We began by looking in the Bible Dictionary and seeing that "command" and "commandment" are not defined there. I told the students that I think there are some things that are assumed to be so simple and obvious that we tend to think they don't need to be defined in a place like the Bible Dictionary but that I disagree - strongly. I believe commandments are a complex subject, worthy of an entire month of study. We did read the entry for the Ten Commandments, since they are the foundational commandments of our Judeo-Christian heritage.
We then defined "commandment". We got "rule" - which then was amended to "God's rule" - which then was changed to "a rule that is so important that it has to be followed or dire consequences occur". I asked where else the word "command" is used, and we talked about the military application. I pointed out that we now allow soldiers to not obey a direct order if that order is particularly egregious but that soldiers used to be discharged, jailed or even killed automatically for not following a direct command. We talked about how commandments and punishments have changed over time - how we no longer accept some things that used to be seen as commandments and no longer punish people the same way for not obeying commandments. We used honoring parents, adultery and polygamy as specific examples, and we talked about what we can learn about God from the fact that commandments have changed throughout history.
The students suggested the following things:
1) God gives us commandments that are best for our own circumstances - that the world changes and, therefore, some things about how we need to live change, as well. We talked about what it means to believe in continuing revelation and how we can't get stuck following outdated rules simply because people used to accept them as commandments.
2) God gives broad commandments, and we are the ones who make the smaller rules that we accept as commandments.
We used the second reason as a springboard to discuss the old Mosaic Law - to understand how ten original commandments ended up being over 600 specific rules. I told them that we would talk about that in more detail as we discussed specific commandments this month.
I asked them if we can rank commandments in order of importance. They all agreed that we can, so I asked how we might do that properly. They came up with the following, which we discussed - after my disclaimer that we can't let ranking sins allow us to think that it's okay to commit "lesser" sins simply because we aren't committing "greater" sins.
1) By severity of consequence to others: Thus, as a rule, killing is worse than stealing.
2) By severity of consequence to ourselves: Thus, adultery is worse than not keeping the Sabbath holy.
3) By personal temptation: Thus, lying can be "worse" than killing, if someone is not inclined at all to kill but is inclined to lie.
With that foundation, we read Matthew 22:35-40:
35 Then one of them, which was a lawyer, asked him a question, tempting him, and saying,
36 Master, which is the great commandment in the law?
37 Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.
38 This is the first and great commandment.
39 And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.
40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.
I asked them what "tempting him" meant in that context, and they understood it meant it was a test - a way for the man to start an argument and discredit Jesus.
We talked about what it means to love others as ourselves: not doing anything to someone else that we wouldn't want done to us; doing things for others that we would want others to do for us; sacrificing what we want to make sure others have what they need; etc.
I then asked them what it means to have all the law and the prophets "hang" on the first two, great commandments.
They understood the concept quite well, and we settled on the analogy of multiple articles of clothing hanging on a rack. Remove the rack, and the clothing falls to the floor - lying there gathering dirt and dust. The thing that is the "hanger" provides support so what hangs can be used properly - so it can be effective and proper. Also, from one of the students, without the support of the hanger, we could have all the clothing in the world but it wouldn't help us - since we wouldn't want to wear clothing that had been lying on the floor getting dusty and dirty. We talked about how we can "keep every commandment" without it changing us in any way if we don't keep the two great commandments upon which all the others hang - that, if we obey without love, we are following the Mosaic Law and not the Law of Christ. Conversely, if we really love God, others and ourselves, we will keep the commandments naturally - especially if we understand how each commandment can be grounded in love.
With that in mind, we turned to the list of commandments we had written on the board and talked about each one of them in the context of how they can be related to loving God, others and ourselves. One of the students had mentioned earlier that a Seminary teacher had said that each negative command ("Thou shalt not") could be rephrased in a positive manner ("Thou shalt"), so we used that concept in analyzing each command we discussed.
Honor they parents: How do we do that within the context of love?
We honor righteous, caring parents by showing our love for them - accepting their right to lead us and set rules, becoming who they want us to become, etc. I explained the Protestant idea that honoring God generally is framed in terms of praise - but I pointed out that, given the choice of either extreme, I would MUCH rather have my children become whom I want them to become than to hear them praise me every day. Praising God is important, but it's more important to "honor" God by becoming what he has asked us to become.
I told them that they all have wonderful parents, but I asked them how someone with lousy parents can honor them. What about a girl who grows up with a father who beats and sexually molests her? How can she honor him? We talked about how breaking the cycle and becoming someone different brings honor to the family name - how that person can live in such a way that others who used to curse or belittle the family name can praise it, instead.
Thou shalt not kill: How do we reframe that in the context of love?
We can love others so much that we treat them the way we would want to be treated - and, out of that love, not kill them. I mentioned the acceptable exceptions, like self-defense, protection of others being threatened, justifiable wartime actions, etc - but, even then, we can do everything possible to avoid such an extreme action.
Thou shalt not commit adultery: How do we view that in the context of love?
We can love our spouse so much that we would not hurt him or her by breaking our marriage covenant. We can love the other person and their spouse so much that we would not hurt them by contributing to their marriage covenant being broken.
We ran out of time, so we will pick up the discussion next week and continue to talk about other commandments (and rules), their meaning and purpose, and how they can help us understand God.