My December Column, The Second Commandment – Full Text

This article was published in the Christmas double issue of the Scottish Catholic Observer on 22/12/2017.

The Second Commandment

In this series I’m having a look at the Ten Commandments from the point of view of them being God’s guide to human happiness. This month I’m having a think about the Second Commandment, ‘Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.’ At first glance that seems to be a straightforward command. What, exactly, does it mean? My old ‘penny catechism’ tells me that taking the Lord’s name in vain means using the name of God or the Holy Name of Jesus Christ without due reverence. That sounds quite reasonable but it also says that we are commanded to keep our lawful oaths and vows.

Now using the Holy Name with due reverence was a big issue in my religious education in primary school. We were all made aware of the importance of never using the Holy Name. Any time we used the word Jesus in a prayer we had to bow our head. I had forgotten all about this until I was approached at the end of Mass one day by someone who thought I must have been at his primary school. He explained that he had noticed I bowed my head when we said the word Jesus. He was taught that at his school and had realised he was still doing it too.

I’m not alone in this. Using the name Jesus outside of a prayer can be problematic. A few years ago, in my MISSIO days my Irish colleague related an event in a Dublin primary school. She had brought a Ugandan nun, who was on a visit, to meet the children in the school. Sister Fortunata was no quiet contemplative. She was big and forceful. She wanted the children to understand that what we do to others we do to Jesus. She wanted the children to see Jesus in others and she had a plan to help her achieve that. She told the children to turn to their partner and say “Hello Jesus. How are you?”  The children were quick to adopt this greeting and it became their standard greeting. Every day the children came into the playground shouting “Hello Jesus.” to their friends. The good Catholic teachers were shocked at the effect the nun had. They had to stop the children using the Holy name without losing Fortunata’s message. Even with all their efforts it took the teachers over a week to stop the children greeting each other with “Hiya Jesus.”

I confess it grates when I hear someone misuse the Holy Name. I’m sure I would never deliberately do that. However, it does raise a question. It is very annoying but why did God use one of his Ten Commandments to focus on this one act of disrespect? Is there more to this than I had thought? Does this apply to me? When would I use the Holy Name outside a prayer?

Thinking it through I suddenly realised that I do it all the time. I profess to be a Christian, a follower of Christ. I’m using that name. In my prayers I offer all I do in Jesus’ name. Whatever I do reflects on the Holy Name. I suppose that as a Christian I’m telling the world that I’m an example of how Jesus taught us to live. Now nobody wants to give a bad impression of Jesus’ teaching but I wonder how I go about that.

I don’t want to be seen to be someone who does wrong. That would really be giving the wrong message. I wouldn’t be doing wrong in Jesus’ name but Jesus wasn’t known for what He didn’t do. He was known for what he did. If I want to live my life in Jesus’ name then I will have to actually do the kind of things that Jesus did. Now I’m not talking about working miracles. I won’t be walking on water anytime soon. It wasn’t the working of miracles that made Jesus stand out; it was how he dealt with other people.

Jesus showed no interest in people of importance. He spent time with the poor, the sick, people shunned by polite society and sought out sinners. In his story of the widow’s mite he shows that the small coin given by the poor widow is more valuable than a much larger sum given by the rich man. He recognised that the poor are often more generous than the rich, more ready to share the little they have. Now I might think that I’m being generous by putting a pound in the charity box but I’m not really sharing; I’m giving the extra I have left over.

When it comes to helping the sick I’m afraid I fall short again. I’m happy to visit friends and family when they are sick but Jesus helped the sick people he didn’t know. I’ve never been one to think about the people in hospital who have nobody to visit them. Especially now in winter time I should be ready to look out for frail people who might need help.

Beggars are now a feature of our city streets. It’s now difficult to distinguish between people who really need help and those who could fend for themselves. That’s where my problem lies. I am ready to make a judgement about who is ‘deserving’ and who is not. I’m happy to help the deserving poor but not the others. What evidence do I have when considering my judgement? What right do I have to judge? I suppose the answer is that I am in no position to judge. I have no idea what circumstances have brought about the change in someone’s life that sees them outcasts. Given those circumstances could I find myself becoming an outcast? Jesus had no problem in associating freely with the outcasts.

What about sinners? Am I prepared to denounce those who are seen to be ‘living in sin’ or in prison? Jesus didn’t condemn sinners. His mission was to save sinners while He was without sin. On the other hand I am a sinner. My sins might not be publicly noted but never the less I’m not in a position to cast the first stone. As Jesus showed compassion to sinner shouldn’t I do the same?

The period leading up to Christmas (starts mid-October now) has become a time to focus on buying gifts. Television adverts are full of great ideas for things you must give this Christmas. I watched part of a television programme about the most expensive gifts you can buy. They had gold plated everything you could think of. The best things were also diamond studded. I noticed a curious thing. The people buying the gifts wanted to show that only they could give these gifts. The gift was a sign of their status rather than their regard for the recipient. Christmas has become all about ‘me’.

The real Christmas is about a different gift. The coming of Christ is God’s gift to us. Christmas is not about me; it’s about others. The giving of gifts is about showing our appreciation of those we love. The message is quite simple. If you want to be happy forget about you and do what God does – think about others.

I hope you have a happy, relaxing Christmas.

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My December Column – Guide to Happiness

My December Column is published in the Scottish Catholic Observer this weekend.

It continues my look at the Ten Commandments as God’s guide to happiness.  This is the Christmas Bumper issue and is great value at £2. Lots of good articles.

If you are too late then my full text will appear here next week.

Happy Christmas!

My November Column – The First Commandment – Full Text

This article was published in the Scottish Catholic Observer on the 1st December 2017.

The First Commandment

Last month I set myself the task of looking at the Ten Commandments as a guide to human happiness. This is harder than I had imagined. How do we know that we are happy? We find it easy to know when we are unhappy but I don’t go about thinking how happy I am. I think it is when we are unhappy that we can see how happy we had been before.

Now the Commandments were given to Moses when the Israelites were so unhappy in their wanderings in the desert that they began to reject God. They were so unhappy that they began to pine for the good old days when they were slaves being mistreated by the Egyptians. They had been told that God would lead them to a new land where they would have all the good things they wanted. Now they couldn’t see any sign of this Promised Land and they felt that God had failed to provide what He had promised.

Does this sound familiar? Sometimes I hear people complain that they have prayed to God for a solution to a problem and they have seen no answer. Why doesn’t God give us what we ask for? In the first commandment God sets out to clarify the nature of our relationship. He says, “I am the Lord thy God: thou shalt not have strange Gods before Me.” You might notice I’m using the old fashioned ‘thou’ rather than the more familiar ‘you’. That was deliberate. Thou is a singular form. God is making it plain He is talking to me, not just the whole group; this is means me. He is telling me that he is the one who will decide what to do and when to do it. I don’t call the shots.

If we look at where we get this commandment from we go back to the Old Testament. In Deuteronomy we find,

“I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before me.

You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.”

That’s a much stronger version than our modern instruction. If we are going to get along with God we are going to have to understand the true nature of the relationship. We didn’t elect God and we are in no position to dismiss Him. God is making it plain that if we do then we will not prosper.

God is also pointing out the folly of worshiping some other ‘gods’. His list would seem to prohibit worship of animals but that is not really the whole story. We can understand the folly of worshiping an animal. Our understanding of the nature of living things precludes the possibility of them having any special powers. Praying to a horse will get you nowhere. Bookmakers understand this and make lots of money from it.

We may be at risk of worshiping other ‘gods’ though. Our attitudes to God today might betray some similarity with those of the Israelites wandering in the desert. We now seem to have a tendency to blame God for things. I think the New Testament may have given rise to this. We are told in Mark’s Gospel that Jesus could command a storm to stop.

“They woke him and said to him, ‘Master, do you not care? We are going down! And he woke up and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, ‘Quiet now! Be calm!’ and the wind dropped and all was calm again.”

Mark 4:39, 40

Now some of us think we can call on God to sort out anything that threatens us. They question where was God when the earthquake struck? Why was my child allowed to die? They even blame God for causing disasters as a punishment for our bad behaviour. Do we really believe that God sent AIDS to punish the wicked?

In the first commandment God tells the Israelites that He decided to lead them out of Egypt. It was not their idea. God intercedes in human events when He decides to. It is not our decision. The Israelites could only see the desert that surrounded them. God has a much wider vision and he is not bounded by time. Our big mistake is that we think we can understand God. I can’t really understand what God is never mind understand His plans.

God knows we can’t understand what he is so he is making it simple for us. God is in charge. He is not Santa Clause, bringing us the things we ask for. God gives us what we need for our place in his plan. That’s why He doesn’t let me win the Euromillions; it’s not what I need to follow His plan. I can’t really see that it would do me any harm but just as God led the Israelites out of bondage in Egypt, I have to remember that he is leading me out of the bondage of sin. My vision is just as restricted as that of the Israelites so I have to trust that God can see where he is leading and trust to His mercy.

In western society we seem to have decided that God has it wrong on so many issues. We have decided that sanctity of life is inconvenient. God’s idea of all human beings being of equal value does not fit with our modern world. We don’t see life as a gift from God but something we control. In a sense we could be accused of going beyond the worship of false gods. We could be accused of thinking of ourselves as being God. We can decide when life begins and ends. We can now decide whether we are male or female, or something else.

Of course our transition into gods is incomplete. We are still limited in our length of life. Research is proceeding to ‘switch off’ the gene that tells our bodies to stop repairing itself so that we can live for hundreds of years if not forever. This idea of living forever has great support from some very wealthy people. If you have more money than you can spend in a lifetime immortality is very attractive. Who knows what the State Pension age will be if that comes about.

History shows us that human beings who think they are God have never brought us any good. I might be of being old fashioned but I’ll stick with the belief that there is only one God. That job is taken and they are not recruiting anyone else.

As God says in the First Commandment, those who reject Him will suffer and those who love Him will be loved in return. I know whose side I’m on.