Keeping the Commandments

Fr. Theodore Stylianopoulos | 08 December 2021

At the doctor’s office the following dialog, especially of older people, is not at all unusual: “Doctor, how can I maintain my health? What should I do to enjoy good health and a full life?” The doctor replies: “Keep a right diet, get enough sleep, exercise, do not smoke or abuse alcohol, avoid prolonged stress, enjoy your work.” Life is given to all as a gift. But our health depends in large measure on how well we follow the doctor’s advice.

In the Gospel (Luke 18:18-27) a young ruler came to Jesus raising a far more important question. “Good Teacher,” he said, “what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” He addressed Jesus as “Good Teacher,” perhaps as a tease or to gain attention in some other way. Jesus, however, moved quickly beyond human compliments and pointed to God’s goodness and authority. He referred to the substance of the question and answered, “You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery, do not kill, do not steal, do not bear false witness, honor your father and mother.’” In other words, if you want to inherit eternal life, keep God’s commandments.

Jesus quoted five of the Ten Commandments. “Do not commit adultery, do not kill, do not steal, do not bear false witness, honor your father and mother.” These commandments have to do with the nature of human relationships. They aim to support and enhance human cooperation and harmony. They signify a way of life that is righteous in the eyes of God.

Where do we find the Ten Commandments? The giving of the Ten Commandments is narrated in the book of Exodus (20:1-17). The people of Israel had been liberated from captivity in Egypt. They were travelling through the wilderness of Sinai and were yet a long way from the Promised Land. Trials and failures challenged them as they learned how to live as people of God. The Ten Commandments were given as the charter of their covenant and life with God. They represent the highest expression of God’s ethical will in the Old Testament. All the authors of the Bible and the great teachers of Judaism, including the Lord Jesus Himself, held the Ten Commandments as the supreme teaching of the Old Testament, representing the abiding authority, wisdom and goodness of God.

When we reflect on the significance of the Ten Commandments, we should remember two things. The first is that the commandments were given by God out of love for His people. God’s love preceded the giving of the commandments and continued in equal strength afterwards. God is the God of love in the Old Testament too according to the teaching of Jesus. God’s love was not dependent on the people’s obedience to God’s precepts. God’s love is always unconditional and everlasting for all of us. We do not earn God’s love because God already loves us, sinners though we be. God loves because the very character of God is love. God loved Israel even in its disobedience, and He guided Israel to the Promised Land. God’s purpose was to make Israel a light to the nations so that all people of the earth could be drawn to the covenant with God and become God’s people in equal measure.

The second important thing about the commandments is that they contain God’s truths which are intrinsic to human life. They are not mindless arbitrary rules. The commandments were not given as mere tests of obedience so that people can know their place. They were not intended so that human beings can always be humble and compliant to God. God’s purpose was never to set up abject slaves groveling on the earth. On the contrary, God’s purpose was to raise up strong, vigorous and creative personal beings, created in the image and likeness of God and destined to be God’s representatives in all creation. God desires not slaves but vibrant sons and daughters, imbued with truth, wisdom and fullness of life.

The Psalms liken God’s commandments and precepts to a lamp that provides light and guidance for our lives. The saints of the Church call the commandments life-bearing and light-giving. Any thoughtful person can immediately recognize the truth of the commandments which are part and parcel of human well-being. Adultery ruins the holiness of marriage and leads to breakup of families. Killing is the worst trauma in human experience which corrupts and degrades human life. Lying and cheating destroy the fabric of trust in personal and social relationships. Dishonoring parents strikes at the heart of the idea of dignity of family. Only fools fail to see the intrinsic value of keeping God’s commandments.

On the positive side the significance of the commandments is equally clear and convincing. Holding to fidelity in marriage gives strength and joy to the family. Practicing honesty and integrity brings transparency and trust in human relationships. Choosing to support rather than to take life underscores the value of all life. Honoring our parents is honoring the gift of life itself and showing genuine gratitude. All the effects of God’s commandments are not extra to life but part of the essence of life. St. Peter of Damascus, a bishop in Syria in the eighth century, used to teach that when we obey God’s commandments it is not that we keep the commandments but rather that the commandments keep us. God’s commandments help us uphold and enhance our personhood, our dignity, our intrinsic worth as human beings. All these truths shine with the irrefutable brightness of God’s light.

The young ruler of today’s Gospel came from a devout Jewish family. When Jesus directed him to obey the commandments he replied: “All these I have observed from my youth!” In Matthew’s version of the dialog the ruler added, “What do I still lack” (Mat 19:20)? Jesus immediately challenged him to a height of life previously unimagined by the young man. Jesus said: “One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (Luke 18:22). The man did not rise to the challenge. Being wealthy and bound to his wealth, he became very sad (perilypos) and walked away in disappointment. Jesus concluded saying, “How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God!”

“Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor; and come, follow me.” Christ gave many directions to His listeners but did not usually challenge them to sell all they had and then to follow Him. He called them to a radical life of love and goodness but not to a total denial of homes, families and belongings. Christ nowhere prohibits the owning of property but rather only commands the proper use of it, including generous concern and help of the poor. The only ones among Christ’s immediate followers who left everything behind and followed Him were the twelve apostles, and quite likely many others who later became missionaries of the Gospel. The young ruler was perhaps himself called to the height of being an apostle or missionary of Christ, a vocation that can be fulfilled only by a special calling and the grace of God. In this case the young ruler failed to heed the call because of his attachment to wealth. Only God knows what followed in his life and how he may have served God in other ways as a faithful and devout person.

Christ was asked about eternal life many times during His ministry. I have spoken on this theme on other occasions. Eternal life is a quality of life that begins here and now on earth in the light of God’s commandments. It is a life lived in closeness with God and in the fulfillment of God’s love and forgiveness. It is the life of faith, believing that the kingdom of God has come in the person and life of Jesus, embracing Christ as Lord and Savior, and living according to the Lord’s teachings. We call it eternal because God is eternal. We call it true life because Christ is the fullness of the truth of God. As Jesus taught, “I am the way and the truth and the life” (John 14:6).

In our own life’s journey, let us not fail to be faithful and true to the various vocations we have from God as parents and children, wives and husbands, young and old, professional or not. We get directions from many different sources. Doctors tell us about good health. Teachers how to do well in school. Financial advisors how to make successful investments. Chefs how to cook a fine meal. Coaches how to play a good and fair game. God has provided directions on how to attain the highest goal of all: eternal life. God’s directions represent not merely suggestions or recommendations, but rather commandments carrying God’s full authority and truth. They have been given in love and are properly kept with love.

In the words of St. Paul: “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery, You shall not kill, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,’ and any other commandment, are summed up in this sentence, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law” (Rom. 13:8-10).

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