Most everyone from the Judeo-Christian tradition is familiar with the Ten Commandments, the laws Moses brought down from Mt. Sinai after he got up close and personal with the Creator. Growing up, I dutifully memorized these rules but didn’t really dwell too much on their meaning. But I was thinking recently about how hard it can sometimes be to know if what we’re doing is right or wrong.
To be sure, some of the commandments are cut and dried: Thou shalt not kill, thou shall not steal, thou shalt not commit adultery. I can say with some confidence that I have not had a hard time steering clear of these sins. But some of the laws are a little bit more open to interpretation. Take, for instance, the prohibition against worshipping false gods. Obviously, I don’t bow down in front of little statues or golden calves in my spare time. But are there other idols in my life? Is it okay to want more money or clothes? What about spending time reading trashy novels or seeing violent movies? Should I be ashamed of getting goo-goo-eyed when I see a celebrity?
Another vague commandment is the one to honor your father and mother. In the Bible, dishonoring parents was punishable by death. By those standards, all my children would be dead! I could really use some clarification here, Lord. I love my mom, and I would never do anything intentionally to hurt her. But is that enough? What is the line between living my own life and being a cause of shame to my parents?
Then there are the commandments that are just so hard to follow. I don’t know anyone who never takes the Lord’s name in vain – that is, if saying, “Oh my God!” is taking His name in vain. This expression has become so commonplace that I scarcely notice when I or other people say it. But does that make it okay? Our parish priest recently admonished us that such epithets are mortal sins. But I have a hard time buying the idea that off-handedly muttering, “Oh my God” is on a par with killing someone.
The anti-coveting commandments are also tricky. When I was learning the commandments as a child, I think the nuns left off the “coveting thy neighbor’s wife” rule. But I certainly learned not to be envious when my brother got a new bike and I was stuck with an old one. In practice, it’s often hard not to wish we were the ones with the brand new car or bigger house or cool clothes when we see friends or acquaintances have such good fortune. So when does mild envy turn into sinful covetousness?
Luckily, the Bible has an app for that. It’s called the Great Commandment: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind; and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” So I guess that’s what it all comes down to – love. If we can strive to make our lives ones of loving actions for others, maybe those Ten Commandments will take care of themselves.