Ten Commandments: An open discussion at the Family Unit meeting

K X M John

The Ten Commandments. Image from Google (04.11.2010)

Meeting begins with a teenage challenge

Honour thy childrenthat kind of fourth commandment would give me greater comfort”, blurted Samson the young prodigy. “Honour the dignity of your children now; they would surely reciprocate, especially in your old age.” Samson was reacting to parish priest Fr Zachariah’s challenge at the family unit meeting. Fr Z had introduced the theme of the evening in his predictably unpredictable manner with the question: “Do you think all the Ten Commandments continue to be relevant in modern context?”

The liberal Fr. Z was known for confronting his congregations with questions designed to instantly shake even the dumbest of participants into articulation. He believed that the basics of faith could be kept meaningfully alive and relevant among vibrant parish communities and common laity alike by only discussing things freely with them on an ongoing basis. Mechanical learning of official catechism would result in faith stagnating without making sense in daily lives, in which process even the holy sacraments could become ceremonial for the common laity.

Antiquated teaching methods

His maverick grandson Samson’s impulsive response momentarily nonplussed the octogenarian Prof Peter, but he soon recovered his composure and said the younger generation’s concerns would never be known unless they were given the opportunity to freely speak out. In that respect, Fr Zachariah was doing a great service to the congregation by adopting open methods of teaching that would appeal equally well to different age groups and differing temperaments. Prof Peter said the conventional teaching methods of the Church had become antiquated and counterproductive. Today’s laypeople think and, to them, free thinking and free will take precedence over blind obedience to authority.

The road to altar helped by an atheist!

Prof Peter recalled how, a long time ago, his young neighbour was eager to serve as an altar boy, but was put off by the parish priest who didn’t have the time or patience to explain to him the meaning of the Latin verses he was required to chant. The youngster thought he would be cheating God as an altar boy by mumbling the prayers without his head or heart in them. And when he thought it was the end of his road to the altar, help came from an unlikely source. Noticing his despair, his uncle some twenty years his senior said there could still be a way to honestly understand the liturgy. Was it sheer coincidence that this agnostic uncle himself became an instrument in the hands of God in procuring for him a parallel translation of the liturgy? And that boy went on to become a Capuchin priest!

Prof Stephen narrates his experience

Prof Stephan narrated one of his experiences to illustrate the unproductive teaching attitudes of Church officials at the lower end. He had difficulty in getting marriage licence for his daughter. The nun to whom the girl was assigned for catechism test would not signal her clearance, because the girl did not know how to cross herself in the “right manner”! The parish priest might have had a positive regard for that nun, and he too joined her in ragging the girl. The bride-to-be had won good many prizes in catechism exams during her brilliant academic career and was then a practising medical professional serving in a reputed hospital. The nun retorted, “Even atheists could win prizes in catechism by taking up the subject for research!” The professor said, he warned the nun he would refer the matter to her superiors. The problem ended there.

The unmoved Fr. Zachariah said he wouldn’t dismiss the story as unusual. Prof Stephen said the incident demonstrated the poor teaching attitude of everyday church officials. In contrast, Fr Z’s open approach was refreshing.

Ninth Commandment challenged

Politician Rosaline said the young Samson mistook the fourth commandment to be offensive to his teenage dignity. But he would surely change his adolescent views as he grew older, and most certainly in his old age. That meant the fourth commandment’s relativity was of a passing nature. “But what do you think about the ninth and tenth commandments read together? Together they say one shall not covet the neighbour’s properties including his wife. Now, Sam, do me a favour. Please read out Exodus 20: 17.”

Young Samson obliged:

“You shall not covet your neighbour’s house; you shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, or his manservant, or his maidservant, or his ox, or his ass, or anything that is your neighbour’s.”

Rosaline asked: “Is wife then a property of her husband? This obvious gender bias makes the ninth commandment unacceptable to women of any age group.”

Poet Roy, who spared no opportunity to make fun of Rosaline, wondered how the commandment that placed an injunction on men should offend any sensible woman. “Complaints from men are understandable; it is on them that Moses had placed the unbearable burden of the ninth commandment. He has not prevented women from coveting other men” In the din of laughter that followed, Fr Z maintained a dignified silence and tried his best to appear sympathetic to the frowning Rosaline.

Prof Stephen said the Ten Commandments were couched in the idiom of the day and should be understood in that spirit. In those male-dominated days, languages and their phraseologies had acquired a masculine flavour or slant. And it was pre-supposed that anything said in those days about man automatically applied to woman as well, unless otherwise specified. The term ‘man’ included woman. Mankind meant humankind. “My English Professor used to make this clear jocularly: ‘man embraces woman’. Viewed in this light, all the seemingly gender-specific injunctions contained in the Commandments were invariably used reflexively to include both the genders. Hence, women can’t assume that they have been excluded from the ambit of the ninth commandment. In other words, women have not been spared, even by default, from coveting other men!”

Rosaline was sportive enough to heartily join the laughter that followed. “Why not we then re-write such statements in today’s gender-neutral idiom?”

Sr Ann responded. Jesus had always treated women with utmost respect; yet his language was abundant in gender-biased idiom and phraseology of his day. Jesus said, for instance:

“Every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”

Now, would anyone think that women were allowed by Jesus to lustfully look at men? “So, let us give some space to the gender-innocent, albeit patently male-dominated, idiom of antiquity. Let us not hurriedly proceed to “translate” the old idiom into the new. When you go through the scripture, always keep in view the spirit of the ancient idiom.”

Fr Z said these and other concerns were genuinely agitating the minds of different segments of people. Possibly in the course of the evening’s discussion such concerns would address themselves.  “So, let us proceed. One of you may initiate the discussion.

History and evolution of the Decalogue

Advocate Dimmy said that as a student at the graduate law school at Oxford years ago, she had occasion to study the evolution of law codes in human history beginning with the first written code known as King Hammurabi’s code (18th century BC) and was amazed how closely this law code had influenced the Mosaic code. Hammurabi’s code consisted of some 282 injunctions and corresponding punishments for their infringement. The well-known phrase “an eye for an eye” appearing in Exodus 21:23-25 had come from Hammurabi’s code.

She read out this verse from the Exodus: “ 23If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, 24eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.” This law is known variously as the law of retaliation, law of retributive justice, or the law of equivalency,

Dimmy said the punishments prescribed by Hammurabi might seem harsh to modern minds; but his contemporaries thought them most lenient. Before his code came into force, any one who had lost one eye in a fight could legitimately claim both eyes of the culprit and even kill him with his family members with impunity. Hammurabi limited the retribution to the extent of the damage caused and not beyond that. And thus his code of law was considered lenient in his day. One could legitimately state that Hammurabi had inaugurated the principle of equity – a foundational legal principle to this day.

Engineer Antony observed that in North-Western India and Pakistan, the cruel pre-Hammurabi punishments were still in vogue. “Honour killings”, for instance, is most common in such places. Some four years ago, a lower caste teenager dared to fall in love with an upper caste girl in Pakistan. By way of retaliation, the boy’s elder sister was dragged to the market square and publicly gang-raped by the girl’s relations as directed by their tribal court!

Poet Roy said they probably needed a Hammurabi now. Under his law of equivalency, the tribal court would have “punished” the young lovers with “love for love”!

Sr. Ann heartily joined in the laughter and said precisely that would be the “punishment” Jesus would prescribe in such a situation!

Dimmy continued: Moses had incorporated Hammurabi’s “eye for eye” principle in his code. The Mosaic Law consisted of some 613 laws, excluding the seven rabbinic laws. Most of these laws (like washing one’s hand before eating) were meant for regulating the daily lives of Jews, and had no spiritual relevance. Superficially viewed, the Ten Commandments, or the Decalogue, had evolved from the Mosaic Law; yet they are quite distinct in spirit.

Dimmy added: “The Decalogue appears in near-identical terms in Exodus 20:2-17 and Deuteronomy 5:6-21. Different churches, however, have grouped them slightly differently; for instance the Orthodox and Anglican Churches have split the first Commandment into two, and merged the ninth and tenth Commandments into one.”

Prof Stephen thanked Advocate Dimmy for educating the group about the evolution of the Ten Commandments.

Discussion of the Commandments

Fr Z decided it was time for him to intervene and bring the discussion onto the subject proper. “We have learnt from childhood that the Commandments could be separated into two groups: (1) the first three together defining man’s relationship with God; and (2) the other seven laying down the basis for healthy interpersonal connectivity, i.e., how to live in peace with our fellow humans.

“Of the seven interpersonal injunctions, the 4th commandment is the only positively worded commandment. Its theme is filial piety (love for parents) and harmonic family cohesion. And it has a reward, namely that it will ensure peaceful and long life to members of the family.”

“The next four commandments (5th to 8th) forbid interpersonal conflicts and immoral acts.”

“And the last two commandments (9th and 10th) warn against greed & lustful craving for what belong to others. Such cravings can lead to conflicts and immoral acts.”

The Rev Fr said the Ten Commandments and their ramifications have been extensively and comprehensively dealt with in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. He exhorted the participants to get copies thereof (preferably its English version) and carefully study it. He assured them it would be a rewarding and heart-warming experience to familiarize and internalize the message being conveyed through the Catechism.

“And, after carefully studying the Catechism, you would not complain again about the “antiquated” teaching methods of the Church!”

Prof Stephen said he had been carefully studying the Catechism on an ongoing basis and that his earlier reference was only to the teaching methods employed at the lower end.

Fr Z noticed Alice was silent. He invited her to express her views on the subject.
Summary of the Ten Commandments
Alice Teacher quoted Jesus’ delectably positive summary of the Commandments: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with your entire mind”; and “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

She added that Moses had foreshadowed this beautiful summary of Jesus, thus:

  • “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord: And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might.” Deuteronomy 6:4-5.
  • “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord” Leviticus 19:18

Evidently Jesus was powerfully re-endorsing and re-emphasizing the forgotten summary of the Law of Moses, lest the worldly and corrupt Jewish community of his day would forget these foundational commandments.

The Lord’s Prayer reflects the Commandments!

Alice said, in her perception, the Lord’s Prayer clearly reflected the Ten Commandments. Look at the spirit of the first three Commandments manifested in the first part of the Lord’s Prayer: “Our Father in Heaven, hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven”. In fact the fourth Commandment too, she said, was manifestly included in this part of Lord’s Prayer. “For, when we address him as Our Father, we are honouring our spiritual parent.”

Alice continued. The fifth to eighth commandments could be seen reflected in the second part of the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”.

Again, the last two commandments against lusting after or coveting what is not ours are covered in the last of the petitions in the Lord’s Prayer: “Lead us not into temptation; but deliver us from evil”.

“Further, while the Ten Commandments contain both positive and negative commandments, the Lord’s Prayer contains only positive and worshipful petitions.”

President James exclaimed that this angle had not occurred to him, and he thanked the teacher profusely for this new insight. So, the Lord’s Prayer reflects the Commandments! They define the just and proper relationship of the self with God and with other fellow humans.

Gloria too reflects the Commandments

James said, likewise, he had been fascinated and overwhelmed by the clear reflection of the Commandments in the hymn Gloria that Luke’s angels sang on the first Christmas night. The first line: “Gloria in excelsis Deo” is a powerful and beautiful summary of Jesus’ summary of the first three Commandments. And likewise, the response: “Et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis” beautifully encapsulates the seven Commandments governing interpersonal harmony.

James continued: “And the importance Jesus attached to the second part of the Commandments is manifest in the Golden Rule that he beautifully enunciated: “Do unto others what you would have them do unto you”

Sr. Ann said, even before Christ, the Golden Rule had a kind of “negative” existence in the writings of ancient prophets. The book of Tobit (4:5) says, “Do not do unto others what you would not have them do unto you”. Not surprising, like most other Old Testament prophets, he too presented this profound principle as a negative injunction. This negative edition of the Golden Rule is sometimes called the Silver Rule.

Fourth Commandment revisited

Fr Z flashed an encouraging smile towards Samson. He responded that his conundrum concerning the fourth commandment was yet to be taken up for discussion. Fr Z asked him to read out Eph 6:1-4. He opened the Bible and read out the passage:

“Children, obey your parents in the Lord: for this is right. Honour thy father and mother; which is the first commandment with promise; That it may be well with thee, and thou may live long on the earth. And, ye fathers, provoke not your children to wrath: but bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.

Thus did St Paul interpret the fourth commandment – as a “two-way” street. The law of equity or reciprocity works here. “But, Samson, I certainly agree with you: Explicit statements carry emphasis; implicit or derivative statements are like a shadow of the explicit.”

Fr Z said this concern for children under the fourth commandment had been clearly stated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church too.

“The commandment includes and pre-supposes the duties of parents …” (Article 2199).

“Are you satisfied, Sam?” asked Prof Peter. “No Grandpa, not at all.”

Samson continued. “Even the best of parents treat their children lightly in myriad ways. All the time they humiliate them, foolishly believing they are nurturing them.  Ok; they feed them, clothe them, educate them. That is not enough. At one end they ‘discipline’ them; at the other, they pamper them. Through both such kinds of treatment, they are insulting the children. Surprised? Believe me: Unless children feel honoured, respected and esteemed, parental love and concern won’t reach into them. This was so in the beginning, is now and will ever be, unless parents wisely nurture their essential dignity.  Children are taken for granted all the time in all civilizations; and they get disaffected, estranged, alienated from parents as they grow and as they become self-sufficient.”

“This very evening one of the parent-figures here took my views lightly by patronizingly dismissing my grievance as of adolescent kind; she said it would disappear as I grew, etc. I am sure Madam Rosaline did not intend insulting me; but she surely did. She herself demonstrated, albeit unconsciously, how parent-figures ignore and humiliate youngsters all the time.”

Taken by surprise, Rosaline feebly made a tentative apology.

Dr Susan endorsed Samson’s view. In the name of bringing them up in this competent world, parents do everything possible to educate their children. If the child fails, parents often insult him instead of empathizing and supporting him. The child is convinced that parents were doing everything for his education for their own glory. In other words, parents had been self-centric and not child-centric while they seemed to give a mighty push for his education. The child feels humiliated that he was being used.

Prof Stephen intervened and said, “I graphically remember my childhood. Whenever I succeeded, my parents applauded; and whenever I failed, they shamed me. There were frequent occasions when I experienced huge lumps in my throat. My parents were unaware of that. After all, every parent thinks, children could be punished even physically; they are resilient and can get over them easily. No, your Excellencies, grievances do not disappear; they mount unless addressed on a real-time basis.”

Dr Susan continued, “Have you ever seriously considered why children are virtually abandoning their old parents these days? You might say, ‘they are away, busy in their job’. But the question is: Do they have a concern for their parents back home? Do they remember their parents once in a while when away? My understanding is a big No. Philosopher John Jacque Rousseau famously said: ‘You become a man the day your father die’. He meant that the very existence of parental figures forever loom over their children constantly reminding them of their inferiority and obligation. He meant their memory rarely evoke love!

“Therefore I fully agree with Samson that elders should treat their wards with respect and honour. Then, and only then, they would grow into a relationship guaranteeing mutual friendship as envisaged in Indian dharma, tradition and philosophy.”

Engineer Antony agreed. He said Indian philosophy and outlook was adequately reflected in the fourth commandment. As Rev Fr stated clearly, parents’ obligations are latent in that commandment.

Prof Stephen retorted. “What use is there in hiding such reflexive commands under a bushel? This is mentioned in Ephesians and the Catechism. But, are they ever being explicitly taught? It is there technically, tucked away in between some pages of holy books. They need to be taken out and made part of the regular religious teaching and discourse.”

Dr Susan said, “Personally, I would prefer teaching of the fourth commandment with a corollary, worded somewhat on these lines. ‘And honour thy God-given children; in turn they will honour you in your old age in fulfillment of the fourth commandment, and you will live long.’ This is what St Paul had effectively said in Eph 6:4. So, consciously emphasize this converse or corollary in the teaching of the Commandments. Especially, in marriage preparation courses the obligation of the would-be parents should be emphatically brought home. If only the parents honour their children, they would in turn be honoured by their children.”

Fr Z said, “The message is clear. The church in its teachings needs to place greater emphasis on parental obligation to honour their children. You agree with that, Samson?”

“Yes, Rev Fr,” replied the young Samson.

Fr Zachariah expressed his appreciation for the spirited and meaningful contribution from the learned members. He, however, added that the subject was infinitely more serious and deeper, and that even a person like Thomas Aquinas had not succeeded in explaining its full implications in the limited language of the mortal man. “Hence, my agreeing or disagreeing with the strains of today’s thoughts is immaterial. The important thing is that you all took much interest in the subject. That is what matters for me for now”.

K X M John

One Response

  1. Great discussion. I particularly like the parallels between Pro Peter’s acquaintance whose predicament concerning Latin liturgy was eased by his agnostic uncle and Hammurabi’s code that may have served to influence not only Moses but the society in which he lived. And this has been God’s way through history. For the immoral socio-political climate of ancient Sparta and Athens there arose a Socrates, as it was for the bloodiest war in ancient India when one of its perpetrators, Emperor Asoka, forsook his ways of battle. Even if the Hebrew faith was distinguished in every way, the theology of all mainline Christian churches agrees with the principle of God’s general revelation to all peoples then and now.

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