The Ten Commandments: WHY Do We Keep Them?

Many of us memorized the 10 Commandments as children. In case your memory is a little fuzzy, here are the 10 Commandments in the traditional catechism formula.

(For the fun of it, you might want to see if you can recite them before you read them below):



1. I am the Lord your God: you shall not have strange gods before me.

2. You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.

3. Remember to keep holy the Lord’s day.

4. Honor your father and your mother.10 Commandments Hebrew

5. You shall not kill.

6. You shall not commit adultery.

7. You shall not steal.

8. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

9. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife.

10. You shall not covet your neighbor’s goods.

Why do we keep the 10 Commandments? The answer can be found in the preamble to the 10 Commandments—which is often ignored. The preamble reads: “I, the Lord, am your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, that place of slavery” (Ex. 20:2). The implication is that these commandments can be observed only by someone who has already experienced some degree of God’s liberating love. In other words, God’s love frees us to keep the 10 Commandments not out of fear or guilt but out of love for the One who has given us such freedom. If we obey the Commandments for any reason other than love, we are still in bondage. Analogously, if we have trouble keeping the 10 Commandments it might be because we have lost touch with God’s deep love for us. (I am indebted to my scripture professor, Fr. Demetrius Dumm, OSB, for these insights. I will quote from his book Praying the Scriptures.)10 comand god is love

Let’s look briefly at the Commandments through the lens of its preamble. The first two commandments concern God’s relationship to Israel (and to us!) We are not to worship any other gods, because the God of the Exodus is the only true God. Our current culture is replete with “false gods” calling out for our “worship”: money, material goods, power, fame, control, excessive concern for physical appearance, etc. Secondly, the Israelites (and we) must not resort to superstition or magical names for God, because such behavior shows a lack of trust in God’s basic goodness. We should be able to entrust our needs to God and not resort to reciting a certain prayer or performing a certain superstitious practice to secure our needs.

The third Commandment recognizes the mystery of God’s presence in every aspect of creation including the precious gift of time. Labor is not a means of controlling or dominating creation. God’s people are to demonstrate this great truth by deliberately refraining from labor on the Sabbath. We are to “waste time” on God—which includes primarily wasting time on family and friends. Keeping the Sabbath is not so much about going to church (although it certainly includes that for many of us); it is more about putting “people before projects” in our busy lives.

The remaining seven commandments concern those aspects of our lives where “there must be respect for mystery and the consequent rejection of every form if violence.” The fourth commandment, for example, is not about little children obeying their parents. It is about adult children showing love, respect, and gratitude toward their aging parents. The fifth commandment includes respecting life at all its stages. It also includes seeing relationships of love as sacred and precious. They are to be nourished. The seventh and eight commandments forbid “the violence of robbery and false witness.” And finally, the ninth and tenth commandments tell us we are not to spoil the blessings of another (whether their spouse, friends, or property) “by looking at them with an envious eye.”

The 10 Commandments set before us a high moral standard, a standard rooted in our personal experience of God’s love. We believe God loves us not because of anything we do or don’t do. God loves us because of who God is: liberating love. When we live the 10 Commandments we are “passing along” the love we have received from God.

i love you billboard

Reflect on a time you experienced God’s liberating love in your life. Did that experience make it easier for you to reach out to others in love?

What do the teachings and life of Jesus “add” to the 10 Commandments?


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  1. Kathleen Magiera on September 15, 2014 at 5:40 am

    Great reflection Sr. Melannie!

    When I felt most abandoned in my relationships was when I felt closest to God. God seemed to be surrounding me with a loving cloak. During this humbling time, it seemed easier to reach out to others. No pretense. No games.


    • Melannie Svoboda SND on September 17, 2014 at 12:03 pm

      I loved your image of being surrounded with a “loving cloak,” Kathleen…Melannie

  2. bozo on September 15, 2014 at 10:24 am

    How different the news each day would be if mankind could only keep the Ten commandments…they are commandments, not suggestions.

    • Melannie Svoboda SND on September 17, 2014 at 12:13 pm

      Dear “Bozo,” You make two very good points.Thanks for writing! Sr. Melannie

  3. Diane Butler on September 16, 2014 at 7:28 pm

    I am living the 4th now sacrificing for my aged parents. I am spending a week with them. My father has dementia and my mother had abdominal surgery 9-5. Although I do not get paid when I am away from my job, I felt the Holy Spirit directing to purchase that expensive plane ticket and give my nursing skills to my parents. A have not ever had a good relationship, yet they did feed, house and clothe me for 20 years. I enlisted many prayer warriors for this challenge.

    • Melannie Svoboda SND on September 17, 2014 at 12:16 pm

      Dear Diane, I will certainly remember you in special prayer for the challenge you are currently facing. It sounds as if your decision to devote your nursing skills to your parents was a good one. Care giving is always challenging, I think, no matter what type of relationship we have had with the “caree.” You will find many little blessings in this work of love. Sr. Melannie

  4. Cathy Baier on September 17, 2014 at 6:39 pm

    Sometimes it is hard to feel God’s love…it’s like static coming in on the radio and other times we feel it so strongly. Today when I was coming home from a day of challenges at work, I looked up at a beautiful blue sky and saw two giant white X’s==God sending kisses from heaven!

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