Commandments? Why bother?

Are you watching the Olympics? I find the athletes inspiring. In order to chase a wonderfully challenging goal, they are willing to make so many sacrifices. They follow a strict regime of diet and exercise. Even if they do not win the gold medal, they continue to push themselves to be the best that they can be. This is what gives them joy and happiness. We can readily appreciate that Olympians need to follow demanding rules - or commandments - to succeed athletically. It is not as easy, however, for us to appreciate the need for us to follow rules and commandments in order to succeed as human beings. Today Jesus speaks in the gospel about the importance of the commandments in our life. Do we recognize this? Why must we follow the commandments?
Sometimes we have difficulty appreciating what role, if any, the commandments should have in our life as followers of Jesus. When it comes to the commandments, we can often fall into two opposite mentalities, both of which fail to recognize the true importance of commandments. 
  • On the one hand, there is a certain way of thinking in the West that goes like this. Commandments? They are outdated. No one can say definitely that one way of acting is wrong for all people. Everything is relative. The Catholic Church is just full of rules. The only commandment in this way of thinking is “live and let live”. As long as you are not hurting anyone, you are acting fine. 
  • On the other hand, some people, instead of dismissing commandments, focus overly on them. These people unconsciously think that God is like a schoolteacher in the sky who has given us a big exam in which the commandments are the test questions.  The most important thing in our spiritual life is not to break the commandments. Why should we not break the commandments? Because God told us not to. 
Both these viewpoints fail to consider that the commandments might actually be there for our own good. We too can have difficulty appreciating the proper role and purpose of the commandments in our lives.

The commandments, in fact, exists to help promote our happiness and fulfillment as human beings. To understand this, let us look at an analogy. Those of you who own a car know that there are certain things you need to do to a car in order that it works well. For example, when the tank is empty you need to fill it with gasoline. If you fill the tank with something else, say milk for example, what will happen? Obviously the car is going to break down. How do we know how to care for the car so that it runs well, whether the issue be what to put in the tank, how to change the oil or how to check tire pressure? The answer is the user’s manual that we find in the glove compartment. Who writes the user’s manual? The manufacturer of the car. Since they made the car, they know how to best keep it running. Like the car, some things will help for us “run well” as human beings, some will not. Some behaviors will contribute to our fulfillment and happiness. Other behaviors will cause us to break-down. Like a car, we too have a user’s manual given to us by our owner: the commandments. God cares that we live happy and fulfilled lives. In giving us the commandments, God is saying to us, “please do not do this action, you will hurt yourself and others!” The commandments themselves are not the most important thing. Obtaining happiness and fulfillment with God in this life and the next is our ultimate goal or destination. The commandments are like the signposts which point us in the right direction and keep us on track. The commandments exist to help us live happy and fulfilling lives.  

Jesus reveals fully how to live well as human beings. We could say that Jesus has given us the definitive user’s manual for human happiness and fulfillment. He can do this because He is literally our manufacturer. Some of you may remember the book The Da Vinci Code. This incredibly popular book was later made into a movie starring Tom Hanks. Though this book is a work of fiction, it makes many controversial statements about Christianity and the Catholic Church which it tries to pass off as fact. As a result, many people have become confused or misled by the book. One of the main claims of the Da Vinci Code was that Jesus never claimed to be divine. It was only the Church that declared that Jesus was God at a council 300 years after the death of Jesus. Today’s gospel shows that this claim is nonsense.  We hear Jesus saying several times “you have heard it said … but I say to you”. For example, “you have heard it said you shall not commit adultery, but I say to you everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart”. This is extremely significant. Jewish teachers would only ever explain the laws and commandments, they would never make new ones. Where had the people of Israel “heard it said you shall not commit adultery”? They heard it in the ten commandments, which was given to them by God. Only God could give the commandments. In speaking in this way, Jesus is showing that He understands that He is divine. Sorry, Da Vinci Code. As God, the maker of us all, Jesus can give us the most up-to-date user’s manual. He shows us fully how to live a fulfilling life.

In the Gospel, Jesus shows us that true happiness comes when we address the roots of our sinful behavior. Gardeners will be familiar with this principle. When they see weeds growing in their garden, they are faced with two options. They can either rip off the weed above the ground or else they can go under the soil and rip of the weed at its root. If they take the first option, the weed will just keep growing back time and time again. Ripping the weed out at the root takes more effort but it is worth it because that weed will never grow back again. In the gospel, Jesus is inviting us to do the same. Sometimes sin only becomes an issue for us when we have broken one of the commandments. When this happens we repent, but if we do not go after the problem at its roots, the sin will keep coming back. This will ultimately keep us unhappy and unfulfilled. Jesus invites us to tackle our sins at the roots:
“You have heard that it was said … You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment. But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment.
“You have heard that it was said, You shall not commit adultery. But I say to you,
everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
We need to pay attention to the small things before it grows into something much more serious. We have a tendency to think or say things like “oh, what I did wasn't such a big deal, it's not like I killed someone” or “it was only a white lie”. Sometimes small actions or attitudes are signs that a fire is about to erupt. Jesus shows us that we will never find true happiness if all we do is try to put out the fires of our moral life. In order to be happy we need to address the roots of our sinful behavior.

To be successful, Olympic athletes need to pay attention to the small details of their life: what they eat is weighed to ensure proper nutrition, their training schedule is followed rigidly and their skills are analyzed to the finest detail. Athletes gladly pay attention to these details because they want to be the absolute best that they can be. Today Jesus invites us to do the same. Let us be the best we can be, the happiest we can be, the most fulfilled we can be, by choosing to pay attention to the details of our morals lives. We should not be scrupulous; we just need to remember that both good and bad behaviors start small. We need to encourage the good and eliminate the bad. Today, ask yourself a question: is there some behavior that you would like to rip out at the roots before it grows to seriously affect your happiness?