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Right-Ordering the Commandments

The more I read and the more I sit back and watch the world go by, the more I come to realize that we’ve got our priorities backwards. By we I mean a generalization of those of us blessed enough to live in western society (Europe and North America); and by priorities I am referring to our Christian commandments.

I know it’s never a wise thing to make sweeping generalizations, especially of such a large population base. There will always be exceptions to the rule. I also acknowledge the large gamut of experiences, opinions and actions of such a large group of people makes it impossible to shade them all with one colour, particularly when you get out to the fringes. Still, I think a little bit of self-reflection (myself included) would help bring things into greater focus when it comes to following the commandments in their proper order.

When we think of God’s commandments, our minds usually jump to the image of Charleton Heston holding two stone tablets etched by the finger of God. As well, most of us can also recite from memory (in some form or another) the list from Exodus 20:1-17

1. You shall have no other gods before Me.

2. You shall not use the Lord’s name in vain.

3. Keep the Sabbath holy.

4. Honour your father and mother.

5. You shall not murder.

6. You shall not commit adultery.

7. You shall not steal.

8. You shall not bear false witness.

9. You shall not covet your neighbour’s wife.

10. You shall not covet your neighbour’s goods.

As Christians, however, when we think of the commandments, we need to think of the commandments that Christ gave us. And for those who are like myself and have troubles with memorizing such a long list as was given to Moses, we’re all pretty happy that Jesus was able to summarize the Ten Commandments quite nicely in just two:

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And the second is like it: you shall love your neighbour as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. (Mt 22:37-40)

Here is where my generalizing of western society starts to kick in.

It’s been my experience that when we look at the Old Testament commandments, we have numbers 4 to 10 down pat; and when we come to the New Testament commandments, we seem to skip over the first and overuse the second. We seem to have forgotten numbers 1 to 3, or, according to Christ, the greatest commandment: You shall love the Lord your God.

Love your neighbour as yourself or Treat others as you would want to be treated. It’s a common refrain that helps keep us from falling into complete anarchy. As a parent I try to drill this into my son’s psyche. As a teacher, I try to guide my students to live by this principle. As a society we use this mantra to keep everyone on the right track. But without the first commandment, it’s an empty philosophy without foundation.

Don’t get me wrong, a lot of good gets done in the world because of this commandment. As Christian’s, however, we need to follow this second commandment out of commitment to the first. As numerous Catholic authors (such as Matthew Kelly, Peter Kreeft and George Weigel) have pointed out: if we love our neighbour without loving God first, then we become nothing more than an NGO, a charitable organization, or a branch of the government dedicated to helping others.

As Christians, it’s only logical that Christ’s first commandment will flow into the second. If we truly love God, then of course we will love our neighbour whom He made in His own image.

The challenge is this: not to simply do good because it is good (most of us do this already), but to find ways of deepening our love for the Lord so that goodness can flow from that love. By right-ordering God’s commandments, by putting God first, our strength and commitment to do good as a witness to God in the world will grow exponentially.

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