possible that each of the commandments was originally as short as the 5th, 6th, 7th and 8th and the enlargements for the other commandments may be due to editors.

We also normally divide the list into two sections: the first three dealing with God and the second seven dealing with the neighbour. Let us deal briefly with each one:

1. I am the Lord, your God: you shall not have strange gods before me.
This is a clear call to the Israelites to believe only in their God, who was greater than all other gods, and to have nothing to do with any of the gods with whom they often came in contact through surrounding peoples. Only later will it be understood as a call to believe in a monotheistic God as the sole Cause of all, the Source of all being and the ultimate Goal and Meaning Centre of all our lives. In both understandings, there is no place for any “other gods” nor are such gods needed as intermediaries with the One God. 

The prohibition against the carving of any idols meant that for the Jews – and for the Muslims after them – there could never be any image made of God himself, still less of anything else which could be made an object of worship. Both synagogue and mosque are totally free of any such image. However, from the earliest times, Christians did not interpret these words in such a strict fashion. In the catacombs we already see images of Christ (e.g. as the Good Shepherd). And, soon after that, images of even God the Father, the Holy Spirit, as well as of Mary, the martyrs and other saints. 

With the coming of the Reformation and its theology about justification by faith alone and the rejection of sainthood, there was a return to the strict Jewish interpretation. Unfortunately, this resulted in the wholesale destruction of some of Europe’s most beautiful works of art. Even today, Catholics may be challenged by other Christians on the presence of images in their churches. It needs to be explained that these images have absolutely nothing in common with the idols mentioned in Exodus. They are not seen as gods, they are not worshipped. They are reminders of Christians who set an example which we could follow and be inspired by. They represent people who were and are still greatly loved. We do not pray to these statues or images but rather, we pray before them.

We do ask those whom they represent to pray for us but they are not at all put on the same level as Jesus, the one and only Mediator. Catholics agree with all their Christian brothers and sisters about the unique mediatorship of Christ. But we also believe in the effectiveness of prayer of both the living and the dead on behalf of others. And we do believe in the inherent goodness, the result of grace, which these people enjoyed. It is good to know that the Catholic Church has come very close to a common understanding with some Reformation churches on the nature of ‘justification’.

The last part of this commandment from our reading today sometimes causes difficulties for people:

For I, the Lord, your God, am a jealous God, inflicting punishment for their fathers’ wickedness on the children of those who hate me, down to the third and fourth generation; but bestowing mercy down to the thousandth generation, on the children of those who love me and keep my commandments.

To our ears this sounds terribly vindictive. It is certainly not the kind of language we are used to from the Gospel of Jesus. We have to remember that it reflects the harsher thinking of a much earlier society. In many parts of the Bible, God is spoken of in very anthropomorphic terms, that is, he is pictured as having the same kinds of feelings that people would have. To speak of God being jealous simply means that he does expect – as is his right and is for our good – that we give our whole selves to him unreservedly. And if children down to the third and fourth generation suffer because of the wickedness of their forebears, this is less the direct act of God than the result of those forebears’ behaviour. It is most common that bad parents cannot produce good children. We see this constantly where children of dysfunctional families themselves produce dysfunctional families unless there is an intervening agent that can turn things round.

2. You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.
This commandment follows naturally on the first. If God is seen as the Source and Goal of all being, if we see in him the Lord of our lives, if we believe in his transcendence and immanence, then we will approach him with the greatest respect. It would be unthinkable to use his name in a glib, disrespectful and insulting way. Not that such behaviour affects God in any way – we ourselves are the losers. To speak or act blasphemously towards God says a lot about me and the kind of person I am.

We often include under this commandment all kinds of foul language and the use of distorted names for God and other holy people and things. There is never any need to use such language, but in parts of our society it has become almost de rigeur to make it part of every utterance. ‘F…’ words, ‘S…’ words and divine names are thrown around as a sign of being ‘tough’, ‘macho’ and ‘cool’. There is no need for us to be part of any of that. But, however objectionable, ‘bad’ language is not really intended by this commandment. 

3. Remember to keep holy the sabbath day.
The biblical texts expressly connect the term ‘sabbath’ with a root meaning ‘to desist, to stop work’. The sabbath is a weekly day of rest dedicated to Yahweh who rested on the seventh day of creation. But while it does homage to God, it also benefits man. The sabbath is of very ancient origin, but its observance gained particular importance after the Exile and became a distinctive mark of Judaism. A legalistic outlook took the joy out of the observance, leaving only a burden which Jesus was to remove – and which some puritanical Christians put back.

The observance of this commandment is another way by which we acknowledge the sovereignty of our God. We put aside the labours and concerns of six days each week and devote one to God. It is a sign of trust in his providential care for us. It is a time to pause and reflect on the direction and quality and meaning of our lives. It is a time to rest in the best sense of the word and not in the sense of dissipation.

Of course, in our Christian life the sabbath has become Sunday and its centre is the community celebration of the Eucharist, when, on the day of resurrection, we remember what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. It is also the weekly gathering of the Christian community when, through the rich symbolism of the liturgy, we remember who we are for each other and for the world in which we live.

As Exodus indicates, for the Hebrews it was a day of no physical work. In time, however, this ordinance became surrounded by a forest of casuistry as legal experts defined what and how much or how little came under the term ‘physical work’. We saw in a recent Gospel reading how Jesus disciples were charged with ‘reaping’ when they plucked some ears of corn as they walked through a field of grain on a sabbath day. 

In the not so distant past, Catholics, too, were careful not to do unnecessary physical (called ‘servile’) work on Sundays. There was a certain level of casuistry here too. Sewing was wrong on Sundays but, for some reason, knitting was all right. Gardening was out but spending long hours in writing was acceptable. Now, in our urban societies it is often difficult to separate Sunday from the other days of the week. Maybe we should – where it is possible – try to make Sunday a quieter day, a contemplative day, a re-creation-al day.

We now come to the second set of seven commandments which are directed towards our relationships with other people. Except for one, they are all expressed in the negative, telling us what not to do.

4. Honour your father and your mother.
As givers of life and the people responsible for our nurturing through the years of infancy, childhood and adolescence, we owe a great deal to our parents, who may have had to work very hard to provide a living and prepare us to make our own way in the world. Honour is the very least that they should be able to expect from us. 

The problem is that some families are today what we call ‘dysfunctional’. The parents are ill-equipped to carry out their responsibilities as they should, or do so in an irresponsible manner. The children suffer in consequence. The observance of this commandment can become a problem.

In our day, too, I think we would also say that parents should honour their children. A good family can only be based on mutual respect, an acknowledgment of mutual rights and responsibilities. An easy flow of communication in both directions is essential. The dictum of “Do as I say, not as I do” is not appropriate. Children are very sensitive to double standards. And, in the long run, parents will get the honour they deserve. Quoting commandments will not help very much.

5. You shall not kill.
It is stated so succinctly with no modifications. Taking another person’s life is wrong. Is all killing included or only intentional killing, which we call murder? The age of the person is not indicated: the unborn baby, the dying elder, the terminally ill, even the serial killer. Are there any extenuating circumstances? Is self-defence one of them? When is my life worth more than someone else’s? Taken literally, this commandment does not affect the lives of most of us although, with issues like abortion and euthanasia, more and more people are involved in decisions over the lives of others. Jesus, as with many of the other commandments, will extend the meaning of the commandment to a much deeper and interior level.

6. You shall not commit adultery.
Is this the only sexual sin? It is the only one mentioned. In many older societies, the real objection to adultery was in the possibility of unrecognised, illegitimate children being born by the mother; hence, the much more severe penalties for the adulterous wife. Purity of line was everything. And sex was not really the issue. Is it, in fact, a sexual sin? Is it not much more a sin of injustice, the stealing of what belongs, by sacred contract, to another and the violation of that contract by the adulterous married partner (or partners, if both are married). What pains a partner most when discovering that a partner has had sexual relations with a third party is not the sexual act, but the unfaithfulness, the breach of trust.

For us, the commandment is now primarily seen as covering all kinds of ‘sexual’ sins. What constitutes a ‘sexual’ sin is now becoming more and more a matter of discussion and debate in all the churches and in our societies.

7. You shall not steal.
To steal is to take what rightfully belongs to another. The key word here is ‘rightfully’. Simply because something is in my possession does not mean that I am the rightful owner. Does the starving man has a right to the surplus bread in my house? Much of what we call ‘mine’ should be called ‘ours’. The obscene imbalance between haves and have-nots (not to mention the ‘have lots’) in our societies and in the world generally points to wholesale stealing on a vast scale.  It is a sin not only of individuals, but of whole societies and whole communities.

8. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour.
A person’s good name is another form of property of which he should not be deprived. The commandment speaks about “false” witness, that is, saying things about someone which are simply not true or are misleading. I think that today we would also want to include the unnecessary but harmful dissemination of facts which are true. Gossip of both kinds is among our favourite pastimes.

9 and 10. You shall not cover your neighbour’s house… your neighbour’s wife, male or female slave, ox, ass, nor anything that belongs to him.
These two commandments can be put together. These commandments are against all forms of greed, simply wanting to have people or things just because they are there even though I have no right to or any real need for them. It was not covetousness for the beggar Lazarus to look longingly at the groaning table of food at which the rich man was dining. He had a right to and a need for that food. It seems that much of our marketing industry is based on arousing our covetous instincts, leading us buy things that we can well do without.

For us Christians the Decalogue is to be understood in the light of the Gospel, where Jesus calls for a much wider and more sensitive understanding of our relationship with God and with others. 

Over the centuries, the Church has refined, in the light of what has been revealed to us in Christ, the full meaning of the Decalogue. I think we need to say that in itself there is nothing particularly Jewish or Christian about the Decalogue. It reflects values that can be found in all societies, especially those having a religious basis. Therefore, by themselves the commandments do not express fully the Christian vision of life. Yet we often hear Christians (including Catholics) point to the Decalogue as the basis of their faith. But it is not enough. 

As mentioned when discussing the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes really supplant and go far beyond what the Decalogue asks of us. Anyone who consciously lives the Beatitudes can simply forget about the Decalogue; those commandments will be taken care of without further thought. The Decalogue follows a concept of religion primarily based on the observance of law; the Beatitudes are based on a concept of religion based on love. The word love is never mentioned in the Decalogue. It is more concerned with conformity. Many of the Ten Commandments can be observed by doing nothing – not killing, not stealing, not committing adultery. Christian witness and the building of the Kingdom expects much more than that.

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