Year A – 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time


The Ten Commandments

[Ex.22:20-26; 1Thess.1:5c-10; Mt.22:34-40]

Some time ago, a person of Protestant persuasion challenged me, asking: ‘What right does the Catholic Church have to change the Ten Commandments?’

At the time, I had no idea what he was talking about, but he was adamant that the Church had changed the Ten Commandments to suit itself. Since then, I’ve looked into this story, and now I’d like to share it with you.

The Ten Commandments are recorded in two books of the Bible (Ex.20:1-17; Deut.5:4-21). In both places the words are almost identical, but there’s no numbering system at all. This is puzzling, because the Bible mentions ‘Ten’ commandments three times (in Ex.34:28; Deut.4:13; and 10:4). But it doesn’t say how the words should be divided up to make 10 commandments. 

If you read these two texts carefully, you’ll notice that there are actually more than ten commands (or imperative statements) in them. In Exodus (20:1-17), for example, there are 14 commands. Most of them begin with ‘You shall …’

Centuries ago, various scholars tried to solve this problem by devising ways to identify the 10 commandments. So, today there are three main approaches:

  • One is called the Talmudic division, and it’s used by most Jews;
  • St Augustine devised another approach in the 5th Century, and it’s mainly used by Catholics and Lutherans. (This tradition began long before anyone numbered the verses in the Bible); and
  • A third method, called the Philonic division, was devised by the Church Father, Origen. The Protestants copied this from the Eastern Orthodox. 

What’s the difference? Well, comparing the Augustinian and Philonic methods, the main difference is in the grouping of the first and last commandments. St Augustine combined the commands about worshipping God at the beginning of the list, and he separated the commands about moral wrongs at the end. The Philonic method does exactly the opposite.

For example, St Augustine identified the last two commandments as:

9.   Thou shall not covet thy neighbour’s wife; and

10. Thou shall not covet thy neighbour’s goods.

But the Philonic method combines them:

10.  Thou shall not covet thy neighbour’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife … nor anything that is thy neighbour’s.

However you slice and dice the commandments, though, the words haven’t changed. They’re just numbered differently. And while the Catholic Church does mainly use St Augustine’s method, it doesn’t prefer one method over another. It considers them all acceptable.

So, what is the point of this story? I think this story does two things. Firstly, it demonstrates that so much division in our world comes from misunderstanding. Our world would be so much happier if we all took the time to get to know each other better.

Secondly, this story reminds us that many people tend to focus on the letter of the law, rather than its spirit or essence. Their approach is rather legalistic.

The Pharisees were like that. They identified 613 laws in the Torah (the first five books of the Bible), and spent all their time worrying about complying with the details, rather than trying to understand their meaning and purpose.

In today’s Gospel, the Pharisees ask Jesus which is the greatest commandment of the Law. Jesus side-steps the 613 laws in the Torah and goes straight to the heart of what they’re all about. He replies that the greatest and first commandment is to ‘love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind’ (Deut.6:5).

Then he says that the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’ (Lev.19:18).

Loving God and loving our neighbour are two sides of the same coin. Together they represent the very essence of our faith. This is what it means to be Christian. But you must do both; it’s not enough to love God and ignore your suffering neighbour. And it’s not enough to love your neighbour while turning your back on God.

This is what Jesus is telling us. He basically says that we don’t have to be too concerned about the 613 laws in the Torah. We don’t even have to worry about the detail of the original Ten Commandments. For if we truly love God and our neighbour, with all our hearts, souls and minds, then we’ll naturally avoid breaking any of the Ten Commandments, regardless of the way they are numbered.

That’s why Jesus says, ‘On these two commandments hang the whole law and the prophets also’.

This is the very heart of our Christian faith. 

How well do you love God and your neighbour?