Jesus said to the rich young man, “If you would enter life, keep the commandments” (Mt. 19:17). Even though Jesus came to give us a new law and a new covenant, He makes it clear that His followers must keep the commandments. He did not come to abolish the Ten Commandments but to fulfill them (cf. Mt. 5:17-20).
Our Lord invites us to discover the Ten Commandments anew. He lived them perfectly and revealed their full meaning. Even more, He now gives us His Holy Spirit so that we can keep the commandments, despite our fallen nature. He also has left us the Sacrament of Reconciliation, so that He can pour out His abundant mercy upon us whenever we fail to live according to the commandments.
He interpreted the Ten Commandments in light of the twofold commandment of love: Love God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself (Mt. 22:36-40). Traditional catechesis divides the commandments accordingly, first covering those that pertain to the love of God (nos. 1-3), and then addressing the commandments that pertain to the love of neighbor (nos. 4-10).
Another word for the Ten Commandments is the Decalogue, which means “ten words” (Ex. 34:28). These “words” summarize the law given by God to Moses as the blueprint for living a good life free from slavery to sin.
These “words” are perennial valid. For that reason, Christians must keep the commandments. They express our fundamental duties owed in justice toward God and neighbor. Upon this foundation, the virtues of faith, hope, and especially charity are able to flourish in us.
Over the course of this recurring series of blog posts, I will try to provide a contemporary catechesis on the commandments, based on the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
Let’s begin at the beginning, with the First Commandment:
I am the LORD your God: you shall not have strange Gods before me. (see Catechism, nos. 2084-2141)
The first part of this commandment exhorts us to praise and adore God, acknowledging Him as the Lord of everything that exists. Practically speaking, this commandment calls us to cultivate the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity:
Through faith we believe all that God has revealed through Christ as proclaimed by His Church, as we reject sins such as deliberate doubt, heresy, schism, and apostasy.
Through hope we place all our trust in God’s goodness and promises, and we reject the sins of despair and presumption.
Through charity we love God above all things, and we reject sins such as indifference, lukewarmness (cf. Rev. 3:14-16), and ingratitude.
The second part of this commandment instructs us not to worship other gods. What does that mean for us today? The Catechism identifies some sins that are violations of this commandment:
Superstition and Divination: Any deviation from the authentic worship of God. Some extreme forms would include calling upon Satan himself or conjuring up the dead. This also includes consulting horoscopes, astrology, tarot cards, and various “New Age” practices.
Idolatry: This involves more than mere pagan worship. Anytime we put money, power, or any creature in the place of “God,” we have committed idolatry.
Irreligion: The failure to give what is due to God. This includes the sins of putting God to the test, sacrilege, and simony.
Atheism and Agnosticism: The former is the outright rejection of God’s existence, the latter is a persistent uncertainty that can easily give rise to indifferentism and practical atheism.
The full biblical text of the First Commandment includes the command: “You shall not make for yourself a graven image . . .” (Exodus 20:4).
The Catholic Church is known for its promotion of sacred art, and many Catholic homes have crucifixes as well as statues, icons, and paintings of the Blessed Mother and other saints. Is that a violation of the First Commandment?
There’s a big difference between an image that reminds us of the one, true God and our brothers and sisters in the Lord, and an image that actually takes the place of God. Catholics understand, for example, that the crucifix is a reminder of God’s saving act on Calvary. We don’t worship the crucifix as though it were God.
It’s a good question, though. In fact, it’s such an important question that the Church formally addressed this very issue at the Second Council of Nicaea in 787, over 200 years before the Eastern Schism and over 700 years before the rise of Protestantism. The Council affirmed that the veneration of sacred images is rooted in the mystery of the Incarnation and is not contrary to the First Commandment.
Stay tuned next week for a look at the Second Commandment!