10 Commandments & 7 Cardinal Sins

From Mount Sinai, Moses presented The Ten Commandments to God’s chosen people.  Such commandments, or legal formulations, were common to most nations or tribes at that time in history.  But what made Israel unique is that it believed these laws originated with God, not humans—and that made them more precious than gold.

The first three commandments are intended to safeguard the relationship between God and His people.  The other seven are between humans; they preserve the values upon which a wholesome and holy society is built.  Some suggest that they are listed in a hierarchical order: 4-family, 5-life, 6-fidelity, 7-property, 8-integrity, 9 and 10 are home and hearth.  Since they are commandments—not suggestions—to break them is to break the covenant with God and is, therefore, sinful, i.e., leading us in a direction away from our divine destiny.

Many Catholics are aware that our church has also emphasized Seven Cardinal (or Deadly) Sins.  Those tuned to Jesus as presented in the Gospels are keenly aware of the place of anger on that list and aware that Jesus got angry many times: from the notorious encounter with money-changers in the temple to numerous entanglements with Pharisees.  He busted up the temple much like Moses busted up the 10 Commandments when he encountered people’s misunderstanding of, or disregard for, God.

“Anger” comes from an Old Norse word meaning grief.  There are many things that we ought to grieve in this world and many things that are worth our anger, e.g., physical and sexual abuse of children, starvation of citizens, trafficking of minors…  If we are not angry about these things, that would be sinful; they warrant righteous anger.  At its core, anger is an emotion.  As such, it can be neither good nor bad.

The same is true for each of the Cardinal Sins.  As the late Father Andrew Greeley points out, the seven sinful behaviors: pride, greed, lust, gluttony, anger, envy, and sloth begin as sound and healthy human tendencies: self-respect, self-preservation, appreciation of beauty, celebration, self-expression, self-improvement, and relaxation.  The sins result not from fundamental evil but from fundamental goodness that runs out of control and gets the best of us, human love that is confused and frightened and not trusting in God.  If we, like the desert wanderers in Moses’ time or the money-changers and Pharisees in Jesus’ time, do not regard God in His proper place or do not bring our lack of trust to Him then rest becomes sloth, security becomes greed, self-respect becomes pride, etc., and we become dishonest with who we are as we forget Whose we are.

Jesus was well aware of who and Whose He was. Yet some contend that He could not be both sinless and angry.  As true God and true man, He was both.  The beauty of His earthly existence lies not in the notion that He was unable to sin but rather in the fact that He was able to not sin.  The reality is that He became sin—what Saint John Paul II sometimes called “The Sign of Contradiction.”  Each day in the Catholic Mass, the priest says, “He partook in our humanity so that we can share in His divinity.”  He became one of us and took on sin.

This is perhaps best illustrated in His final journey to Mount Calvary where He carried the sins of the world and fell. He did that for us—He partook in our humanity.  As we fall over and over again with the sins of our lives, He invites us to share in His divinity: to do what He did each time He fell: He got back up, picked up the cross, and kept moving onward to His destiny.  If we, like He, find the courage, strength, and faith to get up each time we fall, we’ll realize that we’re one step closer to our destiny than when we fell; we’ll realize that beyond sin is grace and that the instrument of torture (sin that we bear in the crosses we carry) can be transformed into the instrument of triumph whereby the one without sin became sin to conquer sin forever.