Sunday, July 16, 2017

Ten Commandments Series

Exodus 20:1–17, Matthew 22:34–40




In October 1528 through January 1529 Martin Luther made official visitations to congregations in the regions of Saxony and Meissen in Germany. He was appalled by the lack of knowledge of the Christian faith among the people. In the introduction to his Small Catechism he writes: “The deplorable, wretched deprivation that I recently encountered while I was a visitor has constrained and compelled me to prepare this catechism, or Christian instruction, in such a brief, plain, and simple version. Dear God, what misery I beheld! The ordinary person, especially in the villages, knows absolutely nothing about the Christian faith, and unfortunately many pastors are completely unskilled and incompetent teachers. Yet supposedly they all bear the name Christian, are baptized, and receive the holy sacrament, even though they do not know the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, or the Ten Commandments! As a result they live like simple cattle or irrational pigs and, despite the fact that the gospel has returned, have mastered the fine art of misusing their freedom.”[1]


Appalled by the lack of training among the clergy, Luther wrote the Large Catechism for them. He bemoaned how negligent so many clergy were in studying the basics of the Christian faith. He mocked those who thought they were too learned to spend time on the basics. He said of himself, “I am also a doctor and a preacher, just as learned and experienced as all of them who are so high and mighty. Nevertheless, each morning, and whenever else I have time, I do as a child who is being taught the catechism and I read and recite word for word the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments, the Creed, the Psalms, etc.”[2]


Luther had little patience with those who neglected the basics of the faith “out of pure laziness and concern for their bellies.” In Luther’s Preface to the Large Catechism he advocates a change of vocation for them: “Oh, these shameful gluttons and servants of their bellies are better suited to be swineherds and keepers of dogs than guardians of souls and pastors.”[3]


Now Pastor Robyn and I are not afraid that the ghost of Martin Luther will come back to visit our congregation and haunt us during this 500th Anniversary of the Reformation. Nonetheless, we and the worship planners thought this summer would be a fitting time to preach a sermon series on the Ten Commandments, the first topic addressed in Luther’s Small and Large Catechisms. Surely followers of Jesus can benefit from getting back to the basics on a regular basis. My task today is to introduce the Ten Commandments and to focus on the First Commandment: “You shall have no other gods.”


In our faith tradition there has been a tendency to associate the Old Testament with the Law and to associate the New Testament with the Gospel. The Ten Commandments are viewed as the summation of the Law. The Gospel is viewed as the good news of God’s gracious activity in Jesus Christ. It is striking, however, that in Exodus 20:1–17 the giving of the Ten Commandments is grounded in God’s gracious activity in freeing the people of God from slavery in Egypt. As God announces in Exodus 20:2, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the house of slavery.” Then the Lord God gives the Ten Commandments to the people. It is also striking that in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus makes clear that he did come to do away with the Law. As he tells his disciples in Matthew 5:17, “do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” Obeying the Ten Commandments may not earn us salvation. But it is clear that Jesus still wants his followers to live by the Ten Commandments. In Deuteronomy 4:40 Moses tells the people of God: “you shall keep God’s statutes and God’s commandments, which I command you this day, that it may go well with you.” Clearly God intended the Ten Commandments to be a life-giving gift for God’s people.


In the Reformation tradition there was general agreement on the first two uses of the Law or the Ten Commandments. The first use was the civil use. Sin and evil need to be restrained in society and good order needs to be established. Justice must be enforced, and crime must be deterred. The Law helps make human community possible by setting clear limits.


The second use has been referred to as the spiritual or pedagogical use. The Law teaches us that we are sinners and are in need of someone to save us. It drives us to Christ, who provides us with the gift of forgiveness. The Ten Commandments function like a mirror, reflecting back to us where we have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. We could also view the Ten Commandments as spiritual warning signs. When we are heading in the wrong direction, they flash at us: danger, danger, danger.


The Reformers debated over whether there was a third use of the law, what we might call the ethical use. Once we have been forgiven that does not mean we can throw out the Ten Commandments. As already noted, Jesus came not to abolish the Law but to fulfill it. Obeying the Ten Commandments and doing good works may not save us. But those saved through faith in Jesus can be guided by the Ten Commandments in doing good works. Filled with gratitude for God’s gracious activity in Jesus, we can take up the life-giving way of life offered in the Ten Commandments.


In our Gospel reading for today one of the religious leaders, an expert in the law, asked Jesus a question to test him, “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” 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.’ This is the greatest commandment. And a second is like it: `You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” When I teach the Ten Commandments to Confirmation students, I like to ask them a trick question, “Which of the Ten Commandments are these two greatest commandments?” The answer is: none of them. Or as I explain, these two greatest commandments sum up the Two Tables. The first greatest commandment sums up the First Table, the first three commandments. The second greatest commandment sums up the Second Table, commandments four through ten. The First Table focuses on love of God, and the Second Table on love of neighbor. The two classic core values in our faith tradition are love of God and love of neighbor. The first commandment is: “You shall have no other gods.” In Luther’s Small Catechism, after stating each commandment, the question is asked: “What does this mean?” Luther’s short explanation is: “We are to fear, love, and trust God above all things.” The first commandment is another way of saying that you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength. Trust is at the heart of Luther’s conception of what it means to have faith. Faith has often been viewed as believing in the right doctrines or teachings about God. For Luther faith is trust in God. In the Large Catechism Luther explains: “to have a god is nothing else than to trust and believe in that one with your whole heart. As I have often said, it is the trust and faith of the heart alone that makes both God and an idol . . . Anything on which your heart relies and depends, I say, that is really your God.”


The first commandment directly addresses the sin of idolatry. In the time of Moses a major concern was worshipping false gods made of precious metals, stones, or wood. In Exodus 32, for example, Moses had to confront the people of God about worshipping a golden calf.


Luther identified money and property as the most common idols on earth. “There are some,” explains Luther, “who think that they have God and everything they need when they have money and property; they trust in them and boast in them so stubbornly and securely that they care for no one else. They, too, have a god— mammon by name, that is, money and property— on which they set their whole heart.” Luther adds that “those who boast of great learning, wisdom, power, prestige, family, and honor and who trust in them have a god also, but not the one, true God.”[4] Luther’s point is that whatever our heart clings to most tightly is our god. Only the one true God, the God who freed the Israelites from slavery, the God who raised Jesus from the dead, is worthy of our ultimate trust.


Frederick Buechner defines “idolatry” as “the practice of ascribing absolute value to things of relative worth.” “Under certain circumstances,” explains Buechner, “money, patriotism, sexual freedom, moral principles, family loyalty, physical health, social or intellectual preeminence, and so on are fine things to have around, but to make them the standard by which all other values are measured, to make them your masters, to look to them to justify your life and save your soul is the sheerest folly. They just aren’t up to it.”[5] Buechner’s point is that only God is worthy of being ascribed absolute value. To fulfill the first commandment is to ascribe absolute value to God.


In the “Freedom of a Christian” Luther affirms that those who fulfill the first commandment, who put their full trust in God, who cling to God with their whole heart, will have “no difficulty in fulfilling all the rest.” Next week we will focus on the other two commandments in the first table: the second commandment— “You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God”; and the third commandment— “Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy.” We shall see how they are, like the first commandment, a life-giving gift from God.

In Jesus’ name, AMEN.





[1] The Book of Concord, edited by Robert Kolb and Timothy Wengert, 347–48.

[2] Ibid., 380.


[3] Ibid., 379.

[4] Ibid., 387.

[5] Wishful Thinking, 40.