Woodcut for "Die Bibel in Bildern", 1860. Wikimedia Commons

God's Word on Sunday: Commandments must be in hearts

  • February 28, 2021

Third Sunday of Lent, March 7 (Year B) Exodus 20:1-17; Psalm 19; 1 Corinthians 1:18, 22-25 John 2:13-25

Are the Ten Commandments unique? Were people ignorant of their content before Moses ascended Mount Sinai to receive them from God? In fact, many of the provisions of the commandments have parallels in the law codes of the ancient near east. They represent the basic building blocks of a just and humane society.

The commandments appear twice in the Old Testament — once in Exodus 20:1-17 and a second time in Deuteronomy 5:6-21. The two versions differ somewhat. Exodus commands observance of the Sabbath as a reflection of God’s rest on the seventh day of creation, while Deuteronomy’s reason is out of respect for human need. Slaves and resident aliens are as deserving of rest as Israelites, and they are reminded that they were slaves in Egypt. Both versions condemn coveting, but the Exodus version includes wives among domestic property, while Deuteronomy lists the wives separately.

The root of much human grief is greed and covetousness, so many of the commandments insist that people be content with what they have and not cast longing eyes towards the property of others. Equal and just treatment is ordered for all, right down to the lowliest slave and the resident alien.

But all of this is embedded in a covenant between the Israelites and the God of Israel — the God who brought them out of Egypt. Absolute and exclusive loyalty was the bedrock of that covenant; idolatry in any form was strictly forbidden. Observance of these commandments was the precondition for a continuing relationship with God and failure to do so ruptured this relationship.

Even though the people swore solemnly to be faithful to the covenant, they strayed many times in Israel’s history, just as we do in ours. The commandments are not burdensome and they are all an expression of love for God and one’s neighbour. Jesus named love as the greatest of the commandments, and Paul called love the summation and perfect expression of the Law and the commandments.

Much lip service is given to the commandments and they grace many walls in beautiful frames. But all too often, this is little more than a decoration or a religious talisman. They need to be in our hearts.

Christ came in a form guaranteed to confound everyone. People often expect that God will match their own preconceptions and opinions, but God always has other ideas. People want signs or proofs but are prepared to disbelieve even the ones that are given. Others want Jesus packaged in profound and intricate philosophical or theological systems, but He is deceptively simple.

To human eyes, Christ crucified is everything that we fear and hate: weakness and vulnerability. It reminds us of our own, which we just cannot accept. But when it is embraced with trust and love, it becomes power and wisdom.

The story of the “cleansing” of the temple plays a special role in John’s Gospel. In the other three Gospels, it occurs at the end of the ministry of Jesus and triggers His arrest and death. In John it inaugurates the ministry of Jesus and is meant to illuminate the meaning of His death and resurrection.

He was questioned about the commotion He had staged and was asked for a sign signifying His authority for His actions. He claimed that if the temple were destroyed, He would raise it up in three days. They were incredulous; it had taken 46 years to build. But the narrator added that He was speaking of the temple of His body.

Here and throughout the Gospel, Jesus indicated that He was creating a new temple or house of God in Himself and the community of His followers, who would form a family. All of this only became clear to the apostles after His resurrection.

The experience of the risen Lord illuminated and clarified many things, and continues to do so today. Even though many were then attracted to Jesus and claimed to believe, Jesus was cautious and kept His distance. He was fully aware of how fickle and superficial the faith and understanding of some people are. True faith endures through difficult and painful times as well as disappointments and heartbreaks. It thrives on hope and love and has no need of proofs or having all the answers.