Many people I know believe that the Ten Commandments are all that anyone needs in order to answer any question about right and wrong. My own view is that these commandments raise more questions than they answer.
Consider this question, for example: how is one to love with one’s whole being a God who according to the Third Commandment is a very “jealous” God?
Jealousy is a character defect, pure and simple. And because it is, it cannot also be a divine attribute. Any God-pretender claiming to have it should never become an object of any human being’s devotion, not to mention affection.
Another question is whether, according to the Tenth Commandment, covetous feelings are as punishable as covetous acts should be. I don’t think so, but I’m not sure Moses would agree.
And still another is why adultery, prohibited by the Seventh Commandment, should be regarded as an offense punishable by death.
These are important questions, but others that are more on my mind these days have to do with another commandment, the Ninth, about not “bearing false witness” against our neighbors. I want to look at it as a higher principle of human relationships in general, but tradition seems so often to get in the way.
The original context of this commandment was ancient Israel’s courts of elders. It was intended to prohibit lying in a judicial proceeding for the purpose of harming others. I wish its correlate had been stated with equal clarity, that we should under all circumstances attribute to others only what we know, and not just think we know, to be true about them.
Elsewhere in the Bible, there is a confusing trivializing of this commandment, seemingly to deal with little more than name-calling. By way of example, Jesus is alleged to have said that whoever calls another a “fool” deserves hell-fire. (5:22)
That this application was confusing even to those who came up with it is evident from the vignettes which also describe Jesus doing the very thing he warned others not to do. Matthew 23 has him calling Pharisees “blind guides,” “whitewashed tombs,” “vipers,” and even “blind fools.”
Surely it was Matthew more than Jesus who was responsible for verbal aggression like this. It not only trivializes The Ninth Commandment. It undermines it altogether. Sometimes, it’s best not to take the new with the old — testament, that is.