Celebrating the Ten Commandments
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
After Pastor Matt told me that I was preaching today, and I began to study the lessons, I got excited! I got excited when I found out that I was given the opportunity to preach on the Ten Commandments. For us Lutherans, the Ten Commandments are kind of a big deal. And really, they’re important not just to Lutherans, but to every Christian tradition. I myself grew up in a Baptist church where we didn’t have catechism or confirmation class; yet I remember learning—and even memorizing—the Ten Commandments in some of my childhood Sunday school classes.
But for Lutherans, the Ten Commandments are one of the cornerstones upon which Lutheran doctrine is built. In fact, in the 7th Grade Confirmation class that Pastor Matt and I are co-teaching, we’re talking about them right now. Today is the 5th Commandment. But in both his Small and Large Catechisms—the Small being written as sort of a handbook for families, and the Large being geared as an instruction for pastors—Luther placed the Commandments at the beginning of these books. They were, for Luther, some of the most important things that Christians of any age and any vocation should know well…should know by heart.
But when I started to do my research for this sermon, I went online to see what some other Lutheran pastors might have said about the Ten Commandments, I couldn’t find anything! There were plenty of notes from Baptists, Evangelicals, Methodists, and Pentecostals; but nothing by Lutherans. I wondered why this might be. I mean, if the Commandments are such a central part of Lutheran education, if Luther encouraged his pastors to learn them in such a way so as to be able to teach and preach them to their congregations, why does there appear to be a bit of a shortage of Commandment talk—online, at least? We seem to put everything we talk about online these days, so I’m guessing that it’s a good indicator of how much we actually do talk about them.
But if the Ten Commandments play such a major role in Lutheran doctrine, why wouldn’t they be preached more? Well, as Pastor Matt, Pastor Ron, and Pastor Larry can attest, we’re trained in seminary to really focus on the “grace” that’s found in the Bible readings rather than the “law.” And at first glance, the Ten Commandments do seem to be closely aligned with Law. After all, they are found in the book of Exodus, which is one of the five books of the Law; they’re placed right at the beginning of a long description of the “Law of Moses;” and the very word “commandment” does convey the attitude of this list of ten things. I mean, God doesn’t say, “It would be really nice if you put me first in your life,” or “I would really appreciate it if you wouldn’t kill each other or steal from each other.” No! God said, “You WILL have no other gods before me,” and “You WILL NOT kill.”
They seem to be a lot like the General Orders we had to memorize in Basic Training. Those of us that were in the military probably remember them pretty well: to take charge of my post, to walk my post in a military manner, to quit my post only when properly relieved…these aren’t suggestions, they’re orders! And there are severe penalties for anyone who is found disobeying one of these orders. This is kind of how the Ten Commandments are viewed…as orders straight from God, and anyone caught disobeying these commandments is in serious trouble.
It’s also sometimes assumed that since the Ten Commandments are found in the Old Testament, by definition, they have to be law. There can’t be grace or Gospel in the Old Testament, can there? Jesus hasn’t even come along yet! Yet this is a common understanding in many churches.
Maybe they’re not preached much in the Lutheran church because they seem to look like works-righteousness. After all, the emphasis of responsibility seems to be on the human side of the deal: “YOU will keep the Sabbath,” “YOU will not steal,” “YOU will not covet.” It does sound like a great deal of responsibility!
And maybe lots of people think that the Ten Commandments are just something you learn as a kid in Sunday school. After all, they are very “elementary:” they’re very black-and-white, yes-or-no, do-or-don’t-do kinds of instructions. No questions, no “what-if’s,” no debates, no discussions. That doesn’t always sit too well with today’s modern mind, does it? We like to have some say in our behavior…we like to attach conditions to our obedience. If those conditions aren’t met, then we feel that we have a good reason not to follow those orders. I think the bottom line is, it’s an attitude of “what do I get out of it?” What benefit is there to me to follow a set of rules?
Well, I would like to proclaim that, as valid and intriguing as all these arguments might sound, we really do—as Lutherans and Christians of any age—have a responsibility to learn, to reflect on, and to practice the Ten Commandments. Luther himself was the main proponent of salvation by grace through faith; yet he saw the Ten Commandments as essential to the Christian faith. Luther, like many biblical scholars today, recognized that the Ten Commandments were unique in a number of ways. Most unique, and most important, however, is that they draw us, even drive us to God. According to Luther, they show us what is truly sin. “They cannot be done away with,” he says; “for here there really is sin, even if there were no commandments…”
Now, we know that law codes existed long before the Law of Moses; and Moses—as an adopted member of Egyptian royalty—probably knew about the way that law codes were designed and written. So the fact that he established a law code for Israel isn’t surprising. What is different here is that Moses allowed God to inspire him to set up these absolutes, these Commandments, to guide the rest of the law. You see, the rest of the laws are “if…then” statements. Most people would encounter these laws only rarely—like us today. We’re aware that we have laws in case we are wronged or we do something wrong. But I’ll be honest…I’ve never been in court before. I’ve never been in a situation where I have either been a plaintiff or a defendant. And I’d guess that many Israelites lived in that same situation. But because of the absolutes of the Ten Commandments, the rest of the law has a solid foundation. In fact, it is generally thought that if we get the Ten Commandments down, everything else will fall into place. Well, maybe it’s not quite so simple as that, but I think there is a lot of truth there.
In one of the commentaries I consulted, the author gives three reasons why the Ten Commandments stand out as a unique set of God-inspired words. First, they are “All-Embracing.” In other words, they cover all the bases. Of course we’ve probably all heard that the first table of the Commandments deals with how we relate to God and second deals with how we relate to other humans. But they are also meant to embrace the heart as well as the outward life.
Take the third commandment, for example: “Remember the Sabbath.” That’s not meant to be a chore; it’s something that refreshes us and heals our souls. It’s believed that this commandment is a direct result of the slave-like conditions that the Israelites faced in Egypt—you know, when they had to make bricks, find their own straw…the Egyptians very likely worked them all the time. This was God’s response to those wretched conditions: “take some time for yourselves and for me! Find rest and healing and community in me.”
Second, they are “Systematic;” they’re very well-organized. Those that deal with our relationship to God are first, those with family are second, and those with the rest of the community (the world) are third. Living with this mindset will bring order to our lives; our priorities will be easy to sort out. God is a God of order, not chaos. Our godly relationships with the rest of Creation should emulate that order.
Third, they are the first seeds out of which the whole moral law grows. As I mentioned earlier, we can apply these elementary absolutes to virtually any situation we might encounter. As the commentary says: “the letter of the commandment may be narrow, but the spirit is broad.”
So, without being too facetious, I think we can view the Ten Commandments as guidelines, guidelines that we can choose to follow or ignore at our peril. But we must remind ourselves that it’s when we don’t treat them as absolutes that we get ourselves into trouble. In the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie, Elizabeth found this out the hard way. When she was first kidnapped by the pirates, she tried to remind them that the pirate code demanded that they meet her demands. Of course, Captain Barbossa’s response was that “they’re more like guidelines, rather than actual rules.” And so her demands weren’t met. Later, she tried to use that same tactic on Captain Jack’s crew when she wanted them to forget the code and go back to rescue Jack and Will. She found herself adrift in a rowboat. Without absolutes, anything goes!
But ultimately, why should the Ten Commandments be important to us? Because Jesus himself is the summary—the fulfillment—of the commandments. Multiple times in the Gospels he lifts them up as God-ordained and worthy of our attention. But more than that, he was, and is, the very essence of the commandments. He was even able to reduce them down to two over-arching ideas:
Matthew 22:37-40 (NRSV)
37 He said to him, “ ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the greatest and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
Do you think that these two commandments can guide us through every situation in life? I do. I admit, I don’t always follow them, but that’s what the Ten are for…to give us focus, to keep us from finding ourselves cast adrift. We may think at times that the Commandments—the Law—restricts us; robs us of our Christian freedom. But it’s really just the opposite. When our focus is on the spirit of the law rather than the letter of the law, we see what it’s all about. It’s not about us getting to God; it’s about God coming to us and shining through us.
If we’re honest with ourselves, I think we’ll all admit that we’ve broken at least one of the Ten Commandments some time in our lives. And that’s actually good news! Because it puts us all in the same boat. God comes to us just as we are. Jesus, the fulfillment of the commandments, has come to meet us where we are, not where we’re “supposed to be.” That’s the spirit of the law!
Luther once admitted that while he was still a self-tortured monk that he hated God. He had kept all the commandments, but he still hated God! He realized that keeping the law to get to God meant nothing if there’s no love. The letter of the law meant nothing; but the spirit of the law—love—is everything. And God has taken the first step. Because God first loves us, therefore we can love God and others. This is an absolute; it’s not an “if…then” statement. Christ has indeed shown us that the letter of the commandment is narrow, but the spirit is broad! So broad, in fact, that this spirit—this love of God—covers each and every one of us, no matter what. God’s grace is sufficient.
Praise be to God!