In Presbyterian Churches the two tablets of the Ten Commandments are often divided into: 1-4 which deal with our relationship with God and 5-10 which deal with our relationship with others. In this section we will discuss the second table of the law. Different traditions divide the commandments in different ways. For a discussion of those differences look here.
- Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you.
- You shall not murder.
- You shall not commit adultery.
- You shall not steal.
- You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
- You shall not desire, crave or covet anything that belongs to your neighbor.
One useful way to begin to understand the second table of the law is to look at the last commandment first. Improper desire is the root of many of the offenses that we associate with these commandments. People lie, steal, violate commitments of faithfulness in intimacy and eventually even kill others all because they want things that aren't properly theirs.
Who Are Our Neighbors?
How we treat other people says a lot about what we believe about God, about others, and about ourselves. Most all religions teach that how we understand ourselves and God has consequences in all our human relationships. In Christianity the teaching is quite specific. We can't say we love God and hate any of our sisters and brothers (I John 4:19-21).
Unfortunately Christianity like many religions has also been used by evil people to justify cruel and hateful treatment of others. Slavery, oppression of women, racism, wars, and torture have all been justified by those in power by citing some aspect of Christian teaching usually torn away from its context. Unfortunately, we must expect that in parts of the world where Christianity is the majority philosophy or belief system that unscrupulous people will manipulate others by misusing the Bible.
Jesus' parable of the good Samaritan is central to our understanding of who a neighbor is. Jesus constructed this story by using a member of the most hated ethnic group in the ancient Jewish world to demonstrate and drive home to his audience what it means to be a neighbor. It isn't proximity, shared ethnicity or religion, respectability or even apparent godliness which should determine who we consider our neighbor. Our faith teaches us to reach beyond our differences and respect and even love others.
Economics, politics, medical ethics, dating relationships, even how we view our enemies in time of war will all grow out of what we believe our faith teaches us about how to relate to other people. Human relationships and the values they help us develop are woven together with the inner spiritual life we value.
The Golden Rule
A useful summation of the second table of the law is the principle of using our own desires to understand how to treat others. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught,
"In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets." (Matthew 7:1)
This passage, also called the Golden Rule, does not teach us specific laws or what we should do in specific instances. It gives us an important tool to test whether something is fair and right. It allows us to look at our human relationships and see if they are consistent. Are we treating others in ways that are ultimately for our own selfish ends or are we treating them in ways that respect their differences as we would like our differences respected.