Have you ever puzzled over what to give someone who has everything? We face a similar dilemma when we try to figure out what response we can make to the total, free self-gift of God to us. With friends and family members, it helps if they drop hints about what they would most like. Sometimes they come right out and tell us. So does God in the Decalogue. God has taken the initiative in leading Israel out of slavery in Egypt. How can Israel respond to such a gift of lovingkindness? A two-pronged effort to emulate divine faithfulness is all that God wants: devotion to God and care for other people.
The Decalogue spells out 10 specific ways to be faithful. First and foremost is single-hearted devotion to God. No other being or thing is to be at the center of our attention. Second, the sacred name is to be held in reverence; it is not to be used in false oaths or in profanity, since the name carries the identity and power of the person. Third is observance of the Sabbath. One day a week God wants to spend time with us to relish the joy of being together. The reason for keeping the Sabbath is because at the climax of creation God rested, not to gather up energy to keep working after the Sabbath was over, but so as to delight in all that God had made. Not to observe Sabbath is like falling in love, but then not carving out any time to spend with the beloved.
The second half of the Decalogue gives examples of how love of God goes hand in hand with loving care of other people. Elderly parents are to be especially cared for. All life is to be reverenced and it is never to be snuffed out intentionally. Faithfulness in relationships and contentment with what is one’s own is to be expressed through devotion to one’s own spouse, and honesty in all dealings with others, both in word and deed.
The God who asks this response from us offers ardent love. The Hebrew word qn’ in Ex 20:5, often translated as “jealous,” can have the connotation of ardor or zeal. The way we choose to respond to God’s fervent offer of love carries consequences, and the effects ripple down to subsequent generations. If we act mercifully, then divine mercy trickles down to the 1,000th generation. Wickedness likewise begets generations of hatred. It is not so much that God threatens punishment if we do not follow the divine commands, as that rejected love leads to unhappy consequences.
In addition to keeping the commandments, faithfulness to God was expressed through temple worship. All four Gospels tell of an incident when Jesus performed a protest action in the temple. It is difficult to know the intent of the historical Jesus, and each Evangelist gives a slightly different theological interpretation. In the Gospel of John, Jesus quotes the prophet Zechariah, who spoke of an ideal day when there would no longer be traders in the house of God (Zec 14:21). It may be that Jesus is challenging the attitudes of economic exchange that underlie sacrificial thinking: if we offer up this sacrifice to God, then God will forgive our sins or bestow blessings.
Repeatedly the Scriptures counter this tit-for-tat notion, telling how God’s love and gifts are offered unconditionally. The Fourth Evangelist emphasizes that it is Jesus’ very person that embodies God’s ardent love. It is not in any building, but in the person of Jesus that we encounter God.
When Jesus’ disciples recall Ps 69:9 (“Zeal for your house will consume me”), there is a double meaning. “House” can refer both to the temple and to God’s “household.” The zealous love that Jesus enfleshes for members of God’s household not only fills him but literally consumes, or destroys, his life. No sacrifice can be offered in exchange for this gift. The only response is to believe and act toward others with consummate love.