There is no question about the centrality of the Ten Commandments to Judaism and subsequently to Christianity. The Ten Words, as the Old Testament itself calls them (Ex 34:28; Dt 4:13), or Decalogue, which God spoke to Moses, resonate down through the centuries into our lives. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (Nos. 2056-63), however, stresses not just the importance of the commandments but their embeddedness in the lives of the people of Israel.
These words God spoke come in the context of the Exodus story and in the covenant God made with Israel. As a result, the catechism claims that the Commandments “properly so-called come in the second place: they express the implications of belonging to God through the establishment of the covenant. Moral existence is a response to the Lord’s loving initiative” (No. 2062).
Waldemar Janzen, in Old Testament Ethics, speaks of the Ten Commandments and the other collections of laws found in the Old Testament as examples of God’s ways, saying, “The positive laws in their smaller or larger collections offer samples pointing to an integrated value system, an ethos, that lies behind them and that generated them” (p. 88). The Ten Words are not the end of moral obligations but the beginning of a life in response to the complete call to love God and to love our neighbor.
It is this deep desire to help us see beyond laws as the rote fulfillment of commands, as check marks to tick off—a temptation all of us face in our religious lives—that drives Jesus in the Gospel story most often referred to as the Cleansing of the Temple.
There were laws governing the Temple’s operations and the sacrificial system, and these laws also were revealed by God, but in the practice of them Jesus perceives something lacking. So “he told those who were selling the doves, ‘Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!’ His disciples remembered that it was written, ‘Zeal for your house will consume me.’” It is this zeal for God’s house that motivates Jesus and ought to push us to look beyond the surface events.
For it is not obvious what precisely is wrong with buying and selling animals for sacrifice or with exchanging money for pilgrims who have traveled from far-away countries and need to pay the half shekel temple tax (Ex 30:11–16), but then Jesus “found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables.” The Passover celebrates the Exodus, that time when the Ten Words were spoken by God, and looks to the past and the future of salvation, and Jesus found the response to God’s salvation wanting.
What was lacking? This is a question difficult to answer. Was it simply the buying and selling that seemed incongruent in God’s Temple? Or is Jesus pointing us to the depths of salvation? Janzen says that “the grandeur and centrality of the Decalogue within the canonical story…remains uncontested. This code stands at the head of all subsequent legislation gathered under the name of Moses and, in a sense, comprehends the purpose of that legislation. It is God’s call to Israel to respond to salvation with a new way of life. This new life can be summarized elsewhere as a total commitment to love (Dt 6:4–5)” (p. 89). Did Jesus see the total commitment to love lacking?
What if we imagine Jesus cleansing our own lives, challenging our regular way of business, our claims that we are following all the rules and doing what the Commandments say? Would Jesus push us beyond the rules or the way things are done? The rules, his actions say, while essential, are not the end of the story. God calls us to a deeper commitment, to a purification of our lives, which calls on us to make central not commandments but the reality of God who spoke those commandments. Jesus asks us to shape our lives in conformity with love, for “moral existence is a response to the Lord’s loving initiative.”