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Rewriting the human heart: Introducing the Ten Commandments

We live in an age where freedom is presented to us as permission to figure out for ourselves what is good and what it means to be human. Our primary responsibility, it seems, is to choose for ourselves: to craft our own identities, to create our ideal social order, to do whatever is necessary to fulfill the maxim that “you do you.”

The Christian life, however, is all about freedom and not at all about arbitrary choice. The freedom of the Christian life is in receiving and responding to the order God gives, and to live wholly and bountifully within that order.

The third pillar of the Catechism of the Catholic Church is dedicated to “Life in Christ,” and more than half the pages on that pillar focus on the Ten Commandments. We do not have much appetite for commandments in our modern world, because they feel like impositions and limits to the commonplace notion of freedom. But in Christ, these commandments guide us to true freedom, which is the freedom to love God and love our neighbor.

In this 10-part series over the next several months, I will present short teachings and reflections on the Ten Commandments, drawing from the wisdom of the Catechism, so that we Christians might rediscover the dignity of the order God gives us. This first installment is an introduction, while the next nine will focus on the commandments in order (the ninth and tenth will be treated together).

The good news in the bad

Life in Christ is good news. It is fitting, then, that the long section of the Catechism dealing with the Ten Commandments begins with a proclamation of the Gospel: the Good News of Jesus Christ. What is odd, though, is that the Gospel passage we find there does not really seem like good news. It seems, rather, like bad news, because it is the story of the rich man who comes to Jesus looking for eternal life. When he’s told how to find what he really wants, he walks away sad. His heart isn’t in it; it’s on his many possessions. What an unhappy ending!

What we may not see at first is that this unhappy ending hides good news within it. The fact that the rich man is sad is itself good news. The truly unhappy ending would be the one where he just didn’t care. His troubled heart is a sign that he wants something greater. If he keeps walking away from the joy prepared for him, he will get used to the pain and eventually become numb to neglecting the poor and rejecting eternal life. But at least right now, the pain of discontentment opens up the possibility for conversion to the Lord who looked upon with love.

Which Commandments?

Besides the good news tucked inside the unhappy ending, there is something else quite peculiar about this passage. When Jesus recites the commandments for this man, he does not recite all of them. Jesus only recites the latter ones — the ones that are part of the “second tablet,” which has to do with “love of neighbor.” The commandments of the “first tablet,” concerning love of God, are missing.

It would be more than odd for an encounter with Jesus where eternal life hangs in the balance to not focus principally (let alone at all) on the love of God. What is surprising about this rich man’s encounter with Jesus is not, however, that the love of God is not commanded, but rather that the love God is not presented as he — or we — expect it.

By the wisdom of the Old Testament, charity — or almsgiving — is actually an act of worship toward God. That’s right — care for the poor is not primarily an act of love toward your neighbor, as it would seem, but toward God.

How can that be? Because in order to practice almsgiving and throw in your lot with the poor, you have to step over that fear of not being able to provide for yourself. You have to let go of the obsession with your own security and your preference for making your own way. In giving to the poor, you commit yourself to trusting in a world that is good, which God has created in his charity.

By giving alms, you say, “This is right and just,” because this is the kind of world we live in: God’s world, not my world. In giving ourselves over in acts like these, we are participating in the undoing of that tragedy we call “the Fall.” In “the Fall” — by sin — we separate from each other and from God, because we have taught ourselves to see the world as a place of rivalry.

So when Jesus instructs this rich man to sell his possessions and give to the poor, he is actually challenging him to put his faith in God. He is to set his heart on God first and finally. And the reward for that? Treasure in heaven. This is the kind of happiness that only God can provide: the happiness of the eternal law of charity.

As we see with this man, his heart is in the wrong place. His heart is in need of renewal.

The Law of Christ

The rich man finds that Jesus does not come to abolish but to fulfill the Law. In Jesus, the Ten Commandments are completed and the way to salvation is wide open. He is the union of love of God and love of neighbor (both tablets), and to seek eternal life in him is to settle for nothing less.

In Christ, the love of God inspires the love of neighbor, and the love of neighbor leads back to the love of God. The rich man wants to keep things on his terms, but Jesus will not let him settle for that. In love, Jesus tells him the truly difficult and truly necessary thing: he must give his whole heart to God by caring for his neighbor beyond the boundaries of his own comfort.

The law of Christ feels like a grave imposition to this man. But he went away sad because deep down he knew the way of Jesus was right. This way had to be commanded, though, because either this man didn’t want to see what’s right or he didn’t want to do what’s right, for God or for a neighbor. The same might be said of any of us.

Here’s what the Catechism says about the Ten Commandments in relation to who we are created to be: “The precepts of the Decalogue lay the foundations for the vocation of man fashioned in the image of God; they prohibit what is contrary to the love of God and neighbor and prescribe what is essential to it. The Decalogue is a light offered to the conscience of every man to make God’s call and ways known to him and to protect him against evil” (No.1962).

In other words: we were created in and for this order by God who created this good world. To live by the Lord’s commandments is to grow in being really human, together. The commandments help restore us to what we should be and how we should live.

St. Augustine expresses this beautifully when he says about the commandments that “God wrote on the tablets of the Law what men did not read in their hearts.”

What God commands will be complete when our very hearts our rewritten so we don’t have to look outside ourselves for this way of life, because it will simply be our way of life. That’s what Jesus was leading the rich man toward: having his heart changed and taking on Christ’s life.

Leonard J. DeLorenzo, Ph.D., works in the McGrath Institute for Church Life and teaches theology at the University of Notre Dame. His new book is “A God Who Questions” (OSV, 2019).

The Rich Young Man
As he was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not kill; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness; you shall not defraud; honor your father and your mother.'” He replied and said to him, “Teacher, all of these I have observed from my youth.” Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said to him, “You are lacking in one thing. Go, sell what you have, and give to [the] poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” At that statement, his face fell, and he went away sad, for he had many possessions (Mk 10:17-22).
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