Today is the first day of Lent, and Lent makes me think of the Ten Commandments. When I went to confession as a kid, in CCD class or high school, someone typically handed me a Xeroxed examination of conscience based on them. Lent is, among other things, an examination of conscience for the whole Church.
I tread cautiously around the commandments. Things figuratively or literally “written in stone” are paradoxically easy to trivialize. Something sounds dime-store cheap when people shout that we need the commandments posted in public buildings, or when they frantically exclaim that “the thing America needs to do” is to get back to the commandments. The “ten words” (literal meaning of decalogue) are not magic words.
Things written in stone are also easy to shroud in unquestioning silence. If you know historical-critical scriptural scholarship, you probably realize the first five books of the Bible, the Pentateuch, did not crystallize into their present form until a few centuries before Christ. The edicts and stories in the Pentateuch, including the Sinai theophany and the Ten Commandments, were gathered in light of what it meant to be an exilic and post-exilic Jew. You had to preserve your identity through law and scripture instead of king and country. But how to explain in your average church setting the nuances and caveats of “God said to Moses”?
Still, despite the stone, the commandments breathe. Whatever their origins, the commandments transcend them. However factual the Sinai account, the commandments are true. They could not endure so long, or haunt us so much, if it were not so.
We are frighteningly lonely when everything revolves around us and us alone. We are fragile when we pledge ourselves to one changeable idol after another in our indifferent, machine-like world. I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt; you shall have no other gods besides me. We debase the sacred by confidently claiming divine warrant for our whims, pet projects, politics, and worldviews. You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain. We cycle between blind busyness and spaced-out distraction, leaving no time to be aware, open, and alive. Keep holy the Sabbath.
We either take our families for granted, or struggle to reconcile with them when they are mind-bogglingly hurtful and clueless. Honor your father and your mother. Without once touching a gun or knife, we cultivate death by neglecting our relationships, by nursing anger and prejudice, and by flinging razor-edged words at the emotional arteries of people we find too different, too irritating, or too inconvenient. You shall not kill.
We have to figure out how to be healthy lovers while living in a mindless, commoditized sexual culture, one that thrives by selling us intoxicating promises of things that only almost happen. You shall not commit adultery. We also live in a winner-take-all society in which the wealthy few are worshiped, the means to their ends are barely questioned, and our overall abandonment of the poor is justified by sputtering about “hard work,” “freedom,” and “responsibility.” You shall not steal.
Substance is cheap these days, appearance is expensive, and competition is bloody. We find it hard to get ahead without some shared test answers here, a farmed-out term paper over there, maybe an “imaginative” or “creative” resume. You shall not bear false witness.
Some of us have cheated on or with someone. Many others of us lust after those who do not and cannot reciprocate. Either way, we create people in the image of something they are not until the illusion goes very, very wrong. You shall not covet your neighbor’s spouse. Every day we wade through a sea of pop-up ads, billboards, and branding. This is also a sea of debt, stress, and despair. You shall not covet your neighbor’s goods.
The commandments address questions we cannot avoid. Do we come from a Source to which we are responsible? Are we able to try and do everything because we can bounce back from everything? Or are there some things we just can’t do because they break us, and others, into a million pieces? Are we a profusion of self-contained, self-interested monads—homo economicus, “Economic Man”? Or is our essential reality the African concept of ubuntu: “I am because we are”?
If the Resurrection we celebrate at Easter answers our brokenness, both communal and personal, we must first know that brokenness. We must know how to ask the right questions about it. We must observe Lent. We must know the commandments.