Earlier in the week, the Ten Commandments came up in a conversation with a couple of other people. One of them said, “For some, Christianity seems to be a list of rules to obey.” I think he’s right. There are those who view Christianity that way.
But for me, Christianity is first and foremost about relationships – with God, with others, and with my own spiritual being. The “rules” God gives us are intended to help us cherish, protect, and sustain those relationships. Following the “rules” don’t make us worthy of our relationships; they help us abide in them.
For starters, God invites us into relationship not because we are worthy, but because God is worthy. And God always takes the first step, even when we falter. In the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32), after the son wakes up to his own prodigal reality, he rehearses a speech that he hopes will convince his father to accept him back into the household just as a hired hand. When the father sees him coming toward home, he runs out to meet him. And before a word comes out of the son’s mouth, the father embraces him and restores him to his place in the household as a son and not a servant. Our relationship with God is grounded in God’s worthiness and not our own. The rules God gives us are to hold us close in that relationship as God's beloved daughters and sons.
Our relationships with others are healthiest when we place the worth of the other ahead of our own. Jesus demonstrated that in his life, death, and resurrection for us. St. Paul summed it up when he wrote, “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). The heart of the Paschal Mystery is that Jesus Christ overcame death for our sake. Before we even knew there were any rules to follow, he deemed us worthy to act on our behalf. But it is the Savior’s worth and not our own that makes it possible for us to live in him. He calls us again and again to love others the way he loves us.
And, it is vital to our spiritual well-being that we be mindful of our soul’s progress throughout life and aware of how all other relationships affect our inner being. Because we live in a material world, it is easy to forget that we are, first and foremost, spiritual beings. Things often block progress on the spiritual journey. Some people bring good into our lives. Others have a harmful or hurtful influence. There are spiritual disciplines and rules of life that help us be mindful and to monitor the soul’s well-being.
To couch my point in sacramental terms, the inward and spiritual needs to be expressed in the outward and visible. It is the relationship that drives the behavior. Because I value the relationships, I strive to act in ways that sustain them.
I love my wife and I will never forget that she loved me first. Some important rules have been helpful in strengthening the bonds of our marriage for fifty-two years. But following those rules grows out of the deep love and respect we have for one another. The rules don’t make us love one another. It is our love that gives the rules their purpose.
Our parents taught us not to play in traffic because, before we knew it was dangerous, they loved us enough to give us that and other rules that protect us from physical harm. We teach our children to brush their teeth and other rules because we love them and want them to take care of their health. We follow COVID protocols in an attempt to live out the Great Commandment, loving others as well as ourselves. The Church commends spiritual disciplines because Jesus loved us enough to create the Church for that purpose.
The Godly Play Curriculum for children speaks of the Ten Commandments as “The Ten Best Ways to Live.” I like that. Because God loves us so much, God has provided these and many other ways to live in a sacred relationship with our Creator, with those around us, and with our own true self. The purpose of the rules is always about relationships.
The Very Reverend Ron Pogue
St. Martin-in-the-Fields Episcopal Church