Teaching the Commandments
February 16, 2014
The challenge of Jesus’s words in today’s gospel is this: not only does he ask us to follow God’s commandments; he also asks us to teach others to do the same. He says that whoever breaks one of the least of the commandments of God and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the Kingdom of Heaven. But, whoever obeys and teaches the commandments will be the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven. Therefore, Jesus is asking us to not only obey God’s commands, but to teach others to obey them as well. Now, when we hear this command of Jesus to teach others, we should not imagine that Christ is asking us to obtain a theological degree or become a classroom catechist. We are to teach others to obey God’s commands by the example of our lives.
For his twenty-fifth wedding anniversary, he took the video of their wedding ceremony and had it transferred onto a DVD, as a surprise for her. The plan was to have a simple dinner together followed by a movie—their movie. It was a date she never made. Two months before the anniversary, she died of kidney cancer. So, when the anniversary came, he took the DVD and placed it in the player. Then he sat down in the family room to watch it, smiling, laughing, and crying all at the same time. His eldest son, an 18-year-old teenager, came in and sat down next to him to watch for a while. He saw his father on the screen, only a few years older than he was now. He saw his mother, so young and so happy. He only sat by his father for a while, because he knew his father needed space by himself to celebrate this first anniversary without her. It certainly had been difficult for the son and his two younger brothers to lose their mother. But, it was just as difficult for them to watch their father grieving the loss of the love of his life.
Yet they were making it. The family was still intact. They continued to be a family. And somehow they knew how to do this right from the beginning. As they were coming home from hospice on the day that she died, the oldest boy took his mother’s seat in the front of the van. He was the first to break the exhausted silence. He turned to his father and to his brothers in the back seat and said, “Well, it’s just the four of us now. We will need to take care of one another.” Now, no one told him to say this. No one instructed him to assume a more mature role in this grieving and broken family. But he had been taught how to live and what to do by the love that he had always seen between his mother and his father. It was a love that was both serious and funny, romantic and routine, flirtatious and forgiving. It was a love that surrounded him as an infant, a love that he experienced in the fun of family vacations and in the dialog and teasing at meals. It was a love that he saw in the faithfulness present in the hospital room. He and his brothers knew how to live, knew how to sacrifice, knew how to be family. They knew how to follow the commandment of God to love one another because they were taught by the example of the love that their mother and father shared with each other.
We are always teaching by the way that we live. Either teaching people to follow God’s commandments or teaching them to break them. We are either showing the people in our family, at work, at school, in our neighborhood how to live well, or how to make our lives a disaster. Today, then, it is appropriate to be thankful for the people in our lives whose love has taught us how to live well. It is also right to re-double our own efforts to be the best example we can be to others. Because if we obey the commandments of God and teach others how to obey them, we will be the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven.
Beyond the Ten Commandments
February 12, 2017
Matthew 5: 17-37
It is sometimes said that the Ten Commandments are the heart of the Jewish-Christian tradition and that following the Ten Commandments is the way of faith. But, such a thought is certainly wrong. The Ten Commandments are the minimal requirements for both Christians and Jews. Anyone who does not obey the Ten Commandments would not only fail as a believer, but as a human being. All people must try to avoid murder, theft, lying, and adultery if any human society is to survive. So, we as Christians are certainly called to obey the Ten Commandments, but we must also recognize that we are called to do more than simply follow these minimal requirements.
Jesus expects us to be people of generosity, kindness, forgiveness, and sacrifice. Those are qualities that cannot be legislated. A daycare center was having trouble with parents picking up their children at the end of school day. The teachers, who had their own families, could not leave until the tardy parents arrived. So, they thought that they would solve the problem by instilling a regulation. Parents who were not on time to pick up their children would have to pay a fine. But this new regulation—rather than helping the matter—made things worse. Before the fine was set, parents were motivated to arrive on time out of kindness to the teachers’ needs. But once the fine was established, the whole matter became an economic exchange. Many parents were more than happy to pay the fine if it added flexibility to their day.
You can legislate a fine but you cannot legislate kindness. A commandment can prescribe a punishment, but it cannot lead us to what is ideal and good. This is why Jesus speaks the way he does in today’s gospel. He accepts the Ten Commandments and even names them: Thou shall not kill. But Jesus wants his followers to know that they are called to more than just this minimal requirement. They are not only asked to avoid murder. They are asked to avoid anger, harsh judgment, and prejudice that fuel so much violence in our world. Developing these qualities cannot be legislated.
You and I are challenged by the words of Jesus. We cannot be content merely to follow minimal requirements. We might be able to say, “You know, I never killed anyone.” But do we bear anger in our heart against people who are different or who disagree with us or who have hurt us? Jesus is asking us to let that anger go. We might be able to say, “I never committed adultery.” But what is our commitment to our marriage? Do we try to understand our spouse? Do we compromise? Are we willing to seek counseling when communication breaks down? These are the deeper values to which Jesus calls us. We might be able to say, “I never bore false witness against anyone.” But do we speak out when someone’s character is demeaned in our presence? Do we remain silent when a family member or friend makes a decision that is disastrous to him or herself or to others?
The Ten Commandments are part of Jesus’ teaching, and we should obey them. But we should only see them as minimal requirements. Jesus is calling us to something that no law can demand. He is calling us to live our lives with hearts filled with justice, mercy and love.