First Reading – Exodus 20:1-17

Responsorial Psalm – Psalm 19:8, 9, 10, 11

Second Reading – 1 Corinthians 1:22-25

Gospel – John 2:13-25

The readings for this week contain some of the more familiar passages in the Bible (Hello, Ten Commandments), but I am struck most by the last line of the Gospel. The part where it says Jesus “did not need anyone to testify about human nature. He himself understood it well.”

In some ways, this is the most powerful reminder of the impact of the Incarnation in the Gospels. Jesus does not need anyone to explain the intricacies of our human nature to him. By becoming human, God knows these details directly.

Viewing this statement at the end of John’s description of Jesus’s cleansing of the temple is particularly poignant. Interpreters will sometimes point to this incident as evidence that Jesus experienced the full range of human emotions, including even anger, allowing for an ethical defense of anger as a potentially healthy—and even morally good—emotional response in the right circumstances. There is something about the depth of emotions on display in this passage that makes the claim that Jesus understood human nature “well” all the more persuasive.

At the same time, it is also informative to read the Gospel’s reminder that God intimately understands human nature alongside the Ten Commandments from this Sunday’s First Reading.

I know from teaching this text in Exodus, that people (I don’t think this is unique to undergraduates) have a tendency to read the demands of the Ten Commandments as a series of unwarranted constraints on human freedom, especially with the majority of commandments framed around what one should not do. The Gospel’s insistence that God understands the depths of our human nature, however, helps to portray the Ten Commandments in the manner that Catholic moral theology has regularly stressed. Namely, as a source of guidance meant to allow us as humans to flourish more fully.

This is the reason the Responsorial Psalm for this Sunday proclaims, “The law of the Lord is perfect, refreshing the soul.” The firm conviction is that following the moral precepts contained in these laws allows us to live a more fulfilling life. To use the language of Catechism of the Catholic Church (no. 2057) explains, the Ten Commandments present “the conditions of a life freed from the slavery of sin.”

If God truly understands the intricacies of human nature, as the Gospel maintains, then this is easier to believe, for each of the commandments responds to some of the greatest challenges created by our human nature. The temptations of lust, anger, envy, greed, and pride are all indicted in the Ten Commandments, which steer us away from our worst impulses precisely so that we can live out our best impulses. These are not arbitrary rules but well-calibrated parameters for thriving in our human condition.

Of course, this is not always an easy claim to accept. Plus, there is a whole series of questions involved in the process of moving from general rules about right conduct to specific decisions about how to put these rules into practice in our own lives—as Thomas Aquinas famously noted in his treatise on Law (see STI-II, q. 94, a. 4)—meaning the practicality of the Ten Commandments as a guide for flourishing is far from self-interpreting.

When we find the vision hard to accept, however, I think the notion from this Sunday’s Second Reading that “the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom” might be just the reminder we need to view the commands of God as an invitation to live abundant rather than a life restrained.

At the very least, we can take solace in the fact that when we struggle with this moral vision, Jesus is still accompanying us, for he does “not need anyone to testify about human nature. He himself understood it well.”