The Christian may be tempted to read the Ten Commandments in the Book of Exodus as a series of moral exhortations alone.
Such an assumption, though, must be corrected through closer attention to the Book of Exodus. The Ten Commandments are not just ethical standards, but part of Israel’s very worship of God.
Note how God introduces the Ten Commandments: “‘I, the Lord, am your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, that place of slavery’” (Ex 20:1). The commandments are kept out of a living memory of God’s loving mercy toward Israel.
To follow these commandments, thus, is an act of divine worship whereby Israel testifies to the whole world that there is but one God whose name is holy, who has created the world in merciful love.
God’s loving mercy extends out toward the love of neighbor. Every dimension of Israel’s life is to become a living memory of the wondrous deeds of God. To ponder the law, therefor, is to delight in the mercy of a God who has entered radically into Israel’s history: “The law of the Lord is perfect, refreshing the soul” (Ps 19:8).
As God’s relationship with Israel developed, there was an increasing awareness that Israel’s status as God’s beloved was not for its own sake alone. In the Book of Isaiah, we hear the following promise: “In days to come, the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest mountain and raised above the hills. All nations shall stream toward it” (Is 2:2). Israel’s worship on Mt. Zion, of which the Temple in Jerusalem is a living sign, must become a space where all nations come to worship the living God.
And they would come to this God in the courtyard of the Temple area. Yet in the Gospel of John, we hear that this area dedicated toward the worship of all nations has been taken over by moneychangers and sales of animals for sacrifice.
Jesus Christ has come to make this space available to all nations once again. The Temple that all nations will stream toward is not a space in Jerusalem, but his crucified and resurrected body: “‘Destroy this Temple and in three days I will raise it up’” (Jn 2:19).
It is gazing upon our crucified and risen Lord that we discover the perfection of the Ten Commandments. We meet the God-man, whose whole body has become a space of worship to God. We encounter the Word made flesh, who loved his neighbors unto the end.
Through baptism, we have become living temples of God. Temples not dedicated for the sake of power and prestige, of wisdom and fortune, but temples of “the foolishness of God” (1 Cor 1:25).
Lent remains the blessed time in which we learn once more how to worship the living God with our very bodies. We are to conform ourselves to the cruciform shape of Christ’s life.
Such a life is an act of worship that responds to violence, to injustice and to the powers of sin and death with self-emptying love.
The Christian life, for this reason, is not about following a series of quaint ethical commands. It is instead the radical act of worshipping God with the entirety of our being.
The question that each of our parishes has to ask is whether we are a community that has become a living temples of God, or whether we’re an exclusive country club where the elite alone are called.
If the latter, it may be time to have our tables overturned.
Timothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D., is the managing director of the McGrath Institute for Church life.