Monday, January 9, 2012

How Many Commandments Are There - Really?

A bumper sticker I’ve seen stated: “Jesus Called. He Wants His Religion Back.” Cute. Short. Punchy. And I believe it to be pretty true.

Jesus’ church or religion, if He had actually established one, would espouse His Gospel.

Well. what was Jesus Gospel, or Good News? When we read what Jesus said, according to the Gospels, we look at the Sermon on the Mount (including the Beatitudes and the redefining of some of the Ten Commandements), His parables, and His healings. That’s where He defined His message – in teachings, deeds, and healings. His message? The Kingdom of God (or Heaven) is at hand. Repent. See for yourself – the lame walk, the hungry are fed, the blind see, the deaf hear. This Kingdom is all around you and in you and you will know it if you will but open your eyes and see.

Here is the way I paraphrased that message in my book: "The Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent. Quit looking at the world ‘out there’ as the source of your problems or the source of your solutions.  Look inside you. The    Kinddom is already there and has always been there. The Kingdom is now, and now is always eternal. Just as leaven is invisible, yet changes the nature of dough, the Kingdom of God in your heart will change your perception of reality. This will change your world. What was important now isn’t, and what wasn’t important now is. The first will become last and the last first. The exalted will be humbled and the humbled exalted. Your world will turn upside down. You need to recognize it, acknowledege it, and grow with it. I, myself, am involved with this Kingdom." (How the Bible became the Bible, p. 118; For those interested, Appendix B of the book  contains a list (compiled by Dr. John Dominic Crossan in his book, The Historical Jesus) of sayings and parables that come as close as we can determine to be actual words Jesus said).

After stating that He was the fulfillment of the Law and the prophets, He issued Three Commandments:
Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength; Love your neighbor as yourself (followed by the parable of the good Samaritan, where He defined ‘your neighbor’ as anyone in need). Toward the end of His ministry He issued a Third Commandment to His disciples: Love each other as I have loved and served you.

But I don’t see Jesus’ Three Commandments hanging on church walls. Instead, I see the Ten Commandments. I see them in front of churches. I see them as posters in churches where I go to AA meetings, Course in Miracles meetings, or funerals of friends. I read occasionally of communities or States that want to put the Ten Commandments on the Courthouse (or Statehouse) lawns.

This makes me wonder what is the role of the Ten Commandments for Christians, and where do Jesus' Commandments fit in?

Each of the major Old Testament Hebrew groups traced their lineage and identity to a distinct tribal god that belonged to one of the three Great Hebrew Patriarchs – Abraham, Isaac, or Jacob. Even though there were differences, there remained a great deal of similarity among these loosly connected tribes. During the Exodus from Egypt and the revelation of the Ten Commandments, Moses was able to coalesce the Twelve Tribes of Hebrews into a single people – the Israelites. The Ten Commandments became the foundation for all of Jewish Law and tradition – both written and oral.

During Jesus' ministry He commented, as a good Jew, on these Commandments and, at times, altered them. For example, the Sabbath was made for Man, not Man for the Sabbath; You have heard it said it is a violation of the Commandments to commit adultery, but I say to you that anyone who has lusted in their heart for a woman has committed adultery. Rather than discussing rite, ritual, custom, and doctrine Jesus simply talked about looking for the fruits of the Spirit and used a tree as an analogy. Where we find good fruits, we find a healthy tree. Barren or skimpy fruits indicate an unhealthy tree.

He then went on to give us the Two Great Commandments followed, toward the end of His ministry, by the Third Commandment.

So, as followers of Jesus the Christ, are Christians defined as groups/congregations trying to obey Jesus' Three Commandments or are Christians now required to follow Thirteen Commandments? Why don't I see Christian churches or Christian communities put the Three Commandments of Jesus on the walls of their churches or in their memorial gardens?

For Christains to keep venerating the Ten Commandments is to keep vibrant the roots of Jewish law in Christian belief, doctrine, or dogma. These laws – focused around the concepts of purification and sacrifice – were the very 1500-year-old Jewish concepts that Jesus was redefining during His ministry. By venerating the Ten Commandments are we, in effect, denigrating Jesus’ message?

The Ten Commandments are very short and specific – sort of like sound bites. Jesus' Three Commandments are pretty open-ended. They are definitely not a one-size-fits-all set of "rules." It takes constant thought and evaluation to implement the Three Commandments on a daily bassis. They are certainly not cut-and-dried formulas. They are pretty "fuzzy," as I referred to them in my book.  We don’t like fuzzy suggestions that are to help us determine our daily behavior – especially when we believe the stakes are whether or not we end up in Heaven or Hell. We like discrete, definable rules that reassure us we’re on our way to Heaven.

As a guide to daily living are Christians to obey the Ten Commandments, the Three Commandments, or all Thirteen?

Donald O'Dell

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