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The Ten Commandments and the New Law

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.


Our theme as you know is the Decalogue, or the Ten Commandments. We wish in the present meditation to reflect on the Ten Commandments, but as found in the New Covenant since Christ. In today’s world, which in one country after another widespread disobedience is almost the pattern of modern culture, it is well to remind ourselves that whatever else the spiritual life means, it means first, obedience to the commandments of God. Our main purpose in the present reflections will be to see that Christ did not, emphatically, did not eliminate the Ten Commandments. He not only confirmed them, but He elevated them, the Magna Carta, therefore, of New Testament morality, as recorded by Saint Matthew. Beginning with Christ’s Sermon on the Mount and going on through the rest of the New Testament. Writing for converts from Judaism, we would expect the first evangelist to be at pains to show two things. First, and I cannot repeat too often, that Christ did not abrogate the Decalogue. He rather elevated it to heights that were unknown and in fact unattainable before. The evangelist therefore is at pains to show that the Ten Commandments remain intact. But secondly, that they have been sublimated and make such demands on Christ’s followers that were inconceivable because they were impossible before Christ died on the cross, instituted His Church and conferred the grace without which the following of Christ the Lawgiver, hear it? Christ the Lawgiver would be impossible.

We will go through each of the Ten Commandments in sequence.

The First Commandment of the New Law becomes an obligation to recognize God is our Father Who loves us and Whom we are to love in return. More still, Christ identified Himself with the Father and declared, quote “If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself, take up his cross and follow me.” The implication is clear. The faithful of the new Israel, that’s us, are to acknowledge Jesus Christ as their God and worship Him, have no other Gods beside Him. By their practice of sacrifice and the acceptance of whatever trials He, the God in human form, may send them.

What then is the first sublimation of the first commandment in the New Law? It is still, “thou shalt adore the Lord thy God, and Him alone shalt thou serve.” That’s Genesis. “Thou shalt adore Jesus Christ, the Lord thy God, and Him alone shalt thou serve” That’s the first commandment of the New Law. This Jesus Christ, we believe is God. He therefore has a right to our worship and allegiance, and is made so clear obedience to his commands.

I never thought I’d have occasion to say this in the present conference. For the last two days, I have finished dictating by telephone to a reporter in California a refutation of a popular Protestant evangelist whose regular audience I’m told is over three million, who has been cutting down and tearing down the Catholic Church. And one of the principle accusations this evangelist has against Catholics is that they do not distinguish, they dare to equate God the Father with Jesus Christ. Well my dear evangelist, you’re right! But its not we Catholics who make the equation, it is Christ Himself. He couldn’t have been plainer than when He told the Jews in the tenth chapter of John’s Gospel, “the Father and I are One.” First Commandment: Thou shalt adore the Lord thy God and Him alone shalt thou serve. And the God Whom you are to honor and worship and obey is the Son of God who faith tells us is also the Son of Mary.

Second Commandment: No longer does Christ merely forbid the irreverent use of God’s name. Rather Jesus enjoins on His followers a litany of injunctions to prayer. Christ enjoins praying quietly. He commands prayer in private. He tells His followers to recite the perfect prayer, “The Our Father.” Christ emphasizes the necessity of asking and knocking. In other words to pray without ceasing in order to obtain the grace without which the following of Christ would be impossible. What does the second commandment order us Christians to do? It commands us to pray! Not only as in the old law, not to use God’s name irreverently, but to use God’s name reverently indeed, frequently, better constantly, because without prayer it is impossible to follow Christ.

Third Commandment: What had been the Sabbath in the old law, was suddenly changed by the resurrection. And the evangelist has it, (that’s Matthew) watch after the Sabbath and toward dawn on the first day of the week. That word, “after”, marks the beginning of Christianity. Consequently, the two Mary’s who came to visit the tomb where Jesus had been laid and where the angel told them to tell the disciples He has risen from the dead, that took place on the day after the Sabbath. What’s that? Well, Sunday! From the early apostolic days, Christians understood the third commandment to be observed on Sunday. Why? Because Christ rose from the dead on Easter Sunday, it was also on Sundays that the early church met to celebrate the Eucharist, as the most fitting way of keeping Holy the Lord’s day. When did the practice of attending Mass on Sunday begin? Oh that’s easy, it began shortly after Christ’s resurrection and ascension into Heaven. Sunday’s were the Lord’s day from the first century of the apostolic church. And no doubt even the very word Sabbath, meaning West, has been elevated with the coming of Christ. Because while we too, are to abstain from servile work on Sunday. While there is nothing like the Draconian legislation of the Talmud forbidding any physical work on Sunday. For us, the principle stress is divine worship on Sunday.

Fourth Commandment: In reply to the rich young mans question about what commandments he should observe to attain eternal life, the Savior told him, Christ quoted Deuteronomy, Honor your father and mother. But the Fourth Commandment under the aegis of Christ became not only a mandate for children to obey their parents; Christ went beyond this simple precept of obeying one’s parents, to command all the commandments. When? Just before His ascension into Heaven. Remember? Going therefore, proclaim the Gospel to all nations, baptizing them and teaching them to obey all the commandments that I have given you. Oh how I wish this one sentence of mine will be burned into your minds. For us Christians, the Fourth Commandment means obedience to Jesus Christ, as the Church has been teaching her followers for 1900 years. It was no coincidence, that in the same Gospel of Matthew, it would be Matthew, a Jew converted to Christ, writing for Jews. He knew what sticklers his people were for the law. All right my friends, my fellow Israelites, let me tell you, what Yahweh told you in the old law, Yahweh become man is telling you in the New Law. It’s the New Law. Christianity is a religion of obedience. Of course, of course the motive force behind our obedience is love. Who doubts it? But we show our love by obedience. It was therefore not surprisingly the same Matthew, who gives us the narrative of Christ’s making Peter His vicar on earth. And giving him Peter and Peter’s successors the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven. Which means as we know, that by our submission to Peter, and the Bishops of Rome who follow Peter, by our submission to the Vicar of Christ, we will be submitting our selves, that’s the bottom line, to Christ. Anyone who claims to be obeying Christ, and is not willing to obey the Vicar of Christ is a hypocrite. And quoting the Savior, is a son of the devil. No matter how many academic degrees behind his name, or how many learned books he may have published. All of that and much more is locked up in the Fourth Commandment of the Christian Decalogue.

Fifth Commandment: In answering the rich young man, who asked Christ which commandments he was to obey, guess which one Christ started with? The fifth: you must not kill. Earlier in this same Sermon on the Mount, on which we are drawing so heavily to bring out Christ’s elevating the Decalogue, once more Christ began with this precept to explain how the new law was a sublimation of the old. It is the first of six antithesis which Jesus gives in which He makes a studied contrast between what the old law prescribed, and what He now, Yahweh in the flesh is prescribing. It’s a long quotation, but it’s worth making. It’s the Savior speaking. You have learned how it was said to your ancestors you must not kill. And if anyone does kill, he must answer for it before the court. But, yet that observed adversative but, I say this to you, anyone who is angry with his brother will answer for it before the court. If a man calls his brother a fool, he will answer for it before the Sanhedrin. And if a man calls him renegade, he will answer for it in hellfire. So then if you are bringing your offering to the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar. Go and be reconciled with your brother first. Then come back and present your offering. Unquote Matthew, quoting Jesus, his fifth chapter, twenty-first through the twenty-fifth verses.

How I’d like to spend the next three days, on this Fifth Commandment, now Christianized, as only Jesus Christ could do so. By now volumes have been written in commentary on this passage. But the central message of Christ is simple. Under the new dispensation, a narrow interpretation of the prohibition of killing is not enough. Not only are external acts of violence forbidden by the Fifth Christian Commandment, but angry words, insulting speech, and hear it, unkind thoughts are forbidden by the Fifth Commandment. Christ declared that His followers are to leave their sacrifice, typified in the Jewish ritual on the altar and go first to be reconciled with someone from whom they are estranged. We no longer have bloody sacrifices as had the ancient Jews. We have the un-bloody sacrifice of the Mass. Why, after all these years, no doubt thousands of Masses we have assisted at, and participated in, why have we not profited as much as God wants us to? I'll tell you why. And I’m using the first person plural: every stain of unkindness, every shred of resentment, every form of sometimes deeply hidden dislike of another person that we have not shaken off. In other words, what Christ is telling us in His Fifth Commandment is that we are first of all to interiorize our natural tendency to revenge or anger. That we are not only not to be angry and we’ve got more days to come, we are also to love. Only Christ, the Son of God, could demand what Christ asks us to do in the fifth commandment. Because only He can provide the strength we need to sacrifice ourselves, our self-love. And not only not to hate others, but how hard it is for me to say this, to love others, even, Lord, enlighten me to say the right thing, we are to love others even to the hatred of self.

Sixth Commandment: In the practical order, what Christ did to the Fifth Commandment, was I believe, the single most demanding condition for being a Christian. That’s a large statement. No wonder some twenty years ago, when I was teaching at a state university in Michigan and I happened just in passing to mention that in the Gospels, the founder of Christianity went way beyond the Sixth Commandment of the Decalogue. After class, one of my Jewish students came up to me, “Dr. Hardon, did I understand you correctly? I’m sure I misunderstood you. Did you say that I, as a red blooded American, do wrong by looking at a woman and wanting relations with her?” Said yes.

“Well that’s impossible.”

So I said, “Would you please come to my office?” For the next two years, I counseled this Jew once a week. I use that just to illustrate what the Savior did to the Sixth Commandment. Christ’s teaching on chastity for everyone in every state of life is the main reason, I can prove it, is the main reason why there have been so many schisms and apostasies in the Church. There has never been the founder of any religion, and I’m safe in predicting there never will be, who will make monogamy for the married and control of even one’s willful sexual desires for the unmarried as a condition for salvation. Christ told the Jews, and were they ever staggered when they heard it, quote the Savior, “It has also been said, anyone who divorces his wife must give her a writ of dismissal. But, [there are six buts, and are they ever terrifying] but I say this to you, everyone who divorces his wife except for the case of fornication makes her an adulteress and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery,” unquote, Jesus. When I talk to my two prospective Jewish converts and I told him this, the man looked down. In the two millennia of the Church’s history, this teaching of Christ has been the single principle reason for whole nations being lost to Catholic unity. That was the main reason for the departure of millions in the thirteenth century. When as they call themselves the orthodox, broke with Rome. Their week bishops gave into the secular princes and allowed the divorced faithful to remarry. The price was ghastly. A whole civilization was torn from the Catholic Church and in 600 years the Catholic Church has not budged. In the sixteenth century the same formula. You can read through Luther’s 67 dreary volumes. I’ve taught for seven years at The Lutheran School of Theology. Puff. There’s only one real reason married Catholics in the sixteenth century wanted to divorce and remarry. Honest? Honest. And then the reformers placed authority over marriage in the hands of the state, where it has been ever since. No wonder our American society has the most unstable family life in the world. But Christ never retracted or even mitigated His teaching on chastity. Chastity for the married, which means fidelity until death, chastity for the unmarried, not even to deliberately, indulge sexual thoughts. And as we’ll see, He did the twice incredible thing of, say He would have followers who would not only remain chaste in marriage by being faithful or chaste outside of marriage by not indulging sexual pleasure, but who would even sacrifice marriage out of love for Him. All of that my friends, is locked up in Christ’s Sixth Commandment.

Seventh Commandment: In His conversation with the rich young man, the Savior identified the Seventh Commandment, again quoting from Deuteronomy, “You must not steal” as one of the conditions for salvation. For then throughout the Gospels, and most dramatically in His prediction (?) of the last judgement, Christ made it plain, that not stealing is not enough. Not only may we not take away what belongs to someone else to enrich ourselves. That is the Seventh Commandment of the Jewish Decalogue. But we, we Christians are to deprive ourselves, steal if you wish, from ourselves. We’ve got a right to it. In order to help others in need. There are few aspects of Christian morality that are more misunderstood than this one. Namely, that the practice of Charity in helping the needy is somehow optional. On the contrary, it is a grave obligation. So grave, that shortly before He died, Christ foretold who would be saved and who would be lost. Those would be saved who would keep His interpretation of the Seventh Commandment. Who, out of love for Him, would deprive themselves to help others in need, and who is in need, my friends, everybody.

Eighth Commandment: As with the preceding, so with the Eighth Commandment. Christ quoted it to the rich young man who asked Him, what he must do to save his soul. Christ said you must not bring false witness. Once again, Christ developed the meaning of this precept as not only forbidding deceit or falsehood but positively prescribing the profession of truth. There are some things you would like to just dwell on, this is one. There are things you pray that the Lord might make clear in my speech and clear in your understanding. This is one. What did Christ mean? As the Church, after nineteen centuries of interpretation of the Eighth Christian Commandment of the Decalogue tell us He meant? He meant several things. First, He told us He is the Truth. Which is the Wisdom of God in human form. He told us that mankind has desperate need to know this Truth which came into the world as the Light so that unquote everyone might believe in Him. Christ further taught that those who believe in this Truth, meaning who believe in Him, must profess Him before others if they wish to be acknowledged by Him in the world to come. Our principle responsibility as Christians is to profess Christ. And finally Christ taught that professing the Truth, which means professing Christ by word whenever we can, by example always. Because the world desperately to know this Truth and believe me, to profess Christ to the world has the heaviest price tag which Christ Himself attached. It is opposition, persecution. And most sadly, maybe from those we most love. All of this since the coming of Christ is now locked up in the Eighth Commandment of the New Law. No longer is it merely a prohibition of untruth, it is the positive, constant and often painful profession of the Truth Whose name is Jesus Christ.

Ninth Commandment: In Catholic moral teaching the Ninth Commandment is commonly associated with the Sixth. It forbids internal sins against chastity and is clearly expressed in Christ’s Sermon on the Mount. Rather remarkably, but yet logically, it was in this context that the Savior taught His uncompromising doctrine on avoiding the occasions of sin. The whole passage deserves quotation. You have learned how it was said you must not commit adultery, but I say this to you. If a man looks at a woman lustfully, he has already committed adultery in his heart. If your right eye should cause you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it will do you less harm to lose one part of you, than to have your whole body thrown into hell. And if your right hand should cause you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it will do you less harm to lose one part of you than to have your whole body go to hell, unquote, the gentle Jesus. What are we being told? Several astounding things, each of which is so distinctively Christian and Catholic as almost to identify those who profess the true faith. First, Christ is saying that His precept of chastity not only forbids the external sins of lust, but even deliberate sexual desires outside the sanctity of marriage. The degree of sacrifice that controlling sexual desires requires is common knowledge. Yet Christ could not have been clearer. No wonder, no wonder He told His disciples, enter by the narrow gate since the road to perdition is wide and spacious and many take it. But it is a narrow gate and a hard road that leads to life and only a few find it. The doctors of the Church tell us most of those in hell are because of sins against the sixth and ninth commandment. And let me tell you, no one, and let me repeat no one here is safe. Bishop, priest, religious, lay person. Second implication, Christ is telling us that to practice internal chastity, hear it? Internal chastity of heart demands avoiding occasions of sin. Concretely this means mortification of the senses, especially the eyes and the sense of touch. Fidelity to this precept has never been easy. And in today’s climate of sexual license, it can require moral heroism. We try to get behind Christ’s teaching of the Ninth Commandment. It was in this context that the Savior compared His moral teaching with the philosophy of the world. He quite literally said that we have a simple choice. Either sacrifice sinful sexual gratification in this life or suffer the pains of Hell in the life to come.

Tenth Commandment: As found in the Old Law it forbids covetousness. But Christ stressed the need for internal self -denial as a condition for doing God’s will. The New Testament not only forbids greed but considers it a hindrance to true worship and faith in God. As He tells us, where a man’s treasure is, there is his heart. The one who loves material possessions cannot truly love God. Watch, He tells us, and be on your guard against avarice of any kind. For a man’s life is not made secure by what he owns, even when he has more than he needs. I’ve talked to too many religious in thirty-seven years of the priesthood, two thousand, and I tell them, your vow of poverty does not mean merely, oh no, not externally possessing certain things. The essence of poverty is in the heart. I tell religious, by your vow of poverty you not only give up the abundant use or ownership of material goods, you give up the desire for whatever the world calls good. What which you know is incompatible with your consecrated life. Finally beyond anything in the precepts of the Old Law, more than anything that any prophet of Israel ever told the Jews, the Savior of Mankind urged on His followers, all of them, the spirit of poverty. To actually prefer to be without material possessions, well, that’s stupid. That’s madness. Maybe it is. Maybe it is, but not for a follower of Christ. If the infinite God, what verb shall we use about God who owns the universe, what a cheap verb! Yet He became a helpless child and during His public ministry could say, and no one could challenge Him, the Son of Man has not whereon to lay his head. If He was born in a stable, died naked on the cross, and was buried in a strangers tomb, if God as far as language allows us to say this, gave up everything, and we say we love Him, alright, alright, prove it. We are to want to become like Him in giving up not only around us, but inside of us, whatever we can. So that like Jesus we might empty ourselves for Him as He emptied Himself for us.

Dear Savior, You came into the world to do many things. But most fundamentally You came to teach us. You told us I am your teacher. There is no more difficult doctrine You are teaching than how You want Your followers to understand and live the ten commandments. Dear Savior, give us the light to see and the strength to do what you want those who love you to see and to prove by doing. Lord, we love You.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Copyright © 1999 Inter Mirifica

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