The Worship and Music Committee at my church asked me to write five short reflections on Luther’s Small Catechism for use in our Wednesday night Lenten services. I’m republishing those reflections here. Eventually I will publish a book with slightly expanded versions of these reflections to be used for congregational use (adult or Confirmation study) or anyone seeking to understand more about Luther’s Catechism.
Reflection 1 (read at Trinity Lutheran Church, Chelmsford, MA on Wednesday, March 8, 2017)
The Ten Commandments
- You shall have no other gods. I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.
- You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God.
- Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy.
- Honor your father and your mother.
- 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 covet your neighbor’s house.
- You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.
The Ten Commandments. It sounds so stern and implacable. It suggests a God who demands total obedience. Indeed, within the text God identifies himself* as a jealous God who punishes children for the iniquity of parents. Martin Luther said, “Anyone who knows the Ten Commandments perfectly knows the entire Scriptures. In all affairs and circumstances he can counsel, help, comfort, judge, and make decisions in both spiritual and temporal matters.” Comfort? Where’s the comfort in these Ten Commandments?
It helps to remember that the bible doesn’t call them the Ten Commandments. The Hebrew translates to “ten words” or “ten utterances.” Christians have traditionally called them the Decalogue, from the Greek deca—ten—and logoi—words. These ten words define what God intends for his chosen people.
You shall have no other gods. This prohibits idolatry. Idolatry can mean golden calves or magical objects. But Luther points out that anything to which your heart clings and entrusts itself is truly your god. And there’s only one God that is worthy of that trust. God is the one who gives us body, life, nourishment, health, peace, and all temporal and eternal blessings. Why would we need any other gods?
The second commandment prohibits wrongful use of God’s name. This goes well beyond mere cursing. It forbids appealing to God’s name to support falsehood of any kind. We see it today when people use God’s name to justify themselves or give their words more authority. God wants us to be led and sustained by his Word, because only his Word gives life and salvation.
Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy. The third commandment is not a prohibition of work. It’s a recognition that our human bodies need to rest and be refreshed, and it’s a reminder that our work is not our salvation. We keep the Sabbath holy by occupying ourselves with God’s Word, learning it and exercising it in our lives. This regular practice brings us closer to God, and enables us to better entrust our hearts to him.
Honor your father and your mother. Parents and others in authority are called to guide us according to God’s ways, and to honor them is to honor God.
The rest of the commandments concern how we are to treat our fellow human beings. They also tell us how we can expect to be treated by our fellow human beings.
The commandment not to murder also prohibits us from failing to do good to one’s neighbors, or willfully ignoring the opportunity to prevent or protect one’s neighbors from bodily harm or injury. Luther reminds us, “It will do you no good to plead that you did not contribute to his death by word or deed, for you have withheld your love from him and robbed him of the service by which his life might have been saved.” We are to do everything we can to ensure the wellbeing of others, and they are to do the same for us.
You shall not commit adultery. We are to be faithful in our relationships, and we can expect that same faithfulness from others.
You shall not steal. God wants his people to rest secure in the knowledge that our property will not be unjustly taken from us. More than that, we are obligated to protect our neighbors’ property and further their interests, just as they will do for us.
You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. Our good reputations can be stolen just as easily as our worldly goods, and with less effort. All it takes is a word. But that word is not God’s Word, and it has no place among his people. We are to protect our neighbors’ reputations by not telling falsehoods or speculating aloud about one’s questionable deeds, and we can expect our neighbors to interpret everything we do in the best possible light.
The last two commandments prohibit coveting virtually everything that doesn’t already belong to us. Why? We’ve already been prohibited from stealing, so what’s wrong with a little coveting? Stealing is taking something unlawfully. Coveting leads to taking something lawfully. One could entice another person to abandon their relationships or leave their obligations unfulfilled, and would be blameless in the eyes of the law. One could easily take advantage of existing laws or systems to deprive others of their wants or needs, and be perfectly within their legal rights. But God does not want anyone to suffer loss in order to gratify someone else’s greed. God provides resources enough for everyone, and no one should be deprived.
That is the world God intends for his chosen people. Not one full of harsh and difficult directives—one full of trust and solidarity. It sounds like a nice place.
It’s not the world in which we live.
God doesn’t pay the rent, so we put our trust in money. We claim God’s approval for our actions when deep in our hearts we hope he’s not paying close attention. We choose to be entertained rather than immerse ourselves in God’s Word. We don’t always honor those in authority because sometimes they don’t deserve that honor, and when we ourselves are in authority we often fail to lead according to God’s will. We turn away from those in need and close our eyes to the resulting suffering and death. We convince ourselves that keeping quiet when the cashier makes a mistake in our favor is not really stealing. We don’t interpret others’ questionable deeds in the best possible light, and we take pleasure in sordid speculation. And the systems that benefit us to the detriment of others are so embedded in our society that it’s impossible not to take advantage of them.
The ten words tell us God’s will for our lives. And God does expect total obedience, for our own good. And we go against him and serve as our own masters. Every day.
But in Luther’s Small Catechism the Ten Commandments are the first words, not the last, and there’s a reason for that.
We’ll talk about that next week.
* To see my inclusive language policy, click here.