How do we make sense of the Commandments, if we know we can’t treat them as a simple ten-point To-Do list? Jesus’ conversation [above] with the lawyer (which prefaces the parable we’ve come to know as “The Good Samaritan”), gives us an important clue: If you want to condense the law down to its most essential elements, remember this: Love the Lord your God, and love your neighbor as yourself.
The fact that this devout Jew (“a [scripture] lawyer”), who specialized in the reading of the Torah, offered this summary so readily to Jesus, gives us a clue about its importance in the Jewish and Christian traditions. A faithful life includes both our relationship to God and to the world we live in. Jesus communicates this message in Matthew, Mark, and Luke’s Gospels; which further emphasizes how much the love of God and love of neighbor are at the center of our Christian life.
One way to visualize this two-pronged relationship to God and neighbor is in the way the Commandments are displayed on the two tablets that Moses carried down the mountain: On the first tablet are Commandments I through III, on the second are Commandments IV through X. Commandments 1, 2, and 3 are about loving God; Commandments 4 through 10 are about loving neighbor.
Even Saint Augustine of Hippo, a 4th-century bishop and notable sinner-saint in his own right, knew this formula when he wrote about Christian ethics in his Confessions: “An evil-living person transgresses your Decalogue of three commands with our duty to you, and seven with our duty to our fellow human beings” [emphasis mine].
Maybe ultimately the question this idea poses is: Why bother to condense the 10 Commandments down to this two-part calling? Well, a first response might be if you know the two, you’ll remember the 10 better. If you remember that God created you to love God and your neighbor, you can then unpack what that looks like by giving the Top Ten their proper attention. Thinking of the Commandments in terms of the two tablets, also invites you to think of the Ten Commandments more as a description, more than a prescription—the Commandments are finally about loving God and neighbor well.
But maybe the most important reason to think about the commandments in these terms is because love of God and love of neighbor is what Jesus’ cross embodies. Jesus was obedient to God even to the point of death on the cross (love of God), he became sin who knew no sin, in order to love us back to God (love of neighbor). Ultimately, this two-pronged approach to the Commandments leads us back to the truth that truly saves us: Jesus inexhaustibly loves God and loves us. And, with that gospel news as our starting point, we are empowered to love God and love each other. Thanks be to God.