Sunday, March 3, 2024

3rd Sunday of Lent, Year B (John 2:13-25) The commandments are our freedom


I grew up in a large family, with three brothers and three sisters. It was a strict enough family and of course most of the time I resented the various rules we were given. I wanted to have things my way, but I wasn’t allowed to have them my way all the time, or there would have been chaos. Now that I am older, I can see the wisdom of a lot of the rules that we were given, but at the time they often seemed unfair, or annoying at the very least. What we were taught served its purpose and helped to form us as children. It helped us to learn that there are basic guidelines that we all must adhere to if a family is to work.


A few years ago a friend of mine was at a business conference in Dublin and one of the speakers was saying that as a society we have forgotten some of the basic principles of living, such as honesty and integrity, respect for the human being. He was saying it was largely because of that neglect that we ended up in the last financial crisis we found ourselves in. Honesty and respect for the human being should be the norm and not the exception. If these are the principles out of which we operate, our society will be a lot healthier. 


A young man asked me was it wrong to lie? He was an intelligent man too. One of the commandments tells us ‘You must not bear false witness’, that also means, ‘You must not lie.’ That gives you an idea of the kind of confusion that is around us.


I know that in the past many people have had bad experiences of an over-demanding Church, which for a while seemed to focus too much on sin and everything that was wrong. I heard an old priest in Ireland joking that in the Church in Ireland of the 1950s, almost everything was a mortal sin and everything else was forbidden! That is not healthy. God wants us to be alive and to enjoy our life on earth. If religion just becomes a series of laws, then something is wrong. The teachings of our faith are meant to help us grow in our relationship with God and grow as people. God’s teachings are there to help us. The most basic of these are the Commandments and the 613 laws that God taught Moses to govern our whole society.


Everything God gives us and asks of us, is to help us. God tells us that if we want to do well as a society, if we want to flourish, then we need to stick to these principles: It is wrong to murder, to commit adultery, to steal, to lie, to cheat. We must honour God and keep God at the center of all that we do. And that includes keeping Sunday as a holy day, a day when God is worshiped because God deserves to be worshiped.


When the Jewish people remained faithful to God, their society flourished. The Commandments gave them the direction they needed, so that things would work for them as individuals and as a society and that included all kinds of laws for day-to-day living (613 laws), even down to laws as to how to conduct business fairly, so that everyone would benefit. The wisdom in the Old Testament—especially the first five books of the Old Testament which make up the Torah, or Law—is amazing, so amazing that it could only have come from God.


The Commandments are essentially a blueprint for living. If we follow these commandments and do our best to live them, we will do well as individuals and flourish as a society. God’s teachings help us to grow closer to him and to become 'the best version of ourselves’ that we can be. That is basically what God told the people through Moses, some 4000 years ago and those principles have not changed. 


Throughout the centuries the people continually strayed away from the Commandments and worshipped false gods and when they did this their society began to fall apart and their enemies began to gain the upper hand, like what we see happening around us. Then they realised what they had done and they asked forgiveness from God and tried to be faithful again. The Bible is essentially a collection of stories showing this. The people continually strayed away from God, get into trouble, then realise their mistake and ask forgiveness and God always helps them back on their feet, helping them that God must be at the center.


Another thing that has not changed is that we are still very good at coming up with reasons why we don’t have to keep God’s Commandments. People have always been good at coming up with excuses, but ultimately we are going against the very thing that will help us. 


We talk a lot about freedom in our country and all the people who have fought and laid down their lives so that we can be free and thank God we do enjoy great freedom. But true freedom comes about when we choose what is good. Doing anything we want sounds like freedom, but if it is without God given laws to guide us, then it usually means we lean towards what is sinful. Living by the principles God gives us is what leads us to true freedom. Choosing to live a life of sin may seem like freedom, but in fact it is a kind of slavery, because what is sinful will ultimately destroy us and it does not bring happiness. Saying that we must abide by laws may sound like we are not free, but in fact that is what leads us to the greatest interior freedom. No laws lead to chaos, both in our society and as individuals.


God’s creation has an order to it. We can see in nature that there are certain natural laws that make everything work. The planets must follow a particular order or they will crash into each other. Traffic has to follow a particular order, or there is chaos. As human beings, we also have to follow a particular order, or there is chaos. God is the one who shows us exactly what that order is. When our society decides that we no longer need God or the order that He gives us, it leads to chaos.


If God is pushed out, something else will take its place. Communism is a perfect example. Communism denies God and the state takes God’s place. Everything must obey the state and the human being has no worth or value, so it can be disposed of at will.


Adolph Hitler based his new world order on replacing the Ten Commandments, with a ‘higher order,’ his order, a man-made order.

This is what we are fighting against… the curse of so-called morals… against the so-called ten commandments.’[i]


This was why he wanted to destroy the Jewish people, because the Ten Commandments were given to the world through them. As long as they existed, they were a threat to him, because they brought the Ten Commandments.


Jesus spoke about this in the parable about a demon being cast out:

When an unclean spirit goes out of a man, it roams through arid regions searching for rest, but on finding none, it says, ‘I shall return to my home from which I came.’ But upon returning it finds it swept and clean and put in order. Then it goes and brings back seven other spirits more wicked than itself, who move in and dwell there and the last condition of that person is worse than the first. (Luke 11: 24-26)


Notice how it says when the spirit returns it finds things have been put in order. What Jesus is saying is that if God is not there, there is a void and something will fill that void.


In an actual exorcism, if a person who has been freed of any kind of evil does not replace that evil—whether it is actually something demonic, or just destructive behavior like an addiction—the evil will just return. The various twelve-step programs show this. If someone is to overcome an addiction, they have to replace that addiction with a healthier behavior, or they will just relapse. The same thing happens on the bigger scale too. If God is taken out of society, evil will take its place. There won’t just remain a void.


This will mean that I can’t have everything my way, but we must choose who it is we wish to serve. If God asks us to keep Sunday holy, what takes priority, worshipping God, or something else? If we live by the Commandments it will make us different from many others, but it has always been that way and that is where we must decide who it is we wish to follow. 


It is tempting to say, ‘I’m sure God doesn’t mind,’ or ‘God will understand.’ But if God doesn’t mind, then why did He give us the commandments in the first place? Why did Jesus get angry when he saw how the temple was being turned into a business instead of a place of prayer? There is nowhere in Scripture where it says God doesn’t mind and all that Jesus taught shows us that God certainly does mind.


God revealed himself to the Jewish people as a moral God, who will hold us accountable for our actions. That was unique in ancient Israel. Before this there was never an understanding of God being moral, or interested in our well-being. 


It keeps going back to the same thing. God created us to share in his happiness. God shows us how to live so that we will enjoy that happiness, but we still have to choose who we will serve.


I am the Lord your God, you shall not have strange gods before me.’ 


[i] Herman Rauschning, "Preface," The Ten Commandments: Ten Short Novels of Hitler's War Against the Moral Code, ed. Armin L. Robinson (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1943), xiii.


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