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How Many Commandments? – Br. Nicholas Bartoli

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Br. Nicholas BartoliI can still remember as a young boy watching Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments. I remember being awe-struck by the amazing miracles depicted on screen, especially the parting of the Red Sea, even with 1956 special effects. But what I also remember is wondering, why ten? Why ten commandments as opposed to, say, 8, 12, or 15? How many do we really need? And for that matter, why have any at all?

Well, I don’t know if this answers the question, but we humans do seem mightily attracted to lists of all kinds, especially numbered ones. Marketing research has even shown that you’re more likely to click on an article or a video online if the headline references a numbered list. “Top 10 Ways to Lose Weight Fast,” “6 Cutest Animals on Earth,” “5 New Theories for Game of Thrones,” etc. And then besides their ability to peak our curiosity, a numbered list can serve as a practical way of remembering something.

So probably for both these reasons, numbered lists are very popular in most faith traditions.

For our part, we begin with the ten commandments, although, as I found out quite a while after watching Charlton Heston, it could depend on who’s doing the counting. The coveting commandments, for example, are most often counted as one, but Lutherans single out the one about your neighbor’s house, while Catholics single out the one about your neighbor’s wife. And besides different ways of numbering them, we could easily decide to add a few more commandments that seem particularly relevant. I mean, if we’re going into enough detail to mention coveting our neighbor’s ox or donkey, why not include some other specific, and maybe even more helpful prohibitions. 

We could have a whole automotive section including commandments like: “Thou shalt not come to a full stop when merging onto the highway,” or “Thou shalt not tailgate your neighbor’s car.” As it happens, and probably not surprisingly, Rabbinic commentators down through the ages have already thought of this, and so there are a very many more commandments to be found in the Torah. The actual number can be hard to pin down, but by tradition there’s a total of 613 commandments, covering most aspects of life at the time. I think my personal favorite is “Thou shalt not round the corners of your heads, neither shalt thou mar the corners of thy beard.” Still, even with all those additions, the ten commandments do hold a special place of prominence, and they’re often seen as naturally giving rise to all the others.

Jesus, of course, would have been very familiar with all the many commandments found in the Torah. And maybe that’s why, instead of adding a few of his own, he felt compelled make a move toward simplifying things, helping us reduce our relationship with God, self, and others to a smaller set of essential principles.

So, when a scribe asks Jesus which is the most important commandment, Jesus answers, instead, by summarizing the law in just two commandments, giving us a simple basis for a life lived with God as the center. Now, to explore the meaning behind these commandments, and why they cover so much ground, we’ll look at the five basic principles at work in them. And, I promise, I’m not trying to sneak back up to 613. In fact, by looking at these five principles we might be able to reduce the number of commandments even further.

The first part of Jesus’ answer is that God is One — a oneness arising from creating all things, being in all things, and simultaneously transcending all things. This implies that ultimately there is nothing besides our God, with all creation, including us, being in union with our Creator. By recognizing this we come to embrace true humility, namely that we are nothing without God.

The second part of Jesus’ answer is that we shall love our God with all our hearts, all our souls, all our minds, and all our strength. In a way this follows from God being One. We are created to love fully in this way, a kind of love that holds nothing back, surrendering ourselves completely to God’s Oneness. When we love like this, as God does, then the only thing left after giving everything up to God is love, God’s love for us and through us.

Which brings us to the third part of Jesus’ answer, and how we share this boundless love in the world. Jesus says we shall love our neighbor as ourselves, and it’s worth pointing out, especially in a world where hatred still abounds, that when Jesus says “neighbor” he means everyone. This, too, could follow from God’s Oneness since, when we truly humble ourselves, surrendering all to God’s love, we come to love all God’s creation. We become servants of the Holy One, and in doing so humbly serve all things.

Unfortunately, it needs to be said that this idea of surrendering ourselves, submitting, and serving, has taken on some unfortunate guises in the history of Christianity. We’ve often been told we should be ashamed of ourselves for being worthless, that something is horribly wrong with us, and so we might be left wondering why God made us in the first place. Sadly, much of this has been directed at people already marginalized or oppressed by society.

But here’s where the fourth part of Jesus’ answer comes in, which is kind of assumed in the third, namely that we shall love ourselves. If we’re made in the image of God, if we’re One with God, then we were created as perfectly beautiful and infinitely precious. This can be very hard to accept, with our culture constantly reinforcing the false belief that our worth and our very identity is based on what we do, what we accomplish, how we look, how much we have, the roles we play, or what we or other people think about us. The key is to start from where we are, loving ourselves just as we are, and eventually we see ourselves as God sees us which is pretty awesome.

Last but not least, we come to the fifth part of Jesus’ answer. He sort of sneaks this in at the end where it might sound like a compliment given to the scribe. He says that when we realize those first four parts to his answer, we are not far from the kingdom of God.

This message formed the core of Jesus’ ministry, as he travelled far and wide preaching: “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is near.” And so, I wonder if Jesus, in that final comment to the scribe, was offering one commandment that could suffice.

In other words, when we repent and let ourselves rest in God’s Kingdom within us, then we just naturally realize God’s Oneness, which in turn allows us to love the Holy One with our whole being, loving and serving all of creation, and loving our own beautiful selves.

So, now we can have those 613 commandments neatly distilled to just this: “Thou shalt repent, for the Kingdom of God is near.” And in truth, the Kingdom of God is so very near, it’s actually here already, with only repentance standing in the way of recognizing it. We repent by making a simple choice, to turn from finding sources of peace and happiness in the world, towards the Holy One within.

It’s like one of those crazy-looking, end-of-the world guys, usually with disheveled robes and long, scraggly beards, standing on a street corner with a big carboard sign reading “Repent, the end is nigh!” Except, what’s ending is our attachments to this world. What’s ending is our being of this world instead of remembering that our being is of God, as the Holy One lives through us in the world.

And God so loves us that maybe this one commandment we’re left with, “thou shalt repent, for the Kingdom of God is nigh” — maybe it isn’t really a commandment at all, maybe we’re left with no commandments, and instead just a promise. Because I can imagine Jesus standing there on the street corner, pleading with us, saying:

Pease, please, please repent.

Turn away from the noise and distractions of this world.

 

Repent, and turn inward,

towards the stillness of your waiting heart,

the Holy One’s humble home,

our Beloved God’s most favorite place in all the universe.

Please, repent.

 

Repent, for the end of your world,

and the beginning of a new world,

a world of peace and joy beyond understanding

by the Light of God’s glory.

 

Repent for the end of the lies, the lies

that separate you from the Kingdom of God,

that separate you from God’s Oneness,

that separate you from one another,

that separate you from God’s Truth and Beauty

present in every waking moment.

 

Please, repent.

 

Repent for the end…

Of who you think you are,

for the end of the “me,”

for the end of the “I,”

leaving only the “I in Christ.”

 

Please, please repent,

for this end is just so very nigh.

 

And I love you so much, and I see how beautiful you are.

And, so, I promise:

Thou shalt repent,

for the Kingdom of God is so very, very nigh.

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2 Comments

  1. Ruth West on November 8, 2018 at 18:42

    I loved your sermon. Thanks.

  2. Allison Biederman on November 8, 2018 at 16:12

    The ending poem was lovely and I assume one of your own; a contemplative insight into the Ten Commandments. Thank you for sharing and God’s Blessings.

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