The Nineteenth Sunday after Trinity
8th October 2023
In the name of the +Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
I think this is the first time I’ve come across the Ten Commandments in a principle service in the Church of England. And that is quite a surprising thing. The Ten Commandments used to have a special place in the worship of our Church. In the service of Holy Communion from the Book of Common Prayer, the Ten Commandments are to be recited close to the start of the service, every Sunday. The congregation are asked to respond to each commandment, with a response that indicates assent to the commandment, and requests God’s help in keeping them. But the Ten Commandments do not feature in this way in the modern service, and in fact, if you were to attend a Book of Common Prayer service here or at Remenham, you would find that more often than not the Ten Commandments are replaced with Jesus’ summary of the law.
This is a part of a broader trend: if you were for example to compare and contrast the collects in the Book of Common Prayer with the collects in the new service, you would find that there is a much greater emphasis on morality and on doing good works in the old liturgy than in the new. From one point of view this is a healthy theological emphasis: Christianity is fundamentally about what God does for us; this comes before anything that we might presume to do for God or even for each other. But it probably also reflects some major social changes.
To start with, the Church has largely ceased to be important as a force for social discipline. Most people after all do not go to church, and the apparatus of the State has vastly increased since the seventeenth century; whether it be through the police force or the school system or the social services or the huge expansion of law, the State has over the past two hundred years pushed itself further and further into areas that in the past were largely left to the Church to deal with. And so I suppose one consequence of this is that as the State has ceased to rely on the Church to inculcate a sense of morality, the Church’s liturgy has become more focused on theology than morality.
And then there is the related fact that our generation is really very deeply resistant to being told what to do. We think that the greatest virtue is to think for ourselves. And we do not like the idea of recognizing a higher moral authority than ourselves. We demand the freedom to act as we see fit, free from religious constraints or social norms.
It seems to me that this western liberal attitude is a sort of Christian heresy, since a certain scepticism about the value of externally-imposed commandments is an important aspect of Christian moral teaching. It is after all in St Paul’s Epistle to the Romans that we find his fascinating analysis of the limitations of law in leading to righteousness, and his emphasis on the grace of God and the inner transformation that frees us simply to love. “The one who loves another has fulfilled the law”, he writes. It is not law imposed on us from the outside that makes us good; it is the grace of God working within us that renews and restores our nature.
What then is the place of rules and commandments in Christian life?
I think the first thing to say is that rules are very useful. It’s much easier to stick to a definite rule than it is to commit oneself in a general way to being a better person. Even in simple matters of self-discipline, it is much easier to make good on a definite rule than a vague aspiration. A commitment to drinking only one bottle of wine a week, or a promise to oneself not to eat cream cakes on a Friday, is much easier to keep than a vague intention to drink a bit less or eat a bit more healthily. In this way, rules can be very helpful.
It would be nice if we lived in world in which we had all been inwardly transformed by God’s grace so that the thought of stealing or bearing false witness would never even cross our minds. We pray for such a world, but sadly we do not yet live in such a world, because we are all to a greater or lesser extent works in progress. And so being reminded from time-to-time that there is a very definite requirement placed on us not to steal from or lie about other people is a good thing.
I think it’s also important to notice that Jesus’ summary of the law is not a softening of the Ten Commandments. We can sometimes fall into thinking this way simply because He replaces Ten Commandments with two, and that seems easier. Jesus says that we are to love the Lord our God with all our heart and soul and mind, and to love our neighbour as ourselves. This is actually much more demanding and open-ended than the Ten Commandments.
The Ten Commandments tell me that I mustn’t kill my neighbour or sleep with his wife or steal from him. But there are lots of things the Ten Commandments don’t say. They don’t say, for example, that I am not allowed to give my neighbour a good hiding if he says something rude to me. And they don’t say that, if my neighbour is hungry, I need to do anything about it. Jesus’ summary of the law, by contrast, makes much deeper demands of me: if I am to love my neighbour as I love myself, I cannot wallop him if he calls me a rude name, and if he needs my help, I must give it.
The more specific and detailed rules of the Ten Commandments are useful because of our hardness of heart. We find it so easy to kid ourselves that we are loving others. We mistake love for a kind of fuzzy feeling, rather than a genuine desire for the good of another. We convince ourselves that our motives are good and pure when they are not. The Ten Commandments give us a kind of moral backstop, setting out the basic requirements of our obligations towards God, and the essential rules for our relationships with each other that make orderly social life possible. It is good for us to hear them and reflect on them from time to time.
But if in our life as Christians we become too fixated on rules, we risk mistaking the signpost for the destination. Christian morality is not primarily about following rules, as useful as those rules may be; it is about an inner transformation in the power of the Holy Spirit, that we may be free to live in accordance with Jesus’ expansive rule of love. Externally-imposed rules are useful for us because of our hardness of heart; but much better for us to seek the transformation of our hearts, so that we no longer desire the harmful things that the Commandments are there to protect us from, and so that we learn to seek the good things that the Commandments commend to us.
In the name of the +Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen