What we teach

…whoever obeys and teaches these commandments will be called greatest in the Kingdom of heaven.” (Mt 5:19)

About twenty years ago now, the US Supreme Court directed Judge Roy Moore, the Chief Justice of the Alabama State Supreme Court, to remove a Ten Commandments monument from the rotunda of the state courthouse that he had ordered placed there. Judge Moore refused, his view being that to remove the monument was unconscionable because it would be to refuse to acknowledge God as the source of all justice and law. The monument was removed, Judge Moore, too.

Judge Moore took the monument and mounted it on a flatbed truck. He used it as a symbol for rallies throughout the country to advocate his position of a very prominent place for God in the public square. The monument weights over 5,500 pounds.

Lots of time, the commandments are thoughts of a list of what-not-to-do. They are taught in a way that makes people think of God as a grumpy old man whose only occupation in life is to place heavy yokes on the necks of a rebellious society. The sixth commandment against adultery becomes no dancing allowed between unmarried couples. For such an understanding of the Commandment, a two-and-a-half-ton rock sitting on the bed of a truck is a perfect symbol. We’ve forgotten that the Babylonians’ gods were heavy idols that had to be trucked around. As the prophet Isaiah said: “These things you carry are loaded as burdens on weary animals” (Isa. 46:1).

Understanding the Commandment as a set of burdens overlooks something essential, namely that they are prefaced not by an order – “Here are ten rules. Obey them!” — but instead by a breathtaking announcement of freedom: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Ex. 20:2). We will probably always refer to the declarations that follow as the “Ten Commandments,” but we can also think of them as descriptions of the life that prevails in the zone of God’s liberation. “Because the Lord is your God, you are free not to need any other gods. You are free to rest on the seventh day; free from the tyranny of lifeless idols; living in a land where people are honored; free from murder, stealing and covetousness as ways to establish yourself in this life and the life to come.”

The Decalogue begins with the good news of what the liberating God has done and then describes the shape of the freedom that results. If we want to symbolize the presence of the Ten Commandments among us, we would do well to hold a dance. The good news of the God who set people free is the music; the commandments are the dance steps of those who hear it playing. The commandments are not lead weights but wings that enable our hearts to catch the wind of God’s Spirit and to soar.

To see the Ten Commandments as declarations of freedom is far more satisfying than hauling around tons of dreary obligation and worrying about whether the springs and shocks are going to hold up on the flatbed truck.

…whoever obeys and teaches these commandments will be called greatest in the Kingdom of heaven.” What will we teach our children and children’s children?

In case you are interested: Catechism of the Catholic Church – Ten Commandments

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