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The Second Commandment

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God's Second Commandment: You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain. In the Jewish faith, this is the Third Commandment. 

If we believe and follow the First Commandment, and respect God as our one true creator, we owe him respect according to his station. Before I go into the practicality of what this commandment calls us to do, I first want to speak of respect. There actually is a philosophy of language that explores the use and meaning of the words we use. Not to belabor a point, but you can understand the importance of words in translation. Our sources for the New Testament are in Greek, and translating the words accurately can make a great deal of difference as to the meaning. One classic example is our word for love which in Greek has several different permutations: agape/apgapao - unconditional regard, storge - parental, sibling love, eros - romantic love, and - philia /phileo (philadelphia-brotherly love) friendship love. Knowing which is inferred when we read about love in the bible is helpful knowledge. This philosophy of language has taken permutations from the time of Plato, as to what meaning a name signifies. A name can be construed as anywhere from just pointing to something to actually carrying something of the identity of what is named. Why does it matter? Respect for God’s name comes from the association that when we speak the name of God, we are saying something about him. Persons who may use the Lord's name in vain, may discount it and say, “It’s just a name, it doesn’t mean anything.” It is a mistake to take and use the name of God as if it is any other name. Because names hold meaning. Respect for God’s name is an expression owed the mystery of God himself and to the whole sacred reality it evokes (CCC #2144). It is hard to worship an imageless deity, and to have no name for such a deity is even more difficult to explain. Moses was given God's name-one common translation, "I am that I am." In Hebrew this is "YHWH." No one really knows the correct Hebrew pronunciation of this name. YHWH is the condensed form of the Hebrew words for 'was', 'is', and 'will be.' The Jewish faith held such revere for God’s name that it was only spoken by the high priest once a year in the Holy of Holies. It was not only a blasphemy to misuse it...was a sin to speak God’s name at all.

The Second Commandment calls us not just to be careful with our speech in using God’s name, but “the faithful should bear witness to the Lord’s name by confessing the faith without giving way to fear (CCC# 2145).” This means the Second Commandment implores us to not just NOT use the Lord’s name in vain, but profess his name as Lord from the mountaintops. 

There are a few other caveats that go with this Second Commandment: It applies to the name of Jesus, Mary, and all the saints. It also forbids us from making promises in the name of God so as when they are broken, it doesn’t imply that it was God who deceived them. This commandment also forbids us from using God’s name to swear an oath we do not intend to keep. To invoke God’s name when you promise something means you are using God as a witness to your veracity. If you do not intend to keep that promise, you have sinned against this commandment.

Finally, it prohibits speaking ill of God either inwardly or outwardly. This is a sin many of us may have committed and not realized, when we are angry with God, we may curse him, defile, or be disrespectful to him. We may do it out of misdirected feeling, but using God’s name as if he was one of our associates here on earth, is not honoring him. And it is in this area of sin which we all have seen the Lord’s name be frequently used. It is blasphemy to use God’s name to promote your agenda. It is certainly blasphemous to use the name of God to justify violence but also to use his name to criticize persons and their behaviors. It is taking “what would Jesus do” out of the light of a positive action and passing judgment or condemning a person. I know of circumstances where a person who was a bit different or non-conventional, was made to feel unwelcome in our church by another, all under the auspices of supposedly knowing what God would like or not like. This commandment tells us to be very careful about pontificating God’s choices. Any claim that what we are suggesting is from God, is a sin.

Our Church feels very strongly that it is sinful to use God’s name inappropriately, but this commandment also warns us about misusing or besmirching the good name of another. We are to uphold the good name of another by mainly avoiding gossip. Another corollary comes from Jesus’ response to his own testing by the devil, do not test the Lord your God. There is a rabbinic teaching that states, “Do not stand in a place of danger and pray for a miracle, lest it not happen.” We often put ourselves in harm’s way expecting God will save us, that is a sin. Another interesting aspect of this commandment is that it tells us to not make God “look bad.” Any time we behave badly, we bring shame to our family, and the Body of Christ. There was little room in Jesus’ mind for hypocritical behavior- such as for us, attending Mass and then going out into the world and acting badly. Not striving to have your insides match your outsides is a sin against this commandment.

The First Commandment

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The Ten Commandments are the laws handed down to Moses some 3500+ years ago. There are some differences in wording and substance between what the First Commandment is for the Jewish people and some Protestants and what we have been taught as Catholics. The Catechism of the Catholic Church has a very good table comparing the wording of the laws as received in Exodus, and given in Deuteronomy compared to our tradition. The Catechism also contains an extended commentary on the Ten Commandments starting with CCC# 2052.

The immediate question is, what is the role of the Old Testament commandments for our faith today? To help answer this, the CCC makes reference to the story of the rich man, one we just recently heard in our Sunday scripture. In this story the rich man asks what he must do to have eternal life. Jesus’ first answer is, following the commandments. This gets supplemented by the rich man to “go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and then come follow me.” In this exchange, Jesus does not abolish the importance of the Law but rather adds the importance of imitating Christ as a means of salvation. The Ten Commandments, these “ten words” frame the terms of the covenant with our God. The CCC speaks of the Ten Commandments as showing us what is required in loving God and our neighbor; what Jesus called the two greatest commandments (CCC#2067). The First Commandment has a variety of forms, all of which capture these love commands, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of bondage. You shall have no other gods before me…It is written: ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.’” In God’s first “words,” he is making himself known as the God who has now taken action in our world. Secondly, God demands a giving up of all other idol worship, a call for fidelity to Him alone. Finally, comes a statement of responsibility for us, as God is loyal to his people, we should by this covenant, be loyal to Him. What is unspoken, is that this relationship, this covenant, is to be the most important “law” in your life. This First Commandment, gives us our vocation…to love and serve God. This First Commandment initiates our relationship with God. 

Within this commandment is held the three theological virtues: faith, hope, and charity (love). We are offered the gift of faith, by God revealing his identity. We are given the gift of hope by His fidelity to us. We experience God’s charity in his first coming to us, and in response, calls us to love Him and all of his creation. Our entire faith is a response to this First Commandment. Our task is to use these virtues in establishing, and enhancing our relationship with God. The trials in life, are meant to be endured in God’s honor. The promises we make or are made for us in our sacraments, hinge on this relationship with God. The commandment also serves as the precepts of love we achieve with each other in a holy life. 

What is the difficulty with hearing, understanding, and accepting this first, this greatest commandment? We don’t see God, and more importantly, we do not feel God in our lives. It is one thing to believe the “historical” God who helped the Israelites and even to believe in Jesus, who 200 years ago walked this earth. But God, what have you done for me lately? Some characteristics of God may help. God is active but he is not imposing. Out of pure love he offers. We can refuse. It is not God who fails to speak, but we, who in our busy-ness, fail to listen. God can be seen in everything and in every moment, we can choose to see him or not. God doesn’t save us from suffering, for reasons we will never fully know, but by allowing his Son to suffer, God guarantees us that he is present and it will eventually be alright.

This First Commandment also centers us in a moral framework of objective truth. If we listen to God, then we must obey him. If we choose not to listen to him, then we decide what is right and wrong, depending on our mood, our energy, and our needs. Yet, if we search our hearts, the decision of what is right and wrong has to come from somewhere, and it is not us. Any other source beside God will lead to survival of the strongest and is the source of disobedience to our First Commandment…when we make ourselves a deity. If we decide to listen to God, we have the benefit of accepting a voice beyond us that reminds us that there can be no compromising on the most important values of life. The First Commandment tells us that God cares about us AND how we act. Steady observance of this First Commandment brings us closer to God. When we lose God as the primary source of our life, when we substitute “idols” of money, fame, power, or if we even stop listening for God’s voice because we distract ourselves with work, leisure, or pursuing our own desires, we have disrupted the very first understanding of what our life means…"You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind (Luke 10:27).”

Following Jesus

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In the Gospel of Mark 10:17-27, we hear a story that often challenges me. We meet a young man who has always been a good person, asks what he must do to enter Heaven, and Jesus tells him, “You are lacking in one thing. Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”  

You are lacking one thing. I know most days, I have more than one thing standing between me and following Jesus with my whole heart. 

Jesus goes on to invite the young man to “come, follow me” but instead of leaving his nets like Peter and Andrew when Jesus called them, this man goes away sad, because he has many possessions he does not want to give away. He is the only person in the Gospels who does not drop everything when Jesus says, “follow me.” Most days I am more like this young man than I am like the disciples, hesitant or closed off when Jesus says: “follow me; come serve your neighbor, come embrace an uncomfortable conversation or task.” Each time I sin, I choose not to follow Jesus.  

The disciples ask an important question after this interaction, “Then who can be saved?” and Jesus so gently responds: “For human beings
it is impossible, but not for God. All things are possible for God.” I do not have to make myself perfect, but I can try each day to say “yes” in following Christ again. 

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