In Mark 12:31, when Jesus answers the question of which commandment stands above the others, Jesus not only provides the answer to the question, but he goes farther. He answers an unasked question: which command takes second place to the greatest? His answer to the second question, you shall love your neighbor as yourself, summarizes the second portion of the Ten Commandments.
We should note the existence of such a thing as God-given commands undercuts the contemporary Western idea of autonomy. A man’s home may serve as his castle; however, he rises no higher than a vassal king. If the King of Kings himself serves, we little kings should expect no actual autonomy.
While nearly every Christian has some sort of respect for the Ten Commandments, as we briefly view these which govern how one treats the people around him, let us pause and reflect on how they provide terribly countercultural instructions. Each of them places much of daily cultural practice into handcuffs. Jesus’s church lives within space and time; it exists within culture. The practice of our non-Christ exalting peers often infects our own lives more than we realize. Christian, take note.
Fifth in the list, God instructs his people to honor their parents. The rest of today’s post could give all sorts of discussion on how such a command undercuts much of today’s society. Where our culture tells parents to worship their children, Scripture says otherwise. Children submit to their parents. The command contains a promise, as Paul reminds the reader of Ephesians. Honoring one’s mother and father respects the ordering of God’s creation. Generally speaking, mothers and fathers possess more wisdom in the world. Respecting them leads the child to live life in a way leading to doing well rather than ruining oneself. Where the world traffics in snark and disrespect, God’s people walk in humility.
Sixth, the people of God receive a prohibition against murder. Each and every person, like it or not, bears the image of God. The commandment had an ancient age, even to these first recipients of the Law. Genesis 9 states God would reveal himself as an avenger to those who shed the blood of their fellow men. God’s instructed these people to fill the earth and multiply it; he told them to increase. Murdering one another obviously runs counter to filling the earth with people. With the Sixth Commandment, God tells his people, “You do not hold life in your hands, though you possess the ability to bring life forth in bearing children. I alone am sovereign over life itself.”
Seventh, God prohibits adultery. If contemporary Western culture has an orthodoxy, one of its only tenets is the legitimacy of any sexual activity as long as participants consent to it. Here, God negates such license. As the makers of men and women as sexual creatures, he alone hold prerogative over sexual relationships. Again, we could utilize much space here to discuss this thing, but suffice to say, God states one cannot make sexual contact with whomever he or she pleases, even if the other individual agrees. No man should take another man’s wife to bed, nor should any woman do the same with another’s husband. Emotions, desire, stress, or even the quality of either party’s marriage do not enter the equation. We do not have the sexual autonomy we think we do, the false autonomy we often celebrate. We cannot love our neighbor while actively destroying his marriage.
Eighth, the idea one could take for his own another’s possession and also care for him is ridiculous. Therefore, God prohibits thievery. As creatures made in his image, given the task of stewardship, people do have a limited ability to possess things. God does provide material blessing, and he holds the right and power to remove them as well. However, his vassal kings do not appropriate things for our own which belong to another’s domain. The thief thumbs his nose at the idea of God as the sovereign stewardship-giver, attempting to usurp the role as his own.
Ninth, God forbids a person to speak untruthfully against another person in a court setting. By strong implication, the command prohibits lying altogether. The command again serves the purpose of creating an orderly, steady, and stable society. When the truth becomes the exception rather than the rule, disorder reigns. While maintenance of order can become too meticulous and turn into an idol, Scripture depicts chaotic times in history, and the results never prove anything other than terrible (see Judges). To this day, courts rely on people providing testimony corresponding with reality to the best of their ability. Notice neither the modern justice system, nor the biblical command condemn a person for making mistakes with regard to memory or perspective. Rather, they seek to dissuade people from subverting others through the underhanded means of intentional falsehood.
Tenth and finally, God forbids his people covet the goods of others. The command stands uniquely among the others in that no human witness could truly pass judgment on whether or not another has done such a thing. The act of coveting remains inward. It perhaps underlies the Fifth through Ninth commands, but God condemns it on its own as well. With the command, he reminds the hearers and readers of his own final authority to judge, and he informs his people of his ability to see inside them and know them. How utterly countercultural to be content in this age and to live in freedom from covetousness!
The response of God’s people to the thunderous announcement from the storm atop Mt. Sinai does not lead the reader to think God’s hearer thought these commands simple, as we often do. Instead, they cry out in fear, begging Moses to mediate for them. They cannot bear the voice of God. Interestingly, Moses tells in Exodus 20:20 the people not to fear, but he also tells them God acted in such a way that they would fear him. God has no intention to come down from the mountain in judgment at this time, but he has revealed himself in such a way that they would fear to break any of these imperatives. The proper fear of God understands the true majesty standing behind his moral prerogatives.
Next, we’ll seek to understand why the Ten Commandments transfer so readily into everyday life while many other parts of the Law do not. Stay tuned!