A person does not have to be religious to recognize the importance of the Ten Commandments on western civilization, literature and life. Even when one disregards their intrinsic merit, their literary significance remains. That said, it is important that those who consider themselves well educated should be acquainted with the message of this foundational document.
The statistics reveal a rather surprising picture. It turns out sixty percent of Americans cannot identify even half of the commandments. What I find stunning about that is the fact that since they are mostly prohibitions of destructive behavior, even the illiterate should be able to guess half of them. “Okay . . . we shouldn’t commit murder . . . steal from others . . . or lie about and slander others.” Pretty common sense, and we’re already over halfway there.
“Let’s see . . . the commandments are about God, so there’s probably one that says ‘worship the real God.’” Simple logic, and we’ve nearly arrived. Four out of the five and it wasn’t all that challenging. But how do we arrive at a fifth commandment? Here are two possible paths:
“Oh, doesn’t ‘religion’ believe that it’s sinful to cheat on your spouse . . . that’s probably on the list.”
“What’s that weird word the Bible uses about wanting stuff that belongs to others . . . oh yeah, ‘coverting’ or something like that . . . we’re not supposed to desire the possessions of others.”
Since our world has programmed us all with insatiable materialistic desires, it’s probably unlikely that someone would “guess” that coveting our neighbor’s property is wrong, so let’s substitute a more likely alternative.
“Christians get so worked up about swearing, especially when people curse using ‘God’ or ‘Jesus’ . . . so there’s probably something about that in the Ten Commandments.”
Congratulations, we’ve reached our goal of five.
As for the enumeration of the commandments—which varies among Jewish, Roman Catholic and Protestant communions—that’s a subject for another day.
Don’t forget the observance of this commandment which would transform our world: “Honor your father and mother” (this is the first commandment with a promise), “that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.”