The first reading this week tells of the Ten Commandments, given to the people in the desert after they escaped slavery in Egypt. During the desert sojourn Moses receives the commandments from God. Although the people have been freed from physical slavery, the commandments present an invitation to experience a deeper, more profound spiritual freedom. They are called to move beyond mere physical freedom.
Unfortunately, people do not hear much about the commandments in our contemporary situation. For many, the commandments seem excessively negative; all those “thou shalt not” phrases.
Perhaps they are too restrictive; “I am the Lord your God … you shalt not have other Gods besides me,” or “Remember to keep holy the Sabbath day.” The commandments can be stated in positive form. “You shalt not have other God’s besides me” becomes “I am your only God.” To keep holy the Sabbath day can be seen as a privilege rather than an onerous burden.
Positive statements of commandments that have to do with our relationships with others are lessons in the freeing nature of all the commandments. The Mosaic Law states that, “Thou shalt not steal” and “Thou shalt not bear false witness against you neighbor.” If one restates these two commandments positively one could say, “Leave others’ property alone” and “Tell the truth.” These restatements help us understand the spiritual freedom we achieve by obeying the commandments.
“Leave others’ property alone” means that a person learns to be satisfied with what he owns. If we are satisfied with our own material goods we show our dependence on God for all our physical needs and honor the rights of the other person by allowing that person to possess what has been given. In other words, one is free of the slavery that the desire for more and more material goods can bring into one’s life.
“Tell the truth” extols the importance of honesty in all one’s dealings with others. If a person tells a lie about an important matter, often the initial lie requires another and another and another. One is trapped in the slavery of a web of lies. It also is true that people cannot depend on the liar to ever tell the truth. Consequently, lying destroys all human relationship. Truth telling is ultimately easier and more freeing than lying, for the truth teller acknowledges that truth sets one free.
In the Lenten journey the church attempts to bring the people back to the essentials of Christian life. An examination of the commandments as an invitation to new-found spiritual freedom helps one understand that God not only frees one physically but also desires spiritual freedom for all.
Fr. Treloar, an assistant director at Jesuit Retreat House, Oshkosh, has served as a professor, lecturer, author and academic administrator.