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The Ten Commandments: The Holiness of God and Our Neighbor

by Brant Pitre April 30, 2021 0 Comments

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Dr. Brant Pitre discusses the Ten Commandments.  How do the tablets of love of God and neighbor reveal to us the holiness of God and our neighbor?  Formed positively, we see that they show us that God, time and human life is sacred.  This was taken from the Mass Readings Explained.  Subscribers can find the full video here:


As we read through this first reading, what I want you to do is pay attention to the differences between the actual text of the Ten Commandments, and maybe the catechetical formula you learned in catechism class, you know, the shorter abbreviated form of them, and then we’ll say a few things about the commandments. Alright, Exodus 20:1-17. This is a long one, but let's do it together. I'll read it out loud:

And God spoke all these words, saying, "I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.”

“You shall have no other gods before me.”

“You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.”

“You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain; for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.”

"Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work; but the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God; in it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your manservant, or your maidservant, or your cattle, or the sojourner who is within your gates; for in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day and hallowed it.”

"Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land which the LORD your God gives you.”

"You shall not kill.”

"You shall not commit adultery.”

"You shall not steal.”

"You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.”

"You shall not covet your neighbor's house; you shall not covet your neighbor's wife, or his manservant, or his maidservant, or his ox, or his ass, or anything that is your neighbor’s."

Alright, I’ll stop there. Okay, so what do we make of this? A couple points. Number one, notice that the Ten Commandments are expressly described as being the words of God, right, so they’re unique. In a sense, elsewhere in the book of Exodus, it's going to say that when Moses gets the two tablets, that the Lord wrote what he calls the Ten Words, the Ten Commandments, with the finger of God. It was something that God himself directly reveals to the people of Israel. So they have pride of place in the Old Testament, as the direct words of God, as the revelation of God; that’s the first thing. Second, notice the importance of the theme of holiness in the Ten Commandments. That word holy gets used a couple times, and in Hebrew, the word holy means set apart. Set apart for God, set apart for some special purpose, set apart from sin, and for the Lord. So the Ten Commandments, in their essence, are really about holiness, how to be holy. God is calling his people to be a holy nation, a kingdom of priests, and the Ten Commandments are basically the code for living out a life of holiness.

Now we could do a whole course just on these Ten Commandments. In fact, the third part of the catechism, part three of the catechism, on the moral teaching of the Church, is entirely devoted to breaking down all ten of the commandments, and kind of drawing out the implications of each one of the commandments. But for our purposes here, I thought it might be interesting just to make two brief points that I found helpful in understanding the rationale behind these commandments. First, it's this, that the two tablets of the Ten Commandments are really tied to the two commandments of love: love of God and love of neighbor, right. So you recall in the gospels, Jesus says that the two greatest commandments are to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus gets those two commandments really from the Decalogue. So if you look back at the text there, the first half of the Ten Commandments are really all about love of God.

So the first commandment, which is to have no other gods before him, means to love the Lord, to worship him and him alone. The second commandment, not to take his name in vain is also a commandment against blasphemy, against desecrating the holy name of God, which you would only do if you don't love him, if you don't revere him, if you don’t respect him. The third of the first tablet is the commandment to keep holy the Sabbath day, to rest on the Lord's day. And over time, it became the day also where you would go to the synagogue, or to hear his word, or go to the temple in order to worship him. So, in so far as worship is an expression of love, Sabbath rest and Sabbath worship became the kind of quintessential expression of loving God, of taking time to lay down the labors of life and focus an entire day on your relationship with God through prayer, through hearing his word, and through worship. So the first tablet is all about loving God. So if you want to learn how to love God, you need to not worship other gods, you need to not take his name in vain, and you need to honor the Sabbath, and keep it holy, and rest, and worship him.

The second half of the Decalogue, if you look at all those commandments, are really about the love of neighbor. They're teaching us how both to love our neighbor positively, as when it says honor your father and mother, and what not to do if we want to show love for our neighbor. So we shall not kill, or commit adultery, or steal, or lie, bear false witness, or covet our neighbor's spouse or any of our neighbor’s possessions. And so as we go through all of that, you know, one of the things you’ll notice about the Ten Commandments is that, many of them, most of them, are formulated negatively, like, don't do this, don't do that. Well, one of the things I found helpful in trying to understand the rationale is to formulate them positively in terms of holiness. What are they really about? I would suggest to you that they are about the holiness of God, and also the holiness of our neighbor, and of certain aspects of human life.

So if you have the handout for this week, you can kind of look through this. I would say, for example number one, the first commandment against idolatry is really about the holiness of God. Like, that God himself is set apart, and only he is to be worshiped. The second commandment against blasphemy is about the sanctity, or the holiness of God's name. In other words, God's name is set apart and we shouldn’t take it in vain. We shouldn’t use it in a curse or in a profane way. We shouldn't just take it in vain, in a sense of being flippant about its use. We need to treat it with reverence, we need to treat it with respect. And to do anything less than that is to fail to recognize it as holy. That's why we call it profanity. Something profane means something that's not holy, something that’s not set apart, that's dirty or unclean. When we treat God's name as if it is just common or ordinary, we take something holy and we profane it. The third commandment on Sabbath worship, that's really about the sanctity of time. You might not think about this, this one’s particularly hard for us in the modern-day. We think that time is just secular, everything is this-worldly. The only meaning time has is the meaning it has for us in this world. But by saying that this particular day, the seventh day is holy, what God's teaching us is that there is a sanctity of time. That time itself is holy and that the time that we give to him in rest and worship is set apart. So that if we treat that seventh day, as if it’s just any other ordinary day, what we are doing is desecrating it, we’re in a sense profaning it. And so he's trying to show us that there's more to time then just this world. There’s an eternity waiting for us, and so he gives us the Sabbath as a kind of foretaste of the eternal rest that we hopefully will all enter into.

I bring this up because, you know, one of the things that we struggle with the most in the contemporary church is the lack of mass attendance, right.  Catholics don't go to mass. And if you're watching these videos, you're probably going to mass on a regular basis. But there are lots of Catholics who don’t, and it can be difficult to explain why we should go to mass. And I would say that the Sabbath commandment here is a very helpful explanation, because it gives us, it helps us to see that time itself is holy, right, it’s been set apart, it's consecrated. So for example, if you take the wine and the bread of the Eucharist right before they’re consecrated, before they’re made holy by the words of consecration by the priest, if we were to take the wine that's going to be used in the Eucharist and spill it, or pour it out, it wouldn't be a big deal because it's just wine. But once it's consecrated, once it’s set apart, it's holy. And if I knowingly and willingly desecrated it, that would be a sin, it would be a grave sin, right. Well what's the difference? The difference is now that wine or that bread has been set apart as holy. The same thing is true about the Sabbath. What makes not worshiping God on Sunday, or not resting on the seventh day, what makes it a sin is because God is the author of time. He set that time apart and so if we take it and treat it as if it's ordinary, we effectively desecrate it. If we take what he has consecrated and say it doesn't matter, it doesn't have any significance, it's not set apart, it's just like any other day, and what’s more important is my work, or my money, or whatever I feel like doing, then we’re basically desecrating and profaning that holy time. And that's really hard for us to get our brains around these days because we’re so influenced by secularism. The word secula means world or age. What it’s saying is that this world is all there is, and there's nothing sacred about time, everything is secular. So that's the first tablet of the Ten Commandments. I hope that gives you a little bit of insight.

And the same thing’s true about the second tablet. You go through each one of them. Why should I honor my father and mother? Well because fatherhood and motherhood is holy. Your father and mother are set apart. They're the ones who gave you life. No one else has ever given you a gift like that. So they merit your respect, they merit your honor, because of the sanctity of fatherhood and motherhood. Same thing about the commandment against murder. Why shouldn’t I kill another human being? Because of the sanctity of human life, right. This is something that’s set apart. It's different, it’s not like the animals, right, it's not like the plants. God has set this particular gift of life apart and we don't have the right to just take it and treat it as if it’s profane and treat it as if it has no meaning, or it has no value. So the sanctity of motherhood and fatherhood, the sanctity of human life. What about adultery? Same thing. The reason it’s a sin is because of the sanctity of matrimony, right. When a man and a women marry one another, they set themselves apart for the other. They become holy, set apart from every other man and woman, and set apart for one another. So what adultery does is it desecrates the holiness of matrimony, the holiness of marriage. Same thing with theft. It’s about the sanctity of private property. If something belongs to someone else, it's set apart for that person and I don’t have the right to just take it from them because I want it.

And then finally, even with regard to bearing false witness, this is about the sanctity of speech that God has set apart humanity, given us the gift of speech, so that we can speak the truth. There’s a certain holiness to speech. It's unique to us as human beings and we have to use it for the sake of the truth, and to use it to lie is basically to take this holy gift and desecrate it, to adulterate it, to use it for something God never intended it to be used for. We were given speech to praise God and speak the truth. And when we don't do that, we desecrate it, especially in a serious way like in a courtroom, where we might bear false witness, that can be a grave sin. And then finally the last commandments against coveting kind of sum up all the other ones, and just tell us that there's a sanctity to everything that belongs to someone else. Whether it's someone's spouse or someone's possessions, we are not to let that desire to covet even enter into our hearts. So we’re not just supposed to not do something that desecrates someone else's possessions or adulterate someone else's spouse, but we should not even let that movement into the heart itself. So we have to be on guard against the sin of coveting another person’s spouse or possessions.

So that's in essence what I think the Ten Commandments are all about. They’re trying to show us how to be holy by giving to us principles about the holiness of God and the holiness of our neighbor.


Brant Pitre
Brant Pitre


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