Since most of us were baptized as infants, we were never offered a formal opportunity to give ourselves completely to God. That’s one of the reasons the Ten Commandments don’t mean for us what they meant for those who originally received them.

The late Rev. Dennis Mc-Carthy taught that these special ten regulations make sense only when we stop referring to them as commandments and start calling them “responsibilities.”

They never were intended to be dictates from heaven, applying to all people, objects to be placed in lobbies of city halls and courthouses. They were part of a covenant which God entered into with a specific group of people: the Israelites.


Beginning in the ‘50s and ‘60s, Father McCarthy and other scholars returned these regulations to the covenant context from which religious people through the centuries had removed them. He reminded his students, for instance, of the importance of the first sentence in the first reading (Ex 20: 1-17): “I, Yahweh, am your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, that place of slavery.”

In ancient covenant terminology, this small verse is called the “historical prologue.” Its presence is essential for understanding the rest of the covenant. No one during the Exodus period entered into a treaty or covenant unless a relationship already existed between the parties before they created this new contract. In the case of Yahweh and the Israelites, the relationship began when Yahweh offered freedom to a band of Hebrew slaves.

Not only was their liberation something these former slaves would never forget, it was also why they trusted Yahweh enough to agree to take on the ten covenant responsibilities we hear enumerated in the rest of the passage.

Just as all human relationships demand changes in our behavior patterns, so the ancient Israelites were expected to change their behavior because of a relationship with Yahweh that began even before Moses led them out of Egypt. This change eventually crystallized into the covenant responsibilities.

Ignorance about the “relationship-context” of the Ten Commandments also leads us to miss some of what Paul and John say in the other readings.


The Apostle simply reminds his Corinthian community of something they already know, since they already have a relationship with the risen Jesus (I Cor 1: 22-25). “The foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom,” he writes, “and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.” Such statements aren’t rooted in a book-knowledge of God; they come only from personal experience.

We find something parallel in the Gospel (Jn 2: 13-25). Accustomed to living our faith without any dependence on the Jerusalem temple, we can’t imagine what it must have been like for Jesus’ first followers to lose that link with God.

They originally were all Jews. Much of their religion revolved around the ritual and prayers performed in that sacred place. But once Gentiles began to join their numbers, the temple became a problem. Gentiles were forbidden under pain of death to enter it. And soon, because of their teachings and their association with Gentiles, even Jewish Christians were barred from entering its precincts.

Given this anti-Christian background and the eventual Roman destruction of the temple in 70, all four evangelists narrate Jesus’ “cleansing” of the temple, though none as “violently” as John.

John offers a new temple theology: Jesus is now the temple through which His followers come into contact with God. We’re no longer concerned with buildings. A person centers our faith. Once again, we’re dealing with a relationship.

Religion is a lot less demanding when relationships aren’t part of it. There’s just one problem: Faith is impossible without them.