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‘Thou shalt not…’ - Language of Love

By Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted

Diocese of Phoenix

Published in The Catholic Sun

January 5, 2006

Part One in a Series

Click her to read part two in this series

Click here to read part three in this series

Click here to read part four in this series

“If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments,” (Mt 19:17) “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (Jn 14:15). With words such as these, Jesus teaches us that the commandments are a precious gift of God. He also teaches us that they are intrinsically bound to love. But for hearts swollen and darkened by pride the commandments seem the opposite of love; they seem to constrict our decisions and limit our choices. How ironic since they in fact are the road to genuine freedom.

Showing the path to freedom

The Commandments, as the “Catechism of the Catholic Church” points out, are among the tools God uses to set us free. We need to understand them “in the context of the Exodus, God’s great liberating event at the center of the Old Covenant” (#2057). Notice, in this regard, the first words of God as He gives the commandments to Moses, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage” (Ex 20:2).

Even though formulated as prohibitions and negative statutes, the commandments are anything but depressing, for they “point out the conditions of a life freed from the slavery of sin” (Catechism, ibid). More importantly, they teach us how to come and dwell in the presence of God. As the Catechism puts it (#2059), “They belong to God’s revelation of Himself and His glory. The gift of the Commandments is the gift of God Himself and His holy will. In making His will known, God reveals Himself to His people.”

Sadly, our present age has forgotten the wisdom of God’s commandments, and the destructive consequences surround us. When pleasure becomes a goal in itself, when what “I want” trumps what God commands and what my neighbor needs, you have a formula for disaster. We have “my rights” riding rough shod over human rights. We have a culture of death strangling the dignity and beauty of human life. Only through truth and love can we be free.

Necessary part of love

How can we discover, or perhaps rediscover, the blessing of God’s commandments? We urgently need to do so. For “Thou shalt not…” are three of the most loving words God ever spoke to His people. That’s why He spoke them so often and why He continues to do so. These words warn us about dead-end roads, about paths that have no happy endings. They are the answer to the question “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Cf. Mt 19:16-19).

Jesus, in his conversation with the rich young man (Mt 19:16ff), and in his words to the Apostles at the Last Supper (Jn 14:15ff), showed the close connection between the Ten Commandments and the Two Great Commandments of Love. The first three deal with the love of God and the last seven with the love of neighbor. In this regard, St. Augustine says, “As charity comprises the two commandments to which the Lord related the whole Law and the prophets… so the Ten Commandments were themselves given on two tablets. Three were written on one tablet and seven on the other” (Sermon, 33).

Teach these to your children

Are these not words that a father should explain to his sons and daughters? Should not a priest lift them up for the portion of Christ’s flock that he serves? Are they not nuggets of wisdom for a mother to feed her children? Just as God’s commandments are not something separate from His love, but a gift for the joy and maturity of His people, so our efforts to teach others the Decalogue are expressions of authentic love.

In the weeks ahead, I shall explore some of the commandments individually, such as “Thou shalt not kill,” and “Thou shalt not covet.” As I do so, keep in mind that the Ten Commandments reciprocally complement one another and form a coherent whole. When we break one of them, we infringe on the others as well. Let us also remember Jesus’ words, “Whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do so will be called least in the Kingdom of heaven. But whoever obeys and teaches these commandments will be called greatest in the Kingdom of heaven” (Mt 5:19).

Copyright 2006 The Catholic Sun

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