Over the last couple of weeks we looked at the first three of the Ten Commandments and what they say about our relationship with God – how, how often, whom, and why we should worship.
Today we continue in our Lenten study of the commandments, and we turn our attention very briefly to the second half of the list;
You shall not murder.
Neither shall you commit adultery.
Neither shall you steal.
Neither shall you bear false witness against your neighbour. (Deuteronomy 5:17-21)
Expressed all in the negative, these commandments look like a fairly straightforward list of prohibitions encompassing a limited number of offenses that finds a close parallel in our criminal system. Our laws too command us not to murder, not to steal, and not to lie in court; because committing any of these offenses would severely destabilise our society, and deprive victims of a few basic human rights.
But the parallel between the commandments we find in the Scriptures and the regulation of civil society ends here. Because the commandments express much more than simple God-given regulations to help individuals get along with each other. Unlike in the case of criminal laws which command the respect of all subjects, the Ten Commandments are primarily the guidelines, or the if you will, regulating the covenant relationship between God and the people who belong to him through faith – meaning they regulate the relationship between God and us. Therefore, even in the case of commandments that prohibit us from harming others, God is still involved. And every time we break such a commandment we endanger our relationship with God, because God considers our relationship with him dependent on the ways we relate to our neighbours, not just on the ways we relate to him directly, through worship and prayer.
But I say more. As Christians we must interpret these four commandments in the light of the Lord Jesus who, on one hand, gives us newer and more stringent regulations to follow such as in the Sermon on the Mount (Cf. Matthew 5:21-30); whilst, on the other hand, he encourages us to understand that love – and in this case love for our neighbours – is the only possible fulfilment for any commandment (Cf. Matt 22:39). This is why Saint Paul later writes to the Galatians saying ‘the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself”’ (Galatians 5:14); or again to the Romans ‘[the commandments] are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbour as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law’ (Romans 13:9-10)
So, as Christians, our task is not simply to abide to the letter of the commandments and to refrain from doing evil; instead we are called to interpret them in a positive way, according to the royal law, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’ (Matthew 22:39). In other words, keeping the commandments is a good place to start, but the Lord commands us to actively and intentionally do good. In this way the list of commandments could be expressed in a positive sense saying;
You shall promote life.
You shall live faithfully.
You shall share.
You shall speak truth.
When we take in consideration all these things we can see that in the Ten Commandments God shows himself not as a distant referee who is ready to judge human relationships from a point of lofty neutrality. Rather, here God manifests himself as someone so deeply involved in our day-to-day lives as believers, that the moment we willingly transgress and hurt another person we necessarily wound his gracious love for us; and the moment we willingly do good for our neighbour we also do good for, and honour him.
[At the end of all things] the righteous will say him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the Lord will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (Matt 25:37-40)