Sunday, Sept 3, 2017

Ten Commandments Series

Ephesians 4:25–32, Matthew 6:19–24




Today we conclude our sermon series on the Ten Commandments. The Eighth Commandment states: “You shall not bear false witness.” The Ninth and Tenth Commandments focus on God’s prohibition against coveting anything that is our neighbor’s.


Before we get started, however, I want to highlight an immediate way we can all fulfill the Fifth Commandment: “You shall not kill.” To reiterate, in the Small Catechism Luther clarifies not only what each commandment prohibits, but also what each commandment encourages. Thus, the Fifth Commandment prohibits us from physically harming or killing our neighbors, but it also encourages us to help and support them in all of life’s needs. Obviously thousands and thousands of victims of Hurricane Harvey are in serious need. Many are asking what we can do to help.


Trevor Noah, the late night comedian from South Africa who hosts The Daily Show, began his first episode after the hurricane hit by acknowledging how bad the situation is. He encouraged viewers to send the people of Texas their thoughts and prayers. “But first,” he said, “send money. Money, then thoughts, then prayers, or prayers then thoughts. But first send money.”


Joel Osteen, Senior Pastor of Lakewood Church in Houston, one of the largest churches in the country, was criticized for not opening their doors more quickly to the hurricane victims. Lakewood Church is located in a former sports arena. It can hold almost 17,000 people. When Pastor Osteen was interviewed on The Today Show, the last thing he was asked was what he would encourage people to do who wanted to help. The first thing he mentioned was financial support.


There are many excellent relief organizations to which we can give money. One of the best is the Lutheran Disaster Response. Lutheran Disaster Response will be actively involved for the long haul in helping people recover from Hurricane Harvey.


Now on to the Eighth Commandment. A story is told about a man who went to his rabbi with a question about the Eighth Commandment. He said to the rabbi, “I understand almost all of the law. I understand the commandment not to kill. I understand the commandment not to steal. What I don’t understand is why there is a commandment against slandering the neighbor.”


The rabbi paused for a moment and then responded, “I will give you an answer, but first I have a task for you. I would like you to gather a sack of feathers and place a single feather on the doorstep of each house in the village. When you have finished, return for your answer.”


The man was a bit puzzled, but he did as the rabbi had instructed him. When the task was complete, he returned to the rabbi and said, “Now, Rabbi, I have done what you asked. Please give me the answer to my question, `Why is it wrong to slander my neighbor?’”


“Ah,” the rabbi said. “One more thing. I want you to go back and collect all the feathers before I give you the answer.”


“But, Rabbi,” the man protested, “that will be impossible. The feathers will have all blown away.”


“So it is with lies we tell about our neighbors,” the rabbi responded. “They can never be retrieved. They are like feathers in the wind.”[1]


In Luther’s explanation of the Eighth Commandment in the Large Catechism he seems particularly concerned by those whom he refers to as “backbiters.” In his characteristic earthy language he writes: “Learning a bit of gossip about someone else, [backbiters] spread it into every corner, relishing and delighting in the chance to stir up someone else’s dirt like pigs that roll in manure and root around in it with their snouts.”[2] If a person thinks a charge should be brought against someone, Luther instructs that the charge should be brought before a proper judge. Otherwise, says Luther, “what is secret should be left secret, or at any rate be reproved in secret.”[3] He exhorts followers of Jesus to follow the rule laid down in Matthew 18, “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.” Luther then gives this explanation of the rule: “you should not be quick to spread slander and gossip about your neighbors but admonish them privately so that they may improve. Likewise, do the same when others tell you what this or that person has done. Instruct them, if they saw the wrongdoing, to go and reprove the individual personally or otherwise to hold their tongue.”[4]


Dietrich Bonhoeffer believed “holding our tongues” was one of the most important services brothers and sisters in Christ could provide to one another. From 1935 to 1937 Bonhoeffer directed an illegal seminary in Nazi Germany known as Finkenwalde. He later wrote a book entitled Life Together inspired by their experience at Finkenwalde. The Finkenwalde Rule was central to the life of the seminary community. In Life Together Bonhoeffer clarifies it: “it must be a decisive rule of all Christian community life that each individual is prohibited from talking about another Christian in secret. It is clear and will be shown in what follows that this prohibition does not include the word of admonition that is spoken personally to another. However, talking about others in secret is not allowed even under the pretense of help and good-will.” Bonhoeffer’s student, confessing partner, and biographer Eberhard Bethge, once observed: “almost as much was learned from the failure to observe this simple rule and from the renewed resolve to keep it as from sermons and exegeses.”[5] Bonhoeffer acknowledges that there may be exceptions to this rule; but they are just that—exceptions.


As we would expect, Luther is not just concerned with what the Eighth Commandment prohibits; he also offers a positive interpretation. “Besides our own body, our spouse, and our temporal property,” explains Luther, “we have one more treasure that is indispensable to us, namely, our honor and good reputation.”[6] The Eighth Commandment implies that we are also to do everything we can to maintain the honor and reputation of our neighbor. Luther exhorts us in the Small Catechism to come to our neighbors’ defense, “speak well of them, and interpret everything they do in the best possible light.”


Thus, we are to use our words to bless others. As the Apostle Paul instructs the Ephesians, “let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.”[7] Paul was particularly concerned with what would build up the community of Christ in Ephesus. What he taught the church in Ephesus is just as relevant to churches in our time— what we say and how we say it will build up or tear down the community of Christ.


At least one clarification is in order. Gracious words are not always just “nice” words. If someone is going down a destructive path, the gracious word will be one that calls them to account. But we need to call them to account in the most respectful way possible, with their best interests and the best interests of the community in mind.


The Ninth and Tenth Commandments can be summed up in four words: “Do not be greedy.” Obviously we struggle with greed in our culture, both individually and collectively. Martin Luther had a doctorate in theology, not in psychology. Nonetheless, he was amazingly insightful about human nature. He recognized how insidious our desires could be. When we want something bad enough, we are capable of resorting to almost any scheme or tactic or ruse to get what we want. We may even try to fool ourselves and others into thinking that we acquired what we want in an honorable way. Once again, groups as well as individuals can exhibit such covetous behavior. It can be even harder for a group than an individual to own up to such behavior. For example, we as a nation have never truly owned up to the dishonorable ways we attained this land from our Native American brothers and sisters. The Ninth and Tenth Commandments make clear that we are not to covet anything that is our neighbor’s. Luther’s positive construction is that we are to do everything we can to be of help and service to our neighbor in keeping what is theirs. Imagine if we had truly respected the rights of those who were here before us?


In the “Conclusion of the Ten Commandments” in the Large Catechism,[8] Luther summarizes a number of key insights relating to the Ten Commandments as a whole. Let me conclude by highlighting a couple of them. First of all, “everything proceeds from the power of the First Commandment.” “The Lord takes pleasure,” insists Luther, “in those who have no other gods.” For God’s sake, we do not take the name of the Lord in vain; we remember the Sabbath and keep it holy; we honor father and mother; we do not kill; we do not commit adultery; we do not steal; we do not bear false witness; and we do not covet anything that is our neighbor’s.


Secondly, Luther, ever the astute observer of human nature, acknowledges that “no one is able to keep even one of the Ten Commandments as it ought to be kept.” Only “miserable, blind fools” labor under the pretense that they can live a perfect or higher spiritual life.


And that leads to a third and final insight, we can give thanks we have a merciful God. Faith in God’s mercy is essential in our lives. Faith assures us that God does not abandon us when we fail to fulfill the Commandments perfectly.


At the same time Luther discovered that from faith in God’s mercy “there will arise a spontaneous impulse and desire to gladly do God’s will.” Thus, “our actions proceed from a heart that trusts in [God] alone.” Such loving action fulfills the intent of the Ten Commandments. To those whose faith inspires loving action toward God and neighbor God promises to show mercy unto a thousand generations.

In Jesus’ name, AMEN.













[1] Based on version in White, Stories for Telling, 73.

[2] The Book of Concord, edited by Kolb and Wengert (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2000), 422.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 423.

[5] Life Together/Prayerbook of the Bible, volume 5 of Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works

(Minneapolis: Fortress, 1995), 94.

[6] The Book of Concord, 420.

[7] Ephesians 4:29.

[8] The Book of Concord, 428–31.