Homily – March 11th, 2012
COMMANDMENTS THE GODLY GUIDE Exodus 20:1-17 March 11, 2012
In Church, on an evening as I mentally prepare for Confession, kneeling, propping myself with my elbows on the pew in front of me, I bring to mind the Ten Commandments. I watch as the red light in the confessional blinks off, and the penitent comes away, and then another person enters to tell of his failing and to receive the grace of absolution. And again I inquire of myself how I offended God or my neighbor. Road rage—that has shook me several times, and I did really find myself angry with that other driver; in fact, I mentally told off that driver all evening. Furthermore, I plotted to steal a lap-top from a ferry rider, even waiting my chance to hide it in my briefcase; it sits in my office, next to my PC, and the lap-top is unused because I am ashamed to bring it home. Anger and theft do not fit with the Ten Commandments; I recognize and admit that in both of these I have flunked; I will admit them in confession.
The penal code of the State of Washington occupies a space in print; it is cold print enunciating an exact prohibition that forbids my acting out the anger that I felt against that other driver. Thus RCW 46.52.010 describes my Duty on striking an unattended car or other property. It states this: “The operator of any vehicle which collided with any other vehicle which is unattended shall immediately stop and shall then and there either locate and notify the operator or owner of such vehicle of the name and address of the operator and owner of the vehicle striking the unattended vehicle or shall leave in a conspicuous place in the vehicle struck a written notice, giving the name and address of the operator and of the owner of the vehicle striking such other vehicle.”
Each item in this law has importance in court. But the natural law—it has no such precise formulation—is my conscience, myself judging that I should inform the vehicle owner of my car’s having struck the other vehicle. My conscience, not the law book of the state, dictates to me, alone in my singularity, what I should do. And the Ten Commandments express natural law, for the Ten Commandments have conscience as their guide, not a State government.
John Cheever in the 1950s wrote short stories that often appeared in The New Yorker magazine. Among these creations, Cheever begins “Pot of Gold” with this sentence. He writes this:
You could not say fairly of Ralph and Laura Whittemore that they
had the failings and the characteristics of incorrigible treasure
hunters, but you could say truthfully of them that the shimmer and
the smell, the peculiar force of money, the promise of it, had an
untoward influence on their lives” (The Stories of John Cheever,
Vintage, 2000, p. 103). This influence contrasts with the influence of God on our lives. One of the central convictions of Jewish and Christian faith is that human life is to be lived before God, and that such life has an order and structure, constituted by God’s Ten Commandments.
In the short story, the Whittemores chase various get-rich schemes; he begins by working in his first year of marriage on a scheme to obtain a well-paying job in Texas, but after a few months that hope fizzles; a venture on a new and improved venetian blind stops; a wealthy person of bare acquaintance might employ Ralph, but that person suddenly dies. In the end, Ralph and Laura rejoice in each other, realizing that they have fruitlessly chased money, and that money has been the primary influence in their lives. They do not cheat, and they do not harm others, but they do spend Sunday morning in bed. They simply do not realize
God as their guide; the Ten Commandments mean vague moral principles, not God immediately guiding them.
In the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses summons the Israelites in the
desert, and he speaks to them. Hear, O Israel, the statues and ordinances that I am addressing to you today; you shall learn them and observe them diligently. The Lord our God made a covenant with us at Horeb. Not with our ancestors did the lord make this covenant, but with us, who are all of us here alive today. The Lord spoke with you face to face at the mountain of the fire….And he said: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me. (Deut 5:1-6)
This first demand requires that there be no other deity alongside of God,
or in preference to God, or any god except the one God. These words the Lord spoke with a loud voice to your whole assembly at the mountain, out of the fire, the cloud, and the thick darkness, and he added no more. He wrote them on two stone tablets, and gave them to me. (Deut 5:22)
For us Christians, to live this way is embodied in the person of Christ. Thus in the gospel, a young man rushes up to Jesus and kneels and asks him,
“Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, … “You know the commandments….” And Jesus recites these. And the youth says to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” And Jesus loved the young man and said that he should give his money to the poor; “then come, follow me” (Mark 10:17-22).
In Jesus Christ, we see the exemplar of the commandments lived, fulfilled. In living the Christian life, we live the Ten Commandments. Amen. Emmett H. Carroll, S.J.