Today we hear the 10 commandments. Hopefully we all have these commandments memorized. They provide a guide in the moral life. I know that most of us make use of the sacrament of Confession during the season of Lent. The 10 commandments give a wonderful examination of conscience and a way to prepare for the reception of God's mercy.
But, these 10 commandments are often misunderstood. I think we all know what the commandments ask, but do we understand why? The commands are easy to teach: you shall do this, and you shall not do this and this… But, they can be hard to follow. Often times these 10 commandments can become a burden, they can seem oppressive. For some people it might be sufficient to simply know about the commands in order to fulfill them. But, for many of us we need a better explanation. I know when I was a kid I would ask my parents for something: Mom, can I go to the neighbor's house? She would say, "no." I would say, "Why?" She would say, "because I said so." Now, I always listened to my Mom, but I was never satisfied with that answer, I always wanted a fuller explanation. The same is true of these commands, why should we follow them?
Listen again to the first line: I, the Lord, am your God, who brought you out of the Land of Egypt. The people have a special relationship with God, which began with his intervention in their lives. Here is what God says a chapter earlier in Exodus: Exodus 19:4-6 You have seen for yourselves how I treated the Egyptians and how I bore you up on eagle wings and brought you here to myself. 5 Therefore, if you hearken to my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my special possession, dearer to me than all other people, though all the earth is mine. So, the Lord had done amazing things for them and he chose them to be his special possession if they do what? Follow the commandments. The commandments do not drop out of heaven. Rather, the commandments always come in context: God first chooses Israel, he frees them from slavery, he leads them through the desert, and he initiates a special permanent relationship with them by covenant. The commandments then serve as a guide for the people: if you want to be my people, if you want to love me in return for everything I have done for you, follow these guides. If we ever ask the question "why" when it comes to the 10 commandments, the answer is Love. God first loves us, following the commands is the way we love God in return.
The whole moral life is a life of love. It begins with God's love and ends with us loving God. This is why Paul preached the way he did, he says: we proclaim Christ crucified. That's because on the cross we see love as he gives himself to us. This is why the cross is at the absolute center of Christianity, this is why the cross should be at the center of our lives. Because the Cross, and the great love that it shows, is the source of Christianity and the inspiration needed to follow the commands. If we see the moral life and its commands as arbitrary rules imposed on us from above, they will always be a burden. But if we see them as a way to return a tremendous love, they become a joy.
I think that many of us probably find ourselves somewhere in between. The laws are not a terrible burden, but they are not quite a joy either. Perhaps, like the Temple at the time of Jesus, we are in need of some cleansing. Our hearts need to be purified so that we can love Christ more fully. Jesus is waiting for our invitation. If we let him, Christ will come into our hearts and cleanse them the way he did in the temple. Jesus knows us very well, as St John says, Jesus did not need anyone to testify about human nature. He himself understood it well. He knows our hearts, he knows our struggles and our temptations, but if we open our hearts to him, he will lead us down the pathway of love.