The Second Commandment

Third Sunday of Lent. Ex 20:1-17; Ps 19:8,9,10,11; 1 Cor 1:22-25; Jn 2:13-25

In the light of today's first reading, which presents the Ten Commandments, I thought it would be helpful to devote today's homily to a few general observations on these commandments, which are also called the Decalogue. In addition, as part of series of homilies this Lent and beyond, I want to examine one commandment in more detail. Today I shall be looking at the second commandment.

Why are the Ten Commandments important? When a young man asks Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”, Jesus' first response is, “If you would enter life, keep the commandments.” Only when the young man asks Jesus what he more he needs to do does Jesus respond, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” (Matt 19:21) So while the Ten Commandments are not the whole story of the way of Christian perfection, which is to follow the person of Jesus Christ, part of what it means to follow Christ is to follow the commandments, according to Jesus' explicit words. Furthermore, when we are confronted with difficult moral choices or temptations, the commandments can help us. Someone, for example, wrote recently in a Catholic newspaper that when faced with the temptation of committing suicide, he drew back because he remembered the Fifth Commandment, “You shall not kill,” a commandment which saved his life.

So the commandments are important, helping to save our souls and to live justly in relation to God, to society and to ourselves. Nevertheless, some of the commandments need careful interpretation to understand their scope, meaning and importance. It might seem surprising, for example, that the second commandment, “You shall not take the name of the Lord, your God, in vain,” is important enough to be part of the Decalogue, stated prior to the prohibitions against killing, adultery and stealing. Furthermore the second commandment is one of only two commandments in the Decalogue which include a specific warning of punishment, “The Lord will not leave unpunished the one who takes his name in vain.” Why, then, is this second commandment so important?

The Catechism suggests an explanation by making the following claim, “The name is the icon of the person.” So when we speak a person's name, we are not merely making sounds, but invoking the person. We can see the connection between name and person, for example, in the words of Baptism. We are all baptized, “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” By invoking the holy name of the Trinity, we invoke God Himself in the action of Baptism. If, then, the name is the icon of the person, names that refer to God or what is closely connected to God should be treated with reverence, the reverence that we should give to a sacred icon or image of God. It follows that there are several ways in which the second commandment can be broken. To speak the name of the Lord in a casual or empty fashion is like treating a holy icon in a shabby and undignified fashion. This sin is akin to that of the moneychangers in today's Gospel who turned the Temple into a marketplace, treating what was sacred in a unworthy fashion. What is worse, to speak the name of the Lord for evil purposes is like verbal iconoclasm, which is the defacement or destruction of holy images. People who commit acts of terrorism in the name of God, for example, break the second as well as the fifth commandments since they are defacing the holiness of God. People who assert false things of God also, in a sense, break the second commandment. There are many spiritual movements, for example, that use Christian language and names as camouflage for teaching antithetical doctrines, rather like certain creatures in the animal kingdom disguising themselves in order to trap prey. To misuse language about God in this way is also a breaking of the second commandment. Furthermore, it is not uncommon that people even use the names 'Jesus' or 'Christ' for cursing or swearing. The name 'Jesus' means 'God saves' and the name 'Christ' means the Messiah or Anointed One. St Peter declares that there is no other name under heaven given by which we must be saved (Acts 4:12), and St Paul declares that “every one who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved” (Rom 10:13). So to call on Jesus Christ in a empty or evil fashion is not only dishonoring God, but is a reviling of God's love and our own means of salvation, rather like trampling on a crucifix.

Now evil language is often habitual and sometimes spoken unthinkingly when under stress. In the light of the second commandment, however, we should be careful not to develop these habits in the first place and to do what we can to speak holy names with due recollection and reverence. May God grant us the grace of reverence and purity in language. 

 Father Andrew Pinsent, Saint Ambrose Church, Saint Louis, 15th March 2009

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