Lent and Spir.Disc.–Day 8

The following teaching has been given by Mark Jacobson, a member of our church, who is also a seminary student at Gordon Conwell. This is based on Luther’s Small Catechism which we are studying through Lent on Wednesday nights during our mid-week worship. Mark offered this teaching tonight at our evening study/service.

Concerning the Ten Commandments

There are two places in the Bible that present what we know as “The Ten Commandments”. One of them is in Exodus 20; the other is Deuteronomy 5. In neither of those passages are the commandments actually numbered for us, and so various groups who refer back to these commandments do so with different numbering systems. So, for those of you who don’t know me, I’m a student at Gordon-Conwell Seminary over in Hamilton, and that seminary has people in it from a lot of different traditions, and, so, whenever a professor or another student mentions one of the commandments by number, I get really confused until I can figure out what tradition they’re from and then translate from their numbers into the Lutheran numbers that I use. And then, whenever I talk, I try to just say the whole commandment so there’s no confusion on their part. And here is the way they are numbered according to Lutheran tradition:

1. You shall have no other gods.
2. You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God.
3. Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.
4. Honor your father and your mother.
5. You shall not murder.
6. You shall not commit adultery.
7. You shall not steal.
8. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
9. You shall not covet your neighbor’s house.
10. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox or donkey or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

When Luther wrote his catechism, he did something groundbreaking with the Ten Commandments. Other catechisms available at the time used the Ten Commandments, the Apostle’s Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer, just as Luther’s does, so it’s not specifically the content that’s new, but the way it’s organized. In the traditional catechism, the reader is brought first to the Creed: “This is who God is.” Then the reader is brought to the Lord’s Prayer: “Here is how we respond to God.” And, finally, the reader is brought to the Ten Commandments: essentially saying, “Now do this.”

Luther’s innovation was to put the Ten Commandments first in his catechism. Why? Because, for Luther, the Ten Commandments have a very particular use: they drive us to God. They are not, as earlier catechisms seem to suggest, a punishment for believing in God, as though God’s love is just a trick, and then, once he gets you, you have to do all this really hard stuff. Instead, the Ten Commandments are a signpost. They reveal our hearts and point us towards the promise of God. And Luther emphasized one commandment above the others in this respect, and so that’s the one that I’m going to be focused on tonight. It’s the first commandment: “You shall have no other gods.”

The first question that someone might ask is, “Well, what’s a god?” Luther says that a god is what you trust and believe in; a god is where you look for refuge. So, for example, if the only times that I feel secure are the times that I have money, that I have a good job, a seemingly guaranteed revenue stream –or if the uncertainty of my financial security sends me spiraling into doubt and despair, then I’ve found my god. Money is what I have put my trust in. Luther calls this the most common false god on earth.

You can easily imagine a host of other false gods, or what are called “idols”: health, property, academic titles, family. No one is saying that these things in themselves are bad, but if we look to them for all our comfort, we are going to be disappointed. You don’t have to think very hard to come up the names of some folks – celebrities, sports stars, politicians – who initially courted fame only to find that its promises had misled them; the story of a meteoric rise followed by scandal is one of the predominant stories of our culture; there are entire TV stations based on it. Luther says that “we are to trust in God alone, to look to him alone, and to expect him to give us only good things; for it is he who gives us body, life, food, drink, nourishment, health, protection, peace, and all necessary . . . blessings. In addition, God protects us from misfortunes and rescues and delivers us when any evil befalls us. It is God alone . . . from whom we receive everything good and by whom we are delivered from all evil.”

All of the other commandments hang on this first one. If we keep the first commandment, we keep them all, and if we don’t keep it, then we disobey them all. We can see this in the small catechism. The first commandment is explained like this: “We are to fear, love, and trust God above all things.” Each of the other commandments starts with the same eight words: “We are to fear and love God, so that.” Third commandment: “We are to fear and love God so that we do not despise preaching.” Eighth commandment: We are to fear and love God so that we do not tell lies about our neighbors.” And so on.

The way it works is that, for instance, if I look to God to give me all good things, then of course I will use his name in every time of need in order to call on and to praise him. If my security and my hope is in God alone, there is no point in stealing from my neighbor. But if, on the other hand, I’ve allowed something to take God’s central place, then I have lost the source of every good thing, including the ability to keep the commandments.

So how do we keep this first, pivotal commandment? How do we keep it when we are suffering, and we turn on the news and the whole world is suffering? How do we keep it when our health is failing? How do we keep it when, you know, it does kind of seem like money really would actually solve all our problems? We keep it by asking God for help in keeping it. And we remember the promise that lies behind this first commandment, as Luther expands it, and we remember it not as mere human words, but as the promise that God is speaking directly to each one of us: “Whatever good thing you lack, look to me for it and seek it from me, and whenever you suffer misfortune and distress, crawl to me and cling to me. I, I myself, will give you what you need and help you out of every danger. Only do not let your heart cling to or rest in anyone else.”

Delivered by Mr. Mark Jacobson, Wednesday, February 24th, 2010

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