One hears a lot about the Ten Commandments. It is not that surprising; in many ways it is the foundational code for three billion people. And so one sees people passing them out on street corners and one hears of people lobbying to have them taught in schools. Apparently one can even run for president, if admittedly only briefly, on an entirely-Ten Commandments platform.
Yet one thing perpetually puzzles me about the Ten Commandments. Why do American Christians spend so much energy, attention, and passion on them, when Jesus of Nazareth specifically pointed not to the Ten, but to the Two?
Have you ever even heard of the Two Commandments?
Likely you have, but not under that name, perhaps. I’m referring to the Greatest Commandment and “the other like it.” The Nazarene specifically said, “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” — or, another way, “Get these wrong and the rest falls apart.” And what are they? “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” — or might — and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:37-40; you can double-check Jesus’ memory against Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18.) Neither of these appear in the Ten Commandments.
Now, why would many modern American Christians devote so much energy, time, concern, cash, and compulsion to the Ten Commandments when their lord and savior had told them that two others were far more important?
Could it be because ten is a more resonant number? Stories are full of threes, sevens, tens, and twelves. Two is somewhat less common. Maybe Jesus could have done better if he’d set up a third commandment to round out his “Greatest Two.” But what else could he have added? The first says love God, and the second says love everyone else — including, as he’d explained elsewhere, enemies. So there was hardly anyone left to love. Love all creation, perhaps? Even that, however, is pretty easily worked into the Two as they stand.
Could it be because the Ten are easier to follow? They aren’t exactly simple, but “love your neighbors” is just about the hardest thing I’ve ever been told to do. It’s easy for me, at least, to shut most of my neighbors in this world out. And loving my enemies is truly an uphill battle for me. Perhaps others have gotten the hang of it, but I’m still learning. Not coveting and not committing adultery seem hard enough for a lot of Americans, or at least Americans on the news; maybe loving our enemies is just too tricky for a lot of us to even contemplate.
Plus the Ten are more specific, and that always saves on thinking. Commandments Five through Ten could all be summarized as “love thy neighbor” with a little squeezing, especially the not-killing and not-stealing parts, but doing it that way requires us to put more thought into all our actions. “Is this adultery?” is sort of a yes-no question, compared to “How do I love my neighbor?” with all its potential ramifications. So maybe those pushing the Ten are just trying to spare us some mental effort?
Or is it the focus?
The central word in the Ten is “not.” “Not” or “no” appear twelve times, and only one commandment has neither word in it. The rest are phrased as prohibitions. I’m not the first one to notice this, of course. But look at the Two. Here the central word is “love.” Not prohibition but exhortation, not a ruling-out but a gathering-in. And isn’t gathering-in really what every Christian church is about?
I’d love to say yes, but there’s this rule about “You shall not bear false witness.”
I’m not saying that Christianity has forsaken love. It hasn’t. Every congregation in America has people who love and support each other; every pastor and priest from Nome to Miami loves and cherishes somebody. The question is whether all pastors and all Christians cherish everybody. It’s hard, I know! But it’s still what we’ve been charged to do. For some churches, the answer’s yes, and this essay has no real bearing at all for them. But all too frequently “Love your enemy” is completely lost under sermons of fear. All too frequently Christians in America hear “Hate the sin but love the sinner” as “Hate the sin and chain the sinner,” trying to outlaw acts they consider immoral, trying to legislate people into heaven, and denying their neighbors the freedom of letting them choose for themselves. Letting them choose is loving them. For isn’t the freedom of choice the most precious freedom God allows?
Christianity — or at least Loud Christianity, the faith that has the microphones and the money, both in America where I am most familiar with it and elsewhere in the world — is focused on obedience, discipline, restraint and constraint: control. The Ten Commandments fit well with that: they dictate, threaten, weigh down. The only time love is mentioned at all comes immediately after a promise to smite people for sins their great-grandparents committed. The Two Commandments, however, lift up and inspire. They cannot be followed without a little gladness of heart. And as love cannot be forced, but withers under coercion, the Two can only be followed by free people, with all the blessings — and tough choices — that freedom brings.
So is that why most American Christians seem to speak of them so little?
Ah, for the churches and congregations that do talk of them… for wherever two or three are gathered together not in dread but in delight… what wonders await them! They are nearest to the One. After all, the Gospel does not say, “For God so feared the world” or “so controlled the world…” By no means. Love is central to all the testaments. Love is at the core of the Greatest Commandments. Without love there is no Christ, though perhaps there would still be “Christians.”
The Church, from first to last, must follow the leadership of these gatherings of love, the ones who show the way. They must break any chains they have made, and let go of those they strive to grip so tightly. Only through this release, this surrender of control, can love grow; and only through liberty and love can the Two Commandments — with all the law and the prophets — be fulfilled.