Tomorrow could be a trip down memory lane for those of us who in now distant far-off school years, were taught by rote, memorising poems and maths tables. It had its merits. Religious instruction took a similar approach with catechism and “recitation of scripture” such as the Ten Commandments which feature in tomorrow’s Old Testament reading from Exodus 20.
All societies need rules to live by and Old Testament Israel was no exception. These once semi-nomadic and enslaved peoples were looking to a settled future in the Promised Land they believed God intended for them. An agreed code of laws would be an important step in bonding them together as a people.
As time passed and circumstances changed, the commandments had to be interpreted and, in that process, the prevailing culture had an influence. For example, this was a patriarchal society dominated by men and when it came to the commandment on adultery the application was gender biased. In practice married men could have relationships with other women with modest sanction whereas married women could have no sexual partner apart from their husbands on pain of death. We see this in the incident where Jesus challenged the stoning of an adulterous woman, pointedly telling her accusers that the first stone should be thrown by someone who is “without sin”. Rules on divorce were similarly one-sided. That deep-seated bias against women in the Judeo/Christian tradition and elsewhere persists to this day as we were reminded in yesterday’s Women’s World Day of Prayer when women from 170 countries united in prayer against domestic violence and various forms of exploitation and oppression, a reality painfully exposed yet again here in the recent mother and baby homes report. Women were treated appallingly while men with responsibilities walked away.
The commandment “to keep holy the sabbath day” emphasises a duty of care for outsiders: “You shall not do any work – you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns.” Immigrants, slaves, and animals have rights too. The Sabbath was intended to be a day of rest for all, time for refreshment of body, mind and spirit. Our restless world of seven-day “business as usual” has destroyed something incredibly special.
Laws are about how things ought to be, but we often fall short. CS Lewis argued that this applied in particular to the final commandment about greed: “You shall not covet . . .”. Lewis argued that the entire economy of the West was built on greed which is the issue in tomorrow’s gospel reading which describes how Jesus confronted a corrupt Temple hierarchy and its money lending associates.
The high priests were exploiting people by insisting that Temple dues must be paid in Jewish coins, not Roman coins stamped with the image of a heathen emperor. However, they set an exchange rate by which a large percentage was deducted in favour of themselves. They also had a stake in the stalls which sold animals for sacrifice at exorbitant rates. As a result, devout people, coming to the Temple at the sacred time of Passover, were being ripped off by their religious leaders who had turned something holy into a financial transaction; they were charging for what God was giving freely. When Jesus talks about the destruction of the Temple he is talking about corruption from within, self-destruction, a warning to churches today where we still see evidence of greed not just for money but also for power.
In his book Contemplative Prayer, Fr Thomas Merton identifies what matters in the religious life not only for what goes on in church buildings but within and between communities of faith: "Without contemplation and interior prayer the church cannot fulfil her mission to transform and save mankind. Without contemplation, she would be reduced to being a servant of cynical and worldly powers, no matter how hard her faithful may protest that they are fighting for the kingdom of God."