June 8, 2006
The gods of Greek mythology would have no problem walking onto the set of many of our TV shows or commercials today. Zeus could appear on the Montel Williams Show to relate his many liaisons with goddess after goddess. Aphrodite could lead a beach party of Girls Gone Wild. And Dionysius could host a segment of wine tasting with Regis and Kelly. In fact, Dionysius could make the rounds of the late night talk shows. After all, while the other gods might occasionally leave Mt. Olympus, none of them made it such a habit as the god of wine.
As were humans, so were the Greek gods. In a word, the gods lack morality. They not only did immoral things to one another, but to humans as well. They could not expect their devotees to be any more moral than themselves. In fact, those who frequented the sanctuaries of these gods and goddesses were no more moral in their daily lives than those who were less devout in their religious practices.
Aristotle taught that the gods did not even care about humans. And even though he spoke of an infinite god who had charge of the universe, this infinite god did nothing. He was remote. Plato spoke of the Demiurge, a lesser god as the creator of the material world. The Greek pantheon was littered with gods. But not one of them was suited to be the creator of a lawful universe (Rodney Stark,
The Victory of Reason, pg 18).
Not so the God of revelation. “He is the Rock, his works are perfect, and all his ways are just. A faithful God who does no wrong, upright and just is he” (Dt 32:4). As a just God, he is intensely interested in the moral life of his people. In the opening lines of Isaiah, God reveals his disdain of Israel’s endless sacrifices and burnt-offerings. He says, “I take no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats…Your hands are covered in blood, wash, make yourselves learn. Cease doing evil...Search for justice, discipline the violent, be just to the orphan and plead for the widow” (Is 1: 11-17). God is just and righteous. He demands that those who worship him lead lives worthy of his holiness. As Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount, “ be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect” ( Mt 5:48).
Unlike the gods of Greek mythology, the God of revelation who is so far above his creatures is the God who comes to meet them in their distress. He is intensely interested in their lives and acts to save them from oppression. In the central event of the Exodus tradition, God reveals himself to his people on Mt. Sinai. He gives his name to his people: “I AM WHO AM” (Ex 3: 14). His revealed name implies a continued presence to his people. I am the one who is with you to save you. On Mt. Sinai, the truth of who God is becomes the ground and guarantee of our relationship with him and with one another.
In liberating his people from slavery, God gives them the law of true freedom. The Decalogue “written with the finger of God” (Ex 31:18). These commandments engraved on stone are handed to God’s people by Moses. But they have already been written in the human heart by the Creator. The Ten Commandments are the universal moral law.
Preaching at St. Catherine’s monastery at the foot of Mt. Sinai, Pope John Paul II said, “Today as always, [The Ten commandments] are the only future of the human family. They save man from the destructive force of egoism, hatred and falsehood. They point out all the false gods that draw him into slavery: the love of self to the exclusion of God, the greed for power and pleasure that overturns the order of justice and degrades our human dignity and that of our neighbor”( February 26, 2000).
The Commandments come from the hands of the one Creator who calls into being every human person and creates everyone in his own image and likeness. Awareness of this truth is the basis for a true charter for human rights and for the respect due to every person in this world. This is the truth that grounds our moral responsibility to each other.
As God is to us, loving and kind, just and righteous, so we are to be to each other. As God draws near to us who are in need, so too should we be the Good Samaritan to others. The Ten Commandments remain the measure of what is good and right, what is moral and holy. When we obey the commandments, we discover our true selves as made in the image and likeness of God.
In today’s world, there is a marked decline in the consciousness of sin. Acts and attitudes that violate the Ten Commandments are justified on grounds of personal need, societal changes and psychological disposition. They are no longer seen as acts freely willed in opposition to the Ten Commandments. They are no longer seen as sins. Morality follows upon one’s conception of divinity. And here is where we may have strayed.
Modern society has created a new pantheon. We have deified actors and actresses, movie stars and athletes. Mortals with moral flaws as any one of us. Perhaps we give them so much attention because it relieves us of the duty of measuring ourselves in the light of God who calls us to perfection and has the right to do so. But the challenge remains. Not on Mt Olympus, but only on Mt. Sinai can we discover the truth that makes us free to be who we truly are.