Ex 20:1-17 | Ps 19 | 1 Cor 1:22-25 | Jn 2:13-25
A businessman traveled to India to purchase exotic carpets and furniture for his store back in England. He was determined to bring back only the best and hardest to find items so he went to bazaars and markets in some of India’s most out-of-the-way villages.
One day, he passed through a market where people were selling birds. He noticed one man who had about five pigeons all tied by their necks to a pole in the ground. All those pigeons would do was walk in a circle with their heads down all day around that stick. The businessman felt so sad for those poor birds that he decided he would buy them from the merchant and set them free in the town square. All five pigeons were put in a small cage and given to the man so he could take them.
The man was excited to see what the birds would do once he freed them from the cage. He imagined they would stretch out their wings and fly away as fast as they could. However, when he opened the cage, they stumbled out and went back to walking in circles again. The man couldn’t believe his eyes. He tried pushing them to see if they would fly away. He tried picking them up and throwing them into the air. But all they wanted to do was go back to walking in circles like they had done in the market. It turns out that they had been tied to that pole for so long that they knew nothing else. Even when they were free to fly away, they didn’t know how. So, the businessman learned that it is one thing to free someone and it was another to teach him how to be free.
Today’s first reading from the book of Exodus takes place after God has freed the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt. He did so by showing His power to Pharaoh in dramatic ways: sending plagues and then parting the Red Sea to lead His people out into the desert. Now they would begin a forty-year journey to the land He had promised to give them.
Why did it take forty years to cross the desert? Why didn’t God lead the people through a more direct path to the promised land? Or, why didn’t He find a land that was closer for them to inhabit? Why did He make a people who had been burdened with slavery their whole lives go through the added stress of a long, arduous journey through a lifeless wilderness?
The reason is that God not only wanted to free His people, but He wanted to teach them what it meant to be free.
The Book of Exodus tells us that the Hebrews were slaves in Egypt for 430 years before God sent Moses to tell Pharaoh to free them. All they knew was hardship and suffering. They were treated like animals. This had gone on for generation after generation. Like those pigeons in India, they needed not only to be freed from slavery but taught how to live as a free people.
How does God do that? By giving them the Ten Commandments.
When we hear the words “commandment” and “law,” we think of something that limits our freedom. However, that is not the way our Jewish brothers and sisters understand the Law of God. To them, it is something that liberates them, that teaches them how to live as children of God, and that makes them wise.
Just consider today’s responsorial psalm. We read that “the law of the Lord is perfect,” that it is “trustworthy,” “right,” and “clear.” It is something to take delight in and enjoy because it is “more precious than gold” and “sweeter than syrup and honey.”
God gives the Ten Commandments to the people of Israel (and to us) not to put us under His thumb and humiliate us. Rather, He gives them to us to lift us up and to elevate us beyond what we would ever be able to accomplish on our own. He gives His law to us to make us free.
And the first step to that freedom that God wants for us begins with His first commandment: “I, the Lord, am your God, you shall have no other gods besides me.” When we make God the center of our lives, when we love Him above all things, when we find our meaning in serving Him alone, then we are truly free.
Just consider the alternatives. There are people who make an idol out of money. They slave at their jobs sometimes to the point of sacrificing their health and ruining their marriages. Money might give them some pleasure and satisfaction, but in the end, they die and leave their money to someone else. They made themselves the slaves of money and ended up with nothing.
The same can be true of all the other idols society and our culture worships: power, pleasure, fame, looks. They drive us to extremes but only give us momentary satisfaction.
On the other hand, when we serve God, we become the best version of ourselves. We find an unmatched joy in knowing that we are loved unconditionally by the God who made the universe. And we find joy in sharing that love with others. Putting God at the center makes everything better. It improves our family life, makes us more conscientious citizens, and honest workers. Our self-esteem is no longer based on what we make, how we look, what we have, or what others think of us. Rather, it rests firmly on the love of God. All this becomes possible when we follow His commandments.
Like those pigeons in India and the Hebrews in the desert, we often fall back into old habits of sin. But we can always return to the path of freedom. In today’s first reading, God promises to bestow “mercy down to the thousandth generation on the children of those who love [Him] and keep [His] commandments.” By going to the Sacrament of Reconciliation, by living the sacramental life of the Church, we encounter Jesus, the loving face of God, who is always quick to forgive and strengthen us to make progress on our path of freedom.
God created us to be free. We find freedom by putting Him at the center of our lives and following His commandments.