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The Ten Commandments and the Old Law
by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
You may be surprised at our next master theme. It will come in two parts. It is, if you please, on the Ten commandments. In the present conference, we will look on the Ten commandments as they are found in the Old Testament, and in our next conference on the Ten commandments in the New. As we mentioned in our last reflections, in Deuteronomy, the Ten commandments come just before the Divine mandate to love God with our whole heart, and soul, and strength. Among the errors condemned by the Council of Trent in the 16th century, are two that have special importance today. Declared the council: If anyone says that the Ten commandments do not apply to Christians, let him be anathema. And again the Church defines: if anyone says that Jesus Christ has been given to men as the redeemer in whom they are to trust, and not also as a legislator whom they are to obey, let him be anathema. What ever else we need to be reminded of, it is that the Ten commandments are not, they are not out of date. And not only did Christ our Lord accept the Decalogue, but, as we know, He added commandments of His own. Sure Christ is the One who loves us, as only God can love His creatures. But this same Christ, Who loves us, also commands us. Our purpose in the present reflections will be to see the Ten commandments as weve said before, from two aspects. First is the Mosaic covenant of Yahweh with His chosen people, (our present reflections) and then, as confirmed and developed by the Savior, during His visible stay on earth.
First then, the Mosaic Covenant, we find in the Old testament, two versions of the Ten Commandments, one in the Book of Exodus, and the other in the Book of Deuteronomy. In both forms the Decalogue is longer than its popular version. Which is really an abbreviation of the biblical text. In the Catholic faith both forms are used. With Deuteronomy preferred by the churches of the west. Thats us. And the Exodus form, preferred by the churches of the East: my own background, since my mother was Byzantine. In going through this analysis of the Ten Commandments as found in the Old testament, I sure hope you do not think that a meditation on the Ten commandments is out of place in a retreat. Oh sisters! The errors learned, book full, subtle, shrewd, neatly bound. And among these errors, how well I know is that the Decalogue is out of date. Thats why we lost ten thousand priests in America since the Council why weve lost seventy thousand religious women since the Council. Why vocations of religious institutions of women, have dropped by 90% and why American seminaries have been reduced to about 20% members of what they were twenty years ago. And the main reason is the Ten Commandments are either ignored or simply denied.
The text in Deuteronomy on the Ten commandments:
First Commandment: I am Yahweh your God, that brought you out of the land of Egypt out of the house of slavery. You shall have no Gods except Me.
As we saw in the last meditation, having revealed Himself as I am God so identifies Himself in the first commandment. The implications are immense. Since only the one true God exists, there is no other who is absolute Being. It would be a lie to worship anyone else as divine. In the Catholic Church, the first precept includes another prohibition. You shall not make yourself a carved image or any likeness of anything. You shall not bow down to them to serve them. In the Church of England, as well as in the protestant churches, the prohibition relating to carved images and likeness is a separate and therefore a second commandment. This partially explains the practical absence of any statues or even sacred images among the protestant churches throughout the world. Considered as part of the First Commandment, the prohibition of carved images, was directed against imitating the pagans. They are talking about the Jews being warned against imitating the pagans in their day, whose gods included a pantheon of statues and images before which the people prayed, and to which they offered sacrifices. But, the prohibition against images or statues, emphatically is not part of the Ten Commandments in the Catholic Church. On the prior assumption that Catholics understand that statues and images are not to be worshipped as divine. Are we clear? One of my favorite definitions of Protestantism, over the years of my teaching, including six protestant seminaries, Protestantism is Old Testament Christianity. In which divorce with remarriage is part of Protestantism and in which statues and sacred images are absent. And as I watch one Catholic Church after another being denuded of its statues and images I know exactly whats happening. Am I still clear? The First Commandment orders us to recognize only one God. All other gods are fictions of the imagination.
Second Commandment: You shall not utter the name of Yahweh your God to misuse it.
This, by the way, I consider the best translation. It is at once a prohibition and a precept. As prohibition, this commandment forbids misusing the name of God, and among the Jews especially by perjury. Later on Hebrew casuists exaggerated this precept into a prohibition of even a reverent use of Gods name. May the name of God be used? Of course, the prohibition is against misusing it. And as precept, the second commandment prescribes the use of Gods name in humble prayer. In fact, the Second Commandment may be considered an application of the First Commandment. Meaning what? That, we mainly show our worship of the one true God, by verbally pronouncing the Holy name and addressing ourselves in spirit to what our lips pronounce.
Third Commandment: Observe the Sabbath day and keep it holy, as Yahweh your God has commanded you.
The observance of the Sabbath became a distinctive Jewish practice. And over the centuries was one of the main unifying forces of Judaism. In Deuteronomy, two reasons are given for the observance of the Sabbath as a day of rest. First in imitation of Yahweh, who rested, as Genesis tells us, after the six days of creation. And second, in gratitude for Israels deliverance from the bondage in Egypt. As with the second commandment, so here, the Pharisees exaggerated the duty of keeping the Sabbath to incredible extremes. When, as I do on occasion, teach a graduate course in Judaism, I consult the Talmud, some twenty-eight volumes of commentary on the six hundred laws in Deuteronomy. And one of the thickest of those volumes contains thousands of directives of what to do and what not to do on the Sabbath. And having lived in New York City for the last ten years, I have more than once, thanked the Lord for having removed those impossible precepts that the Pharisees imposed for keeping the Sabbath.
Fourth Commandment: I think it is worth our effort spending a whole retreat meditation on the Ten Commandments as found in the old law, because, as we shall see, Christ did not abrogate one jot or tittle of the Decalogue. Holiness begins by keeping the Ten Commandments. And then building the structure of sanctity beyond what we are obliged to do. But I wouldnt be fair with you, if I didnt remind you and myself of what we are obliged to do.
Fourth Commandment: Honor your father and your mother as Yahweh your God has commanded you, so that you may have long life and may prosper in the land that Yahweh your God gives to you.
At this point in the Decalogue the duties toward God, which in one word can be called religion, from now on, the Decalogue becomes duties toward our neighbor. Which in one word is called morality. The first three precepts of the Decalogue are the precepts of religion; our duties toward God. The last seven are precepts of morality, our duties towards others. Among these moral precepts toward others the most fundamental therefore placed first. The fourth commandment couldnt be placed fifth or sixth. It had to be the first of the moral commandments following on the precepts of religion. This most fundamental duty is to honor ones father and mother. Fathers and mothers, therefore, are the first mediators of Gods will in our lives. Right? Way before the dawn of reason, the first representative of God, that a young child not able even to walk. [I keep forgetting when, mothers tell me, (I ask them) what does a child do first, talk or walk? The father generally doesnt know. The mother tells me.] But long before we begin to walk or talk, God gave us our first Superiors. Gods will is first and most fundamentally mediated by our parents. If children honor their parents by seeing in their parents representatives of God, this would ensure their well being all through life. But, conversely, if children do not honor father and mother, now Gods grace can work miracles. A child reaching adolescence or adulthood may be converted. But in Gods ordinary providence, people who become obedient to the church; as religious, obedient to their Superiors; as citizens, obedient to the just laws of the state. In Gods ordinary providence the training in obedience, honor, and respect of authority begins in childhood.
Fifth commandment: You shall not kill.
The most tragically disobeyed Commandment in the western world today, it will be sixty million legalized abortions in 1984. The terminology in Hebrew for this fifth commandment indicates an unwarranted killing. Already in the first chapters of Genesis, when Cains murder of his brother Abel is described, and all through the entire Old Testament, killing of innocent persons is forbidden and is punished with death to the murderer. In the Old Testament abortionist mothers and their accomplices were stoned to death.
Sixth commandment: You shall not commit adultery.
The concept of adultery under Mosaic Law, as we know, was quite limited. A woman was regarded as a mans property, rather than as a human person with whom a man would enter into a lifetime of loving intimacy, as had been originally prescribed to our first parents. In Jewish parlance, therefore, adultery meant that the woman who committed adultery was already married. In fact, betrothal was equated with marriage once a woman was affianced to marry, which, was the grounds of St. Josephs dilemma, remember? Not yet married, he knew the child she was carrying was not his own. So it took an angelic visitation to explain to Joseph what had happened. As a result of this narrow vision of adultery in the Old Testament, adultery was basically considered a form of injustice. Where the wife already belonged to one husband was forbidden relations with another man. This degradation of women is connected with the rise of polygamy. Which in turn is associated with one of Cains descendants. Polygamy, historians attribute to the followers of Cain. It was tolerated, we know, even among the Jews. Polygamy for a long time, you need to hear this to make sure we are not mislead, as the concept of chastity, or here of adultery, for us, followers of Christ, is mountains, or oceans removed far above and beyond the understanding of chastity in the old law.
Marriage was strongly urged in the Old Testament on the men. Proverbs tells men find joy in the wife you married in your youth. Why be seduced my son by an alien woman? We need to hear this, I repeat the sixth commandment as we shall see in our conference rises to sublime heights that were never even conceived in the old law. It was therefore not until the coming of Christ that polygamy and remarriage after divorce was forbidden absolutely. See why I said Protestantism is Old Testament Christianity? There is not a single one of the twenty-one hundred Protestant denominations of the world, not one that forbids marriage after divorce. That is not Christianity. To this day Judaism recognizes a mans and womans right to divorce and remarriage. Two Jewish people that I am currently instructing in the faith in New York by correspondence, telephone, and a well-instructed lay catholic, you might say substituting for myself, both, please God, will become Catholics. The woman is sure she wants to be a Catholic, but she has already been married three times and he only twice. Lets make this clear we are not Jews, Christianity is not Judaism.
Seventh Commandment: You Shall Not Steal
Every form of robbery is covered by this Commandment and elaborate penalties are prescribed for thievery. Thus who ever has acquired another persons property without his consent is regarded as a thief. And the normal penalty prescribed by Exodus for stealing was to pay double damages. Stealing of animals was more serious when the stolen beasts is sold and slaughtered. The penalty then becomes fourfold or even fivefold for stolen oxen, which the owner needed for plowing his own field. When a convicted thief cannot pay Jewish law required he be sold into slavery and his price, the price paid to the slave holder, then went to the injured party. We need to hear this to better understand what Christ was teaching when He told how we are to repay what we have stolen from God. The Old Testament distinguishes between stealing and robbery, where the latter means taking anothers property by force. Surprisingly the punishment for robbery was more lenient than for theft. A popular Jewish explanation for this leniency was that a thief acted as if no heavenly eye saw what he was doing, whereas a robber steals openly.
Eighth Commandment: You Shall Not Bear False Witness Against Your Neighbor
The immediate prohibition of this precept is lying in court or during a judicial process. But, elsewhere in the Old Testament telling the untruth in any circumstances is forbidden. Speak the truth to one another is a universal precept of the Old Testament. Prophets who announce false oracles are strongly condemned. The idols of the pagans are called lies, because they are deceitful. Before we leave this Eight Commandment let me speak very frankly, one of the hardest of the Ten Commandments to observe is the eighth. As I mentioned, Im sure more than once, for six years before entering the Society of Jesus I was on the stage. Among the plays I took part in was one called Nothing But the Truth. The theme was the practical impossibility of telling the truth and nothing but the truth for twenty-four hours. My friends in Christ, you try to practice total honesty, sincerity, truthfulness, complete openness, for twenty-four hours and I promise you it will be hard. I hope you believe me. Because we can tell lies not only in speech but in the thousand ways in which human nature practices make believe. How tempted we are to dissemble to not show our displeasure when someone is speaking unkindly of another. We can tell a lie with our bodies. We can tell lies with our eyes. Did you know that? Thats why religious who do not wear their habits are walking lies. And priests walking the street without clerical garb are walking lies. May I suggest that we all daily examine our conscience on how totally truthful our behavior has been in a given day.
Ninth Commandment: You Shall Not Covet Your Neighbors Wife
In its biblical context this prohibition is only the first in a series of precepts which forbid any form of greed. Yet it is placed first because as lust it is the source of so much sin. Even in its Hebrew setting the Ninth Commandment pertains to controlling ones interior desires. Here for what belongs to another as his property by marriage. But as with the Sixth Commandment only with the coming of Christ did this precept extend to all forms of internal sins against chastity. And as with the Eighth Commandment to keep that unsullied even for twenty-four hours to not just tell the truth, but look the truth, walk the truth, dress the truth, live the truth is hard. So here with chastity too not only control ones bodily senses but to control hour after hour moment after moment ones interior desires. Remaining chaste in heart, ah, I know, I know it may take heroism and you will not even get credit for your chastity except from the God who sees your heart.
Tenth and last Commandment: You Shall Not Set Your Heart On Your Neighbors House, His Servant, Man or Woman, His Ox, His Donkey or Anything Else That Is His
In Hebrew terms to covet another persons property meant to deprive him of his God given inheritance. All Jews who are entitled to a share in what Yahweh gave His chosen people. By the time of the Wisdom literature of the Old Testament believers are not only forbidden to covet but they are told to care for the needy and to trust in Gods rewarding those who are generous in sharing what they have with others.
Our closing paragraph. All the evidence indicates that as the inspired writers of the Old Testament drew closer to the dawn of Christianity they went far beyond the prohibition to set ones heart on another persons possessions. Their morality(?) became increasingly prominent in the moral teaching of the later books of the old law. A closing refraction and prayer.
Most Holy Spirit You inspire the writers of the Old Testament and especially for our purpose Your servant Moses to give us the Ten Commandments. Let us never dear Holy Spirit think that we have gone beyond the Ten Commandments as though somehow we are now free to disregard the Decalogue. Most Holy Spirit of Wisdom teach us to understand what it means to live up to the Ten Commandments You gave your chosen people before the time of Christ. Help us to understand and to live the Decalogue as You now teach Your chosen people, the followers of Jesus Christ. We believe only those who keep the Ten Commandments on earth will enjoy the possession of God Who gave the Commandments in eternity.
In the name of the Father, and the of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Copyright © 1999 Inter Mirifica
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