“The Ten Commandments contain 297 words. The Bill of Rights is stated in 463 words. Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address contains 266 words. A recent federal directive to regulate the price of cabbage contains 26,911 words.”*
Brevity isn’t always essential to quality — consider the novels of writers like Leo Tolstoy or Victor Hugo (although, I’ll admit that in some parts a little brevity would have helped…). But for it’s length, it would be difficult to find another document that has influenced human history, governance and society more than the Ten Commandments, at less than 300 words.
The first lesson this Sunday will be the original giving of the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20. Click here to read it.
I believe the lasting power of the Ten Commandments comes from several factors. First, they point to a moral source outside of ourselves. Some would deny any moral structure and order to the universe, yet the clear experience of the vast majority of humankind throughout history has affirmed that there are certain morals that just are. The Ten Commandments begins by acknowledging that critical foundation.
This means that the Commandments are not authoritative because we happen to like them, but because they connect in some undeniable way with the very essence of existence as we experience it. The rules therein are not subject to varying cultural contexts. Of course, there will always be individuals who reject morals and moral authority but such basic moral structures are only challenged on a large scale in a culture in full decay and self-destruction. The Ten Commandments are good law and we just know it without having to debate them.
Finally, we have experienced through history the positive, transforming power of these Commandments. They are not just a reasonable set of rules for society, like well crafted traffic laws or estate laws. When lived by, they actually begin to shape the people we are in good and helpful ways.
This is in line with what is often referred to in Christian theology and ethics as the “Three Uses of the Law”:
1) The Law reveals the nature of God as a God of order and love enacted in relationship.
2) The Law restrains sin.
3) The Law sanctifies the believer by shaping the one who lives by the Law.
This week, let’s give thanks that we do not worship an “If it feels good, do it” god, but a God who loves and cares for us enough to give us the Law, to write it into the very fabric of our being, and let us pray that we may have the grace and strength to live by His Law.
Fr. Eric Turner
* Variously attributed to The Atlanta Journal and The New York Times. First found by me on the wall of a local grocery store.
This column appeared in the October 4, 2020 edition of St. John’s eNews. Click here for the complete issue.
If you area reading this at a different time, you may click here for the current eNews.