Read the Small Catechism section on The Ten Commandments.
Luther understood the Ten Commandments to be Moses’ meditation on the natural law of God that is written on all human hearts. In this way he focused more on the spirit of the texts rather than the specifics as they might be applied to Israelites of the time.
The Ten Commandments have two basic organizational principles. First, there are the two “tables”. The first table are the first three commandments that deal with our relationship with God. The second table are the last seven commandments that deal with our relationship with each other.
Second, there are only two commandments that are phrased in a positive sense (you shall) rather than the negative (you shall not). Any time you see a change in the pattern of the thing, you should pay attention.
It is in the discussion of the Ten Commandments that we first encounter Luther’s basic question, “What does this mean?” What does this commandment mean for us in this time and place?
You will also note that while Luther included the positive aspects of each commandment. Not only what the commandment means we are not to do, but also what it means we are to do. In this way, we see that for Luther, every word of God – command or promise—always implied its opposite.
As with his Small Catechism, Luther also believed that the order of the commandments was in descending order of importance. That the first commandment was the context for the nine that followed. As we read them, we should keep that in mind.
Finally, Luther firmly believes that “an ‘ought’ never implies a ‘can’”. In other words, the main function of the law is not to show us an easy way to heaven, which (with a little hard work) we can reach. Rather, its function is to show us our sin and how far we are from heaven, God, and our neighbor. Their main function is not to tell us what to do, but to show us that we cannot, by our own understanding or effort, come to God on our own. To convince us so thoroughly of our own sin that we come as beggars to the gospel- the love of God in Jesus Christ through whom we have our only hope.
Notes on the commandments:
Commandment #1 You shall have no other gods- Luther defined a god as that thing you fear, love, and trust the most. The thing you trust to save you. The heart of everything for Luther is our faith, our trust, in God above all things.
Commandment #2 You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God – God’s name has power. So, don’t misuse God’s name, but use it to call on, pray to, give thanks, and praise God. God’s name is tossed about quite often in our world, especially in surprise (O my God!) and to condemn (God damn it!). What is most blasphemous of these things is the fact that it is done without any thought. God’s name and the invocation of God are done without any thought about God at all. If nothing else, we should be mindful of God and use God’s name with that same mindfulness.
Commandment #3 Remember the sabbath day and keep it holy - The first of the two “you shall” commandments and the last of the ones focused on our relationship with God. Note the focus for Luther on hearing and learning God’s Word which is both spoken and written. Note also, he does not talk about a particular day in which this is observed. Luther understood that while we should have a day of physical rest to focus on our relationship with God, every day was holy.
Commandment #4 Honor your father and your mother - Note that Luther also includes “others in authority” in this commandment. Here he begins to explore what will become his Two Kingdoms doctrine. That God instituted the vocation of parents first and that government functions in a similar way for a society. Governmental authority is based on this commandment.
Commandment #5 You shall not murder – To clarify, it does not say do not kill. It says you shall not murder… take a life unjustly. Luther expands this to include doing any danger or harm to our neighbors (following Jesus’ example in Matthew 5). Note, not helping and supporting neighbors in life’s needs is also breaking the commandment. It is a commandment broken by omission as well as commission.
Commandment #6 You shall not commit adultery - Just to be clear, adultery is having sexual relations with someone who is married to someone else. It is not premarital sex. That is also a no-no but does not make the Big 10 list. Think also about Jesus in Matthew 5 when he talks about this commandment. It is not just about our actions, but about our thoughts. Note also that Luther doesn’t go into any detail about what this applies to. Rather, he lets our faith (fear and love God) guide us in how we fulfill this.
Commandment #7 You shall not steal - Again, not only do not steal but help protect and improve our neighbor’s property and income. Luther would certainly apply this commandment to business ethics.
Commandment #8 You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor - It is not only not telling lies about our neighbors, it is about our attitude towards them. Our faith means seeing what they do in the best possible way. This does not ignore wrongdoing in a neighbor, it does provide a means by which we avoid making wrong assumptions about them.
Commandment #9 You shall not covet your neighbor’s house - Coveting is the desire to have the very thing someone else has. It is not the desire to have something like what another has.
Commandment #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 - Here the focus is the coveting of our neighbor’s relationships. To clarify the difference between envy and coveting we can use the Rick Springfield song “Jesse’s Girl”. Rick is okay when he says he wants a “woman like that”. This is envy (not great to have, but not breaking a commandment), a desire for someone like his girl. Rick gets into trouble when he says, “I want Jesse’s girl”. This is coveting the very thing another has. Which can lead to breaking any number of other commandments!
Questions for thought and conversation:
- Do you see the Ten Commandments differently now than you did before? How are they different?
- What is something about the commandments and their explanations that you don’t understand or disagree with?
- As a Christian community, how do we nurture and cherish life in our world, in our neighbors and in ourselves? How can Christian communities invest in the work of hindering forms of killing like bullying, shaming, and abuse?
- While we never keep any of the commandments fully, there are probably some that are more difficult for us than others. If you feel comfortable, share what commandment most trips you up. Why do you think it is so difficult? What in you makes it most difficult?
- Talk together about the places you see these commandments broken in our society. Why are they so hard to keep? What does it mean for us that we believe we cannot truly keep them?