We live in an age of affluence and freedom. A mentality has developed in our society that laws are to be thrown to the wind. We live in the age of 'rights': human rights, women's rights, children's rights, social rights. It seems everyone wants to be free to determine for themselves what is right.
Yet despite these so-called freedoms, people are not always as lawless as they appear. Many young people may not be marrying, but in their relationships they long for love and permanence. In other areas of human behaviour people are looking for dignity and freedom. Why? Because man was born to love; we seek love - which is what the ministry of Jesus was all about: 'love one another as I have loved you' (Jn 15:12).
This is what the Ten Commandments are all about. They are the result of God's revelation of his loving plan: to build a better world for his creation of mankind. The commandments are not laws picked arbitrarily from the lap of the gods. They are the rights of our fellow man on the only foundation upon which love can remain real and enduring: on the love of God.
The giving of the Ten Commandments was the high point of Israel's history. It was the moment when, most clearly, God revealed his love. At Mount Sinai, the Israelites made their loving answer to the God who loved and saved them. They promised to keep the laws of God as handed to Moses. They promised to love the mysterious God who saved them; to respect and honour each man's neighbour; to treasure the members of their families; to work and rest in the love of the saving God.
Tragically it went wrong; the promises were not kept; Israel chose selfishness and ease. The laws became a burden - merely a duty to be performed perfunctorily. But the Ten Commandments are as essential today for the salvation and hope of mankind as they were in early Israel.
In giving the Ten Commandments God revealed his love. If you read them reflectively they are the blueprint for the hopes of the human race. They are based on the love of God for mankind.
Pope Benedict XVI, in the introduction to his encyclical Deus Caritas Est, states: 'God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him' (1Jn 4:6). This is the love I refer to, the love that leads to love of neighbour.
Further on in his encyclical, Benedict writes, 'If we have no contact with God in our life, then we cannot see in the other anything more than the other and I am incapable of seeing in him the image of God. Only my readiness to encounter my neighbour and to show him love makes me sensitive to God as well. Only my readiness to serve my neighbour and to show him love makes me sensitive to God as well.' (Part 1, 18).
Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta constantly relied on the love of Christ to motivate and encourage her in her ministry to the poorest of the poor. One of her sayings was 'We do it for Jesus'.
The Ten Commandments are no longer enshrined in a Book, but are rather enshrined by the love of the Holy Spirit, motivating and encouraging us to intimacy with God. They are written in men's hearts. In other words, the new law is God's love given to us so that we can keep the Ten Commandments.
The Spirit, in fact, is the interior power which harmonises the hearts of believers with Christ's heart and moves them to love their brethren as Christ loved them when he bent to wash the feet of the disciples (cf. Jn 13:1-13). Love of God and love of neighbour are inseparable. We are not limited by laws as such but motivated by 'the power and wisdom of God' contained in the laws.
Our mission as Christians is clear. Since our generation is an unbelieving one we must open our hearts to the prompting of the Holy Spirit to build up unity and love with that same dynamism which kindled the infant Church of the Apostles. Man must communicate with man; our world needs again to hear the wisdom of the Ten Commandments, not so much as cold laws but the new law which is God's love given as a blueprint for man to achieve God's hope for the human race.
It would be foolish to pretend that this is easy, for there are real difficulties and differences which are human and inevitable. But that which unites is far greater than that which separates: our one Fatherhood in God, our redemption by Jesus Christ His Son, and our love for one another under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
This is our common heritage and it is upon this that we can build in order that God's love will be complete in us.
The Ten Commandments are as relevant now as they were in the days of the Chosen People.
Fr Dennis W. Byrnes is parish priest of Kempsey, NSW, in the Lismore Diocese.