No! Just say it and you'll be safe from drugs
and second helpings. And if you're so safe, you don't even
need to know the 10 Commandments, right? Ten more big "no's"
to add to your long list of things you can't even touch is
something you could do without.
The commandments delivered to Moses on two stone
tablets at the top of Mt. Sinai have gotten a bad rap. The
word's out that these 10 rules include more "do nots"
than a couple of overprotective parents letting you take the
car alone for the first time. They not only came etched on
rocks; they can seem as hard as rocks to keepand even
to understand. Only 35 percent of more than1000 teenagers
surveyed by Gallup could name half the commandments, and only
three in 10 knew them all.
The commandments meant something very specific
to the Israelites of the Old Testament, but the task today
is to explore what they mean now, in this world, to people
of all ages. In short, you shouldn't view them as something
to be discarded as outdated, but as something to apply to
"They're not just God on a mountaintop,"
says Paulist Father Richard Sparks, an assistant professor
of Christian Ethics at the College of St. Thomas in St. Paul,
Minnesota. Observing the commandments in their traditional,
negative phrasing amounts to a just-get-by approach since
the commandments alone state the minimum (like the minimum
drinking age almost) and "the call to be a Christian
is not to do just the minimum," Father Sparks says.
The commandments are based on a simple, positive
foundation of love. The key is looking beyond the negative
phrasing to find the positive values they encourage. You'll
hear this approach described as going beyond the "letter
of the law" to its spirit.
"Follow the commandments," is an O.K.
recommendation. But how? Here's a differentand, perhaps,
more refreshingapproach of using them as guidelines
for leading your lives. Make them more than just a question
of what "not to do," but what "to do"
instead (with apologies to Shakespeare).
Christ divided the commandments into two groupslove
of God and of neighbor. These work just as well today as when
he voiced the first shift away from the "do-not"
view sometimes associated with the Hebrew Scriptures or Old
The first three commandments cover your relationship
with God, while the last seven deal with your relationships
with one another. (It shouldn't surprise you that the first
three often are easier. because God is a lot easier to get
along with than families and friends are. God's more available,
is a better listener, and is a lot more forgiving than you
are with each other.)
Let's take a brisk walk through the 10 Commandments
to see where they lead you.
I. I, the Lord, am your God...You shall not have other Gods besides
The flip side of that phrasing is simple: Love
God above everything else. But it's easier said than done,
especially in this day and age of gods that are so tempting.
Money. Power. Designer clothes. Fancy cars. VCR's. Popularity.
The list goes on.
Perhaps the Israelites had it easier with this
commandment, having to ditch any statues of gods left hanging
around the house or the courtyard, instead of evading the
tentacles of name brands which clamor for your attention.
The task of avoiding preoccupation with such
goods may seem so awesome that you'd have to become a hermit
to escape them. But people who can adapt to such a reclusive
lifestyle are rare birds indeedand many holy people
stress that the commandment is challenging even for them.
The secret is not to let the commandment inhibit
you. Realize that it isn't requiring you to forsake all worldly
goods. Rather, it asks you to try to make sure that God is
foremost, and to keep other things in perspective.
Simply put, you're asked to base your daily
actions on that love of God. And, one of the best ways to
prove your love of God is to live the next nine commandments
II. You shall not take the name of the Lord, your God, in vain.
Hollering a meek "gosh darnit" instead
of a variety of colorful cursesmany of which include
God's nameis the laziest way possible to live this commandment.
Oh, that's the letter of the law, but the spirit asks for
more: to use God's name positively. Beyond using the Lord's
name in your own prayer the commandment also encourages you
to speak well and proudly of your faith, and share it with
III. Remember to keep holy the sabbath day.
Quite a few years before you were born, stores
were closed on Sunday as a nod to this commandment. The fact
that stores were closed made it easier to focus on Sunday
as a day to concentrate on holy things, rest, reflection and
family instead of viewing Mass as something to fill in the
time between reading the sale ads in the Sunday paper and
waiting for the stores to open.
The underlying idea is to take time for God
and to give God a shot at your best moments rather than your
leftovers. This doesn't mean "Super-Serious Sundays"
but realizing that the weekend's good times are God-times
too. Get the message? "Keeping holy" can mean playing
tennis, goofing off or catching a movie, but it must mean
doing good for yourself so that God is honored by your choices.
That includes Church and knowing what's going
on when you're there. Beyond that, it also calls for carrying
that thought into our weekdays so that God is part of every
day. That makes them all Sundays of a sort, except that you
still have to go to school, work or practice besides.
See how easy, but tricky at the same time, these
commandments can be? The first three provide a convenient
formula for loving God, a necessary requirement for working
up any enthusiasm for the next seven commandments about loving
IV. Honor your father and mother.
You could set up a little shrine outside
your parents' bedroom and genuflect there often, if you wanted
to take this at its apparent face value. But that would miss
the point and cause a traffic jam in the hallway.
This commandment is a toughie for many teenagers
as you try to become "your own person," and, in
the process, run into multiple roadblocks which it seems your
parents establish to frustrate you.
But many who have studied the meaning of the
Bible interpret this commandment as being much broader than
just honoring parents. It refers to your whole family, and
the broader community as well.
Parents must honor their children, treating
them with the respect due all people. In turn, those children
should love and respect their parents. Both parents and children
should cooperate to build that love and respect, and resolve
their differences peacefully.
V. You shall not kill.
Just when you think you've reached a commandment
you might be able to skip because you aren't packing a gun,
look again. The wording of this commandment obscures a deeper
value, and technology has complicated the question.
Obviously, the commandment bans physical killings.
Under this fifth commandment are life-and-death issues such
as abortion, mercy killing of the terminally ill and nuclear
war. Many Church authorities have interpreted this commandment
to oppose the necessity of capital punishment, emphasizing
that all peopleeven murderershave a right to life.
Catholics remain divided on these issues, with
some in opposition to abortion, while supporting the nuclear
buildup as a defensive or protective measure. Some have tried
to adopt what is called a "consistent ethic" hoping
to achieve a pro-life attitude in every aspect of personal
and world decision making.
This commandment requires us to sort out these
issues which center on the value of life. Its message is repeated
in Christ's Sermon on the Mount, when he said, "You have
heard the commandment...'You shall not commit murder; every
murderer shall be liable to judgment.' What I say to you is:
Everyone who grows angry with his brother shall be liable
to judgment...." In that same sermon, Jesus also urged
the keeping of this commandment by urging all of us to love
Many analysts now interpret this passage to
mean that anger alone isn't necessarily bad. "Having
a feeling of anger isn't a sin, but it depends on what you
do with itwhether you brood [go into a long-term fit],
plan harm, count to 10 or pray. Having the feeling merely
proves you're alive," Father Sparks says.
In short, you should not allow anger to lead
to violence, mental or physical. When you're angry, you should
look for a constructive way to work it out. Racism and sexism
are also violent attitudes leading to actions that kill the
spirits of others through oppressing them.
Exclusive cliques that shun others because they're
unpopular or don't dress right also could violate this commandment.
Dominating younger brothers or sisters, and making them feel
badly about themselves, runs contrary to the value of this
On the positive side, the commandment calls
for encouraging others by pointing out their strengths instead
of belittling them"killing" their spiritsfor
VI. You shall not commit adultery.
The term adultery is misleading, if you
think it must apply only to adults. It's also misunderstood
if you think it's about biology.
This commandment presents a particularly special
challenge to teenagers during the difficult times you can
face as you struggle with who you are, and how to develop
relationships with others. Basically, it calls for honesty
and loyalty in all relationships, whether the same or opposite
sex is involved, and regardless of whether having sex is an
VII. You shall not steal.
You're not home free if you've never shoplifted
or swiped a few coins from Mom's purse. Modern biblical scholars
have found evidence that this commandment originally might
have concerned a specific type of stealing: kidnapping. Obviously,
few of you are ever planning such a heist.
But the positive value calls for everyone to
give a full day's work (whether it's in school or on the job)
for a full day's pay (or education). You must discover your
gifts and invest time and effort in them so that you are not
stealing from your own potential to excel.
The commandment also asks that you not profit
at the expense of the poor. Efforts to stock food shelves
and to provide shelter and adequate clothing for the poor
are positive ways to live this commandment. Another is not
to steal from the future, meaning that you should help to
preserve the air, land, water and other natural resources.
VIII. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
The apparent simplicity of this commandment
is deceiving. It's a good example of the general concept that
you should stretch beyond the mere "shall not" order.
The most dramatic instance of false witness
came from Peter the apostle. Shortly before the crucifixion,
he was asked if he knew Jesus and he answered, "I do
not know the man." That you can clearly see was a lie.
Perhaps a good way to look at the eighth commandment
is to contradict Peter's statement not only by stating your
belief, "I do know Jesus," but also by living a
truthful life that reflects that knowledge.
The New Testament calls for discipleship, so
instead of just avoiding false witness, you should bear faithful
witness as you study, work and have fun.
IX. You shall not covet your neighbor's wife.
This is another commandment that might appear
to be for adults only or perhaps for swinging singles. It's
actually for anyone whose mind and heart can hold sexual thoughts.
It means a lot more than not looking with longing at a suntanned,
bikini-clad neighbor though. Some have interpreted it as banning
any thoughts of that neighbor and any sexual thoughts at all.
A more possible and human reality is that thinking about sexuality
and sexual activity is a natural part of growing up.
Thinking about things sexual is not "bad";
rather, allowing yourself to get hung up on such thoughts
can and will create problems. A typical problem will be that
you find it hard to shake such thoughts, and may even wish
to encourage them. And that's where you pass over the line
into sin. It works better though in trying to keep
this commandment to attempt a positive maximum of thinking
of others as whole persons, not as sex vending machines.
The commandment is rooted in a time when women
were considered to be property, and some versions of the 10
Commandments even lump the ninth with the 10th, concerning
not coveting another's property. If we uproot it from those
times, and plant the value in the present, it takes on a whole
While the equality of women and men has been
put into law, attitudes still need to be reshaped, even in
people your age. The underlying value this commandment carries
for modern days is to work for the equality of everyonemen
and women, young and old, of every race.
This also overlaps the 10th Commandment, in
expecting you not to envy the talents of others, but to work
to develop your own.
X. You shall not covet your neighbor's goods.
People used to think that this commandment meant
only that you shouldn't always try to keep up with the Joneses,
but be satisfied with what you have. That belief is tied to
an emphasis on property.
But actually, the commandment addresses a far
broader value than comparisons about whether you wear K-Mart
specials while a friend can sleep in Guess jeans, or whether
you've got to drive the family carif and when you can
get itwhile a friend has his or her own BMW.
Oh, you could get by if you just didn't covetenvyothers'
goods. But that's the minimum, and we're talking about trying
to live up to the maximum "yes" actions in these
commandments. A real "yes" leads to efforts toward
social justice, attitudes and actions which assure that all
people have what they needenough to eat, enough to wear
and a place to stay.
So that's a quick, basic overview of what the
10 Commandments can mean. They aren't independent rules you
can pick and choose from, but a set of overlapping and interdependent
directions about how to live without sin and in a positive
They aren't, however, all the directions
that exist. They point to, and blend with, Christ's overall
teaching reflected in the Sermon on the Mount, especially
in the Beatitudes. (Take a look at Matthew, chapters 5,6,7.)
They aren't concerned only with "things," as the
wording of some makes them appear to be, but with the values
of the individual and our duties to help one other.
Not to do, or to do: That is the question (whatever
Shakespeare thought). You shall not just say "no."
Rather, just say "yes."
Youth Update advisers who previewed
this issue, asked important questions and offered helpful
advice are Dave Heidkamp, 17; Nancy Lockhorn, 17; Jill Tierney,
16; and Jerry Straw, youth minister. All are members of St.
William Parish, Cincinnati.