Many people think of the Ten Commandments as “laws.” If you break them, you’ll be punished. This is especially true of those who expect a punitive God to punish other people for not following these rules.
However, Joan Chittister, a progressive Catholic nun, likens them to principles, not prescriptions. She says, “These help us to reconsider what it means to be a moral person, a holy person, in an age when small personal behaviors affect not only our own lives, but the lives of people around the world. These are principles that shape attitudes and spirit. They are a new vision of what it means to be a good, healthy, happy, authentic human community. They are an adventure in human growth.”
Her explanations are so helpful, that I’m using mostly her words to show how foundational these principles are. She calls them not Laws of God, but Laws of the Heart. I call them Principles of a Loving Life.
Reflection — “I, the Lord, am your God, you shall not
have other gods besides me.” Exodus 20:3
The power of this principle lies in the fact that it continually beckons us to remember what is really ultimate, really important in life; that we are being called into Oneness.
Respect — “You
shall not take the name of the Lord your God, in vain.” Exodus 20:7
This tells us not to corrupt God’s name, but also not to do what God would never do—like lie, or curse a person, or hurt anyone.
Remembrance — “Remember to keep holy the Sabbath Day.” Exodus 20:8
The celebration of the Sabbath as a tribute to the dignity of humanity is unique to the Hebrew people. Sabbath says we are accountable for the way we live our lives and develop our humanity. Sabbath says that time is the only resource we really have, and we must learn to use it well. The quiet reflection of Sabbath observation can aid in good decision-making and in doing justice in the world.
Caring — “Honor
your father and your mother.” Exodus 20:12
We’re asked to look at the way we care for those, who, having gone before us, showed us the way. What we learn from those before, what we gained from their wisdom is what enables us to go forward fearlessly ourselves. This principle saves us from the disease of immediacy. It demands that we respect the past. This is sorely needed in the modern world, if the future is to be a better place for all of us.
Life — “You
shall not kill.” Exodus
We must do everything we can to preserve life in all instances at all times. Life is worth struggling for—worth struggling to define. All religions say human life shall be affirmed, protected, honored, and sustained. The lives we fail to enable and sustain we condemn to death.
Commitment — “You shall not commit adultery.” Exodus 20:14
This is the principle of sincerity of heart. Commitment calls us to truly care for the people we love. Not to use them. Not to exploit them, ignore them, patronize them, or manipulate them. It is about loving rightly; meaning with the soul as well as with the body. It is about loving for the long haul, in season and out.
Sharing — “You
shall not steal.” Exodus
The Bible forbids waste as certainly as it mandates charity. To waste something is to steal it from those who have need of such things. Stealing in the biblical sense is not so much a private sin as a social sin. Only when we cultivate those dimensions of life that have something to do with life itself, rather than simply with wealth, can we ever become a truly honest people again.
“You shall not bear false
witness against your neighbor.” Exodus 20:16
Speech, the Hebrew community knew, is godlike, because like God, what we say creates our world. It defines us as the type of person we are. To lie violates trust. It erodes personal relationships. Honesty is the glue of the human race.
Self-Control — “You
shall not covet your neighbor’s wife.” Exodus 20:17
It is covetousness, disordered desire of any kind, not simply sex, that is the problem. It is the inability to be at peace with the self and with life. This principle is about failing to rein in our tendencies and inclinations, our hungers, and our thirsts. When we want what is not ours, it will possess us more than we possess it. It isn’t what we have that makes us unhappy; it’s what we want that leaves us dull to the present and totally unaware of all the good we already have.
“You shall not covet your
neighbor’s goods.” Exodus
We refuse to denigrate ourselves by impoverishing the other. We learn to use truth to enrich life and enlighten the world rather than scam it. Then shalom finally comes. We are at peace with ourselves, we are content with our neighbors, we are in love with the God of being that is beyond things and everything there is worth having at the same time. May your journey into Oneness begin and end by letting go of anything on the way that obstructs your vision of the end.
Sister Joan also sees the two New Testament commandments as building on the Hebrew principles of life. She calls them the Laws of Love
shall love your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all
your mind.” Matthew
“You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Matthew 22:39
Jesus reminded us of the principles of love. His admonitions guide us to a greater good. They challenge us to ethical standards that can make the entire world safe, whole, and fully human. Here we learn to protect life, to love unselfishly, to do justice, to honor truth, to turn our hearts to Oneness rather than to make little gods out of the things our hearts crave. By living these principles, we become holy, healthy, wholesome human beings.
_____________________________ Art Fabian — November 2, 2019
Thanks to D.L. Dykes, Jr. Foundation which owns the 2014 Copyright to Joan Chittister, OSB, materials. Her lines were taken from the video, “The Ten Commandments; Laws of the Heart,” which is featured on the website: FaithandReason.org.
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Art Fabian is on a spiritual journey to enjoy more aliveness and to share the goal of wholeness with others. He has no special training or degrees in this field. He’s not a religious scholar or theologian. However, he hopes you might also enjoy walking towards a richer life that benefits us, our neighbors, and all creation.