A sermon on the Ten Commandments

              God created us. God has the right to tell us how to live our lives. Jesus Christ redeemed us. We do not belong to ourselves; we were bought with a price. Again, Jesus has the right to tell us how to live. The Holy Spirit guides us to be the children of God, telling us what to do and what not to do. But does God obey his own rules? Does God do everything he tells us to do? And is God careful not to do any of the things he tells us not to do?

              God commands, “You shall not covet.” We are not to want the things that belong to other people. But God says of himself, “I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God.” Can God be jealous when coveting is wrong? Or are coveting and jealousy two different things?

              In modern English, we often use the word “jealousy” to mean the same thing as “envy” or “coveting.” But jealousy has a second meaning which is more appropriate to describe God. A jealous person wants to keep what belongs to him or to her. God commands us not to commit adultery—if a woman appears guilty of breaking this commandment, her husband might be jealous. God commands us not to steal. A jealous person might be angry when someone steals things from him or from her. This kind of jealousy is different from envy and from coveting. Wanting to keep what belongs to you is not a sin. Since God made us and God redeemed us, we belong to him. God says, “I am the Lord your God.” All his commandments tell us how to remain in a right relationship with God, how to remain God’s people so God does not have to be jealous about losing us.

              Therefore, God gives us ten commandments to tell us how his people act. We all agree that there are ten commandments, even though we do not all number them the same way. Lutherans combine the commandments about having no other gods and about not making and worshiping idols. Other people divide those two commandments and combine the commandments against coveting. For this reason, if you mention the sixth commandment to a group of Christians, some will think you are talking about adultery, but others will think you are talking about murder. Some people even make both combinations. They say that the first commandment, the most basic commandment, is the proclamation, “I am the Lord your God.” Those words tell us the reason we try to obey all the other commandments. As Luther pointed out, our obedience to all the commandments of God reflects back to our relationship with God. We obey his commandments because we fear God and because we love God.

              We know, of course, that we should love God. God is love. He made us in his image. We are meant to love—we are meant to love God with our whole hearts, and we are meant to love our neighbors as ourselves. If our love was perfect, we would need no other commandments. Because our love is imperfect, God needs to tell us how to love. At Mount Sinai, he delivered these commandments along with fire and smoke, lightning and thunder, earthquakes, and the blaring of trumpets. We hear these commands and sing about them in more subdued circumstances, but God means these commandments for us as seriously as he meant them for his chosen people centuries ago.

              We should have no other gods. Nothing should matter to us more than God. Not only should we love God more than anything else; we also should fear God more than anything else. Our fear of God is not meant to make us run away and hide from God. We love God and trust God. But, remembering that God is always with us—that he sees everything we do and hears everything we say and even knows our thoughts—we guide our lives by his commandments. Even when we fear other powers that want us to break God’s Law, our love for God and our fear of God guides us to do what is right instead of wandering into sin and shame and guilt.

              Therefore, we have no other gods. We do not create idols and images to worship. God is not opposed to religious artwork. The same God who spoke the Ten Commandments also designed the Ark of the Covenant, topped with two angels. But our artwork does not replace God. We cannot control God by capturing him in a piece of art. We keep God’s name holy and we give God his holy time, but we never let his name or his time or anything else that belongs to God take the place of God himself.

              Holy things belong to God. His name is holy. His day is holy. This church is a holy place, because we have dedicated it to God. We are holy people, because God has chosen us for himself. God hates it when we misuse holy things. He takes it as a personal insult when we take what is holy and try to use it for our own purposes. Our Gospel reading for this morning shows how Jesus reacts when holy things are misused. Because we love God, we will respect everything that belongs to him, everything that has become holy because it is the property of God.

              We respect authority in this world because of God. Whether we agree or disagree with our rulers, we treat their authority is holy, as something that comes from God. This holiness begins in the family, where we honor father and mother as pictures of God the Father. This holiness continues in the school, the workplace, the community, and the nation. Parents and teachers and managers and government officials are sinful human beings like the rest of us. They make mistakes; they can be wrong. Yet we respect their office of authority, because all authority comes from God. We honor and serve our parents and others in authority to show our honor and respect for God.

              We also love our neighbors. We respect their lives, so we do nothing that harms their lives. Even selfish anger toward another person is sinful. Instead, we help them to care for their lives and preserve their lives. We respect their marriages. Those of us who are married love our husband or wife and remain faithful; and all of us help our neighbors to do the same by respecting marriage and the privileges of marriage. We respect our neighbors’ property. We take care of what God has given us, and we help our neighbors take care of what God has given them. We respect our neighbors’ reputations. We speak the truth in love, and we correct others when they say things we know are not true.

              God has given good things to our neighbors. He has also given us good things. Because we love and fear God, and because we love our neighbors, we remain content with those good things God has given us. We are happy for our neighbors when they have good things. We do not covet our neighbors’ house, or anything our neighbor has that can be bought with money. We do not covet our neighbors’ husband or wife, our neighbors’ workers, or even our neighbors’ animals. If they belong to our neighbor through love and loyalty, we respect that relationship. Like God, we can be jealous, wanting to keep and protect what is ours. But we never covet; we never resent our neighbors for having good things we do not have. Our contentment comes from loving and trusting God, who takes care of us and of our neighbors in all the things we need.

              We know, of course, that the Israelites who heard these commandments from God did not obey them. Forty days after they heard these commandments, they had already built a golden calf and started to worship it. Through the history of Israel, they broke these commandments repeatedly. God had to discipline his chosen people, sending Midianites and Philistines and Assyrians and Babylonians to bring judgment upon his people. But, because they broke the covenant God made with them, God also promised a new covenant that would be based on grace, not on obedience.

              We know that we have sinned. We have fallen short of God’s plan for our lives. We have not loved God with our whole hearts. We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We sin. If we still lived under the old covenant, we would also be subject to judgment. We have joined the rebellion against God; we have cooperated with God’s enemies by doing what we want instead of doing what God wants.

              God hates sin. He does not hate sin because he is selfish and wants all the attention on himself. God hates sin because it spreads. It pollutes the good world he made, and it hurts the people who live in that world. When we sin, the evil we commit does not lie just between us and God. It hurts other people. Sin lingers in the world. The third and fourth generation still carry the burden of sins committed by their ancestors. Every act of disobedience adds to the pollution of sin in this world. God is jealous; we does not want us to rebel, and he does not want us to hurt the other people that God loves. Therefore, God still threatens judgment on all those who sin, on all those who break even the smallest of his commandments.

              But we live under the new covenant. The thunder and fire of Mount Sinai has been taken away because of a different mountain, a mountain found in Jerusalem. There the Son of God endured all the judgment that the old covenant threatens. There he received the penalty for our sins so we could receive instead the blessings and steadfast love of God. The cross is the power of God to rescue our lives, to transfer us from the old covenant to the new covenant. The cross is the power of God to restore the fundamental truth of the old covenant, in which God says, “I am the Lord your God.” Because we belong to him, we are no longer victims of evil and shame and guilt. We are no longer threatened with death and eternal punishment. Jesus has traded places with us, taking upon his shoulders the wrath of his Father so we could receive instead the grace of his Father.

              In both the old covenant and the new covenant, God tells us the consequences of being his people. After saying, “I am the Lord your God,” he says, “you shall have no other gods… you shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain… you shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal….” These words of God do not say, “Try your best to have no other gods; try your best not to murder or commit adultery or steal.” These words of God do not say, “you shouldn’t do these things” or “you’d better not do these things.” They are firm statements, statements of fact. Because he is the Lord our God, we will not have other gods. We will not murder or commit adultery or steal. We will not covet. God made us. God redeemed us. We belong to him. We are holy people, and holy people do not do such things.

              Under the old covenant, God rejected and destroyed sinners. Under the new covenant, God does not see our sins, because Jesus paid in full on the cross for all our sins. God looks at us, and he sees the righteousness of his Son. From what he sees, God can say that we have no other gods, that we do not murder or commit adultery or steal or even covet. He accepts us because Jesus has traded places with us, covering us with his righteousness and paying the full price of all our sins.

              This transfer happens at the cross, but it is made ours personally through the means of grace. The Bible delivers to us the news of the new covenant and gives us faith in those promises. The Church delivers forgiveness to us so God sees us as his children and not as rebellious sinners. Holy Baptism washes away our sins and covers us with Christ’s righteousness. Holy Communion brings us the body and blood of Jesus to guarantee us forgiveness and eternal life.

              But God is not merely blind to our sins because of the cross. His forgiveness changes us. We are being transformed into the image of Christ because of the power of the cross. We are not perfect and sinless yet. The transformation has not been completed. But God already sees us as we will be in the new creation, totally transformed so that no sin remains. We will be like Jesus. We will live with him in perfect joy and peace forever.

              Sin and evil have power. God’s grace has more power. Sin and evil corrupt what is good. God’s grace restores what is good. Sin and evil bring damage to the third and fourth generation of God’s enemies. The power of the cross brings grace and peace to thousands of generations of those who love God and cling to his Word. From the creation of Adam until today, not even one thousand generations of people have lived in this world. The power of the cross, the power of God’s grace and mercy and love, overwhelms all of history, because he remains what he always has been. He is the Lord our God.

              Jesus, the only Son of God, has brought us this grace of God. He has given us life in the new covenant. He keeps us safe in that new covenant by the power of the cross. Therefore, we are able to live as his people, content in his peace today and forever. To Jesus Christ our Savior and Redeemer be honor and praise, now and always. Amen.

(sermon delivered March 7, 2021; shared with permission. J.)

Sabbath rest fulfilled

According to the book of Genesis, when God created the world, he did so in six days. By the power of his Word he called into existence everything that exists, aside from God himself. Then, on the seventh day, God rested. Even before sin entered the world, God commanded his people to rest on the seventh day of each week. He created a weekly holiday so people would have a break from their usual work and would have time to celebrate fellowship with God and with each other.

In the Ten Commandments, God reaffirmed this commandment to rest on the seventh day of the week. Through the prophets he repeated the message that his Sabbath Day was to be respected. God never told any of the prophets that he was going to change his mind about that commandment (although he did reveal to Jeremiah that a new covenant was coming). Jesus debated with his opponents about the meaning of the Sabbath Day, saying that it was appropriate to do good and helpful things on that day. But Jesus did not signal that he was going to change God’s weekly holiday.

The vast majority of Christians in the world today worship God on Sunday. Sunday morning is treated as the weekly anniversary of the resurrection of Jesus. Christians are free to move their time of rest and worship from Saturday to Sunday, or to Wednesday night, or any other time they please. The apostle Paul wrote to the Colossians, “Let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.” Kosher rules no longer apply, because they were related to the animals sacrificed on the altar, and Jesus has fulfilled the substance of which they were a picture. Christians are free to hold a Seder and observe the Passover week if they wish, but most choose instead to celebrate Holy Week and Easter, since Jesus has fulfilled the substance of which Passover is a picture. Christians do not have to make a Sabbath rest every Saturday, because Jesus has fulfilled the substance of which the Sabbath is a picture.

In the week of creation, God rested on the seventh day. In Holy Week once again, God rested on the seventh day. The body of the Son of God rested the rest of death, buried in a borrowed tomb. The soul of the Son of God rested in Paradise, in the hands of his Father. Whenever a Christian dies, that Christian rests the same way—the body buried or otherwise resting on earth, the soul with Jesus in Paradise.

But the rest of Jesus was short. When the Sabbath ended, a new day began, and Jesus no longer rested. The substance of the Sabbath was fulfilled, as the substance of Passover and of animal sacrifices was fulfilled in the death of Jesus. Christians are free, not only from sin and death, but also from the burden of the Law. “Let no one pass judgment on you,” for God has already judged you worthy of eternal life in his Kingdom. J.

Reposted from Holy Saturday 2016

God is jealous?! and he takes it out on the children?!

 

God says, “I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments” (Exodus 20:5-6).

Yes, God himself says that he is jealous. But jealousy is not always the same as envy and coveting. At root, the meaning of jealousy is wanting to keep that which is one’s own. A husband who is jealous does not want to share his wife with other men. His jealousy may tempt him into sinful behavior, but the desire that one’s wife or husband remain faithful is not sinful. In fact, a man who willingly shares his wife with others shows that he does not love her.

God loves his people. He does not want to share his people with false gods. God does not envy false gods, because he needs and wants nothing from them. But he is jealous, wanting his people not to have other gods or to worship graven images. Whether the false gods are those worshiped by ancient religions—Baal, Zeus, Thor, Osiris, and the rest—or whether they are the modern false gods of money, fame, pleasure, political causes, and the like—God does not want to share. He loves his people too much to let them be deceived and harmed by anything that looks like a god and sounds like a god but cannot accomplish what God alone can do.

For that reason, God allows us to see the price of evil, the damage that it causes. He intends that we see what is wrong with evil and prefer that which is good. Evil is unfair, but God is fair. He would not punish children for the sins of their parents. Through Moses, he forbade the government of Israel to follow that practice (Deuteronomy 24:16). Other ancient governments did that, reasoning that a man’s concern for his family might deter him from crime even more than his concern for self-protection. But God says, “The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father for the iniquity of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself” (Ezekiel 18:20).

Unfortunately some translations do misinterpret Exodus 20:5-6, reporting that God punishes the children for the sins of the fathers. These translations miss the sense of “visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children.” That visit of iniquity is not a punishment from God; it is a consequence of sin and evil. God does not work this way, but the sinful world works this way.

Children who were abused by their parents often become parents who abuse their children. It’s not fair, but it happens. Children whose parents misuse alcohol or other drugs are more likely to misuse the same drugs. It’s not fair, but it happens. It’s not fair that some children are born with defects, and others are born already addicted to drugs, because of bad decisions their mothers made during pregnancy. It happens because evil is unfair, and God wants us to see evil for what it really is.

When iniquity visits, it stays for a while. The consequences of sin do not disappear, not even when the sin is already forgiven through the sacrifice of Christ. God measures the durability of evil as lasting “to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me.” He contrasts that with his love. God’s love lasts for a thousand generations. (According to the Bibles account, nowhere near that number of generations has yet lived on the earth.) Rather than resenting God for the evil he permits—and he does so for good reasons—God’s people rejoice to know that the love of God and his mercy overwhelm the power of evil. All  victims are rescued because God himself became a victim, suffering unfairly on the cross so he could redeem those who trust in him. And that really isn’t fair either, but it is unfairness that is given for our benefit. J.

Contentment, part two

God says, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor” (Exodus 20:17).

Luther explains, “What does this mean? We should fear and love God so that we do not entice or force away our neighbor’s wife, workers, or animals, or turn them against him, but urge them to stay and do their duty.”

Salvageable adds: Some things belong to our neighbors because they were bought with money. Other things, living things, are attached to our neighbors by loyalty and not only by money. Envying a relationship is as wrong as envying a possession, because such envy reveals that we neither love our neighbor nor trust God to give us all that is good for us.

If you are unmarried, you have the right to become married. But do not end another marriage to find for yourself a wife or a husband. Do not even think about what it would be like to be married to a person who already is married to someone else. You can be friends, if that person is willing to be your friend, but in your friendship continue to support that person’s marriage.

If you wish to hire a worker, advertise the job opening and choose your new worker from those who apply for the job. Do not target or recruit the workers of your competitors or hire someone for the purpose of robbing that person from the competition. Hire the best workers that apply for your job, and do not even think about how to steal away the people who are working for your competitors.

If you need work animals, such as oxen and donkeys, go ahead and obtain them honestly. Do not steal them from your neighbor or trick your neighbor into letting them work for you. Do not even think about how you can take away your neighbor’s ox or donkey. Instead, if your neighbor’s work animal is wandering, lead it home. If it is lost and you do not know who owns it, advertise that you have found a missing animal, and take good care of it until your neighbor arrives to claim it.

Of course this applies to pets as well as to work animals. You can be kind to your neighbor’s dog or cat or exotic pet. Do not try to win its loyalty away from your neighbor by your kindness or your treats. The old ploy, “This dog followed me home from school—can we keep it?” is dishonest. It is far better to tell that dog to “go home,” to stay with its owner and do its duty.

An additional relationship is not mentioned by God or by Luther, but I think it is covered also under “anything that belongs to your neighbor.” That relationship is friendship. We all need friends, but we should not try to steal friends away from other people, whether by lies and gossip or by promising better rewards for our friendship. Bitter competition for friendship peaks during junior high and senior high years, but the feelings that provoke that competition never disappear. Most of us simply become better at hiding our feelings, and the rest become better at manipulating people without their efforts being obvious.

One relationship we never need to avoid coveting: our relationship with Jesus Christ. He is the timeless God, so he has enough time for each of us. He also has enough love for each of us. He has enough forgiveness to cover all of our sins. No matter how tightly we cling to him, we cannot rob him away from anyone else. He is always with us, always quick to forgive our sins because of the price he already paid to remove them. He wants us to be content in our relationship with him. He even wants us to tell other people about him so he can have the same relationship with them. Although the devil and the sinful world try to entice or force us away from Jesus, they cannot succeed, because nothing can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. J.

Contentment

God says, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house” (Exodus 20:17).

Luther explains, “What does this mean? We should fear and love God so that we do not scheme to get our neighbor’s inheritance or house, or get it in a way that only appears right, but help and be of service to him in keeping it.”

Salvageable adds: Luther, like other Christians of his time, distinguished two commandments against coveting—one involving property bought with money, and the other involving relationships. (The prohibition against worshiping graven images was treated as part of the first commandment.) “Your neighbor’s house,” then, includes all the things in and around the house—your neighbor’s car, clothing, electronics, book collection, and so on. God makes certain property available to you, things you can buy with money you earned or received as a gift or inheritance. God has placed other property into the care of your neighbor. Each of you should take care of what God has given you, while also helping the neighbor to keep and maintain what is his or hers.

If your neighbor buys a new car and you admire the car but are happy for your neighbor, you are not coveting. You might wish you could afford a new car and regret that you are still stuck with your old car, but wishing and regretting is not coveting. When our neighbor’s good fortune annoys you and irritates you, then you are beginning to covet. Whenever it makes you unhappy to see someone else with a good thing you cannot afford, you are breaking God’s commandment not to covet. Envy toward the possessions of others is not part of the life God intended each of us to live.

Coveting is a sin against your neighbor. You cannot love your neighbor while you covet your neighbor’s property. Coveting is also a sin against God. You do not trust God while you remain convinced that he has not given you as much as you need. You cannot love God when you resent the size of the earthly property God has invested in you.

The opposite of coveting is being content. When we are satisfied with what we have—and thankful to God for what we have—we are not coveting. Paul wrote that he knew the secret of being content, whether he had a lot or only a little (Philippians 4:11-12). That secret is knowing Christ, trusting Christ, and being confident that Christ is caring for us in the way he knows is best. When tempted to covet, we look to Christ and not at our neighbor’s possessions. When we find that we have coveted, we ask Christ’s forgiveness and also seek his help to remain content. J.

Protecting reputations

God says, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (Exodus 20:16).

Luther explains, “What does this mean? We should fear and love God so that we do not tell lies about our neighbor, betray him, slander him, or hurt his reputation, but defend him, speak well of him, and explain everything in the kindest way” (or “put the best construction on everything”).

Salvageable adds: Jesus declares himself to be the Truth. He calls the devil the father of lies. Which team do you prefer? In spite of the fact that most people prefer the truth to lies, most people also find occasions when they would rather lie. With questions like, “Did you enjoy the book I gave you for your birthday?” or, “Does this dress make me look fat?” we might consider it both kinder and safer to tell a lie—“a little white lie,” we like to call it.

Little lies are dangerous, though. Once we have found reasons to excuse lying under certain circumstances, we risk entering a growing pattern of dishonesty. We begin to lie for our own protection to hide the fact that we have done something wrong. We gossip about others, telling stories we heard that may not be true but are quite entertaining. Soon we move to lies that cause trouble for other people, robbing them of their good reputations and assigning blame to them that they do not deserve.

Both God’s commandment and Luther’s explanation focus on our neighbor. We are not to tell lies about our neighbor, in court or anywhere else. We are not to betray or slander our neighbor. We are not to hurt our neighbor’s reputation. Instead, we are to defend our neighbor and speak well of him. When more than one explanation fits the facts, we are to choose to believe the one that puts our neighbor in the best light rather than the worst light.

Of course if you see a crime in progress, you should report it to the proper authorities. If you are called into court to describe what you saw, again you are to be honest and thorough. Such actions do not betray a neighbor; instead, they help our other neighbors. But if someone (especially a fellow Christian) has hurt you in a way that is not criminal, you are not entitled to tell everyone else what happened. The first person you should approach is the one who hurt you—not to get even, but to try to reconcile with that person. When that works, no third person needs to know what has happened.

Explaining everything in the kindest way does not mean making ourselves potential victims. When we drive, we should be prepared for other drivers to do crazy and illegal things. When walking down the street and seeing a stranger approaching, we should have a plan to keep ourselves safe. But with family and friends we should not need to be suspicious. We should assume the best of them, not the worst. We should be truthful in all we say about them. When someone else tries to gossip with us, we should turn off the conversation rather than listening to the gossip. When we know a story is untrue, we should speak up and defend the neighbor whose reputation is being stained.

A classic question about the ethics of truth and lying poses this question: Suppose one person has plans to harm another person, and that second person is hiding. You know where that second person is. If the first person comes to you and asks you, should you tell them where the second person is hiding? Would it not be better to lie, to protect that second person from harm?

We live in a confusing, sin-stained world. Sometimes it seems that we must choose between sins, that we have no choice that does not involve a sin. I would tell a lie to protect a person from harm. I would also confess that lie to God as a sin, asking for forgiveness because I could not find a way to keep that person safe without sinning. Perhaps God would not regard such a lie as sinful, but I would rather confess the sin, confident in his forgiveness for all sins, than try to keep it hidden from God.

Jesus is the Truth. Yet he has essentially lied about us to his Father. “Father, forgive them,” he prays for us. “They don’t know what they’re doing.” (Often when we sin, we know exactly what we are doing.) More than that, he says, “Father, accept them. Their sins are gone; their debt has been paid. When you look at them, see me, and treat them as you would treat me.” God’s mercy and grace are not fair. God treats us far better than we deserve. He treated Jesus far worse than Jesus deserved. By that sacrifice, a balance has been established. As the children of God, we seek to be as honest and truthful as we can be in this world, while we wait for a perfect new creation where there will be no falsehood and no lies. J.

Protecting property

God says, “You shall not steal” (Exodus 20:15).

Luther explains, “What does this mean? We should fear and love God so that we do not take our neighbor’s money or possessions, or get them in any dishonest way, but help him to improve and protect his possessions and income.”

Salvageable adds: God would not protect our property from others if he did not want us to have property. In one sense, we own nothing. Everything that we have belongs to God and has been entrusted to us for a time. We will not keep any of it beyond the time we die. We are merely managers of God’s property. In another sense, though, what we are managing for God is ours at the moment. Therefore God forbids us to steal—to take from another person what God has entrusted to that person.

Jesus did speak blessings upon the poor and woes upon the rich. He said it is easier to push a camel through the eye of a needle that to get a rich man into the kingdom of heaven. But God does not hate the rich. He blessed Abraham, Job, David, and Solomon with riches, not because he hated them, but because he loved them. Not merely in terms of suffering, but in terms of property, God will not give us more than we can handle. What matters is not how much money you control; what matters is how much money controls you. When you are tempted to steal, to add to what you have in a dishonest way, you are falling under the spell of a false god.

There are many ways to steal. Burglary is done in secret, but robbery involves the threat of violence. Taking something from a store without paying for it is stealing. So is signing a contract to do a job, taking the money, and failing to do the job to the best of your ability. In his Large Catechism, Luther condemned those who trick other people by selling things for more than they are worth, or buying things for less that they are worth. Some people would call that good business practice, but Luther insisted that when one person cheats another in regard to money and property, that person has stolen from the other.

In the positive sense, this commandment puts us under an obligation to help our neighbors. Damaging someone else’s property is stealing; the sinner gains nothing, but the victim loses something of value. Therefore, we should help our neighbors improve and protect what belongs to them. This includes reporting to the authorities a fire or a crime in progress, making sure that our choices do not cost our neighbors money, and teaching children to respect the property of others.

As the commandment not to kill includes care for our own lives and bodies, so the commandment not to steal includes care for God’s property under our management. What we waste or destroy is not our own business; it affects our neighbors and harms our relationship with God. In his Judgment God will ask sinners how they managed the property he gave them for a time. On that Day we will all be expected to give an account of how we handled the wealth and possessions that were in our hands.

Yet Jesus has provided a way for us to escape judgment and punishment for our sins. In his parables he portrays himself as a thief, breaking into the devil’s house, tying up the devil, and robbing him of his possessions. When we steal and sin in other ways, we mark ourselves property of the devil. By his sinless life and sacrificial death, Jesus has taken us away from Satan’s power. Because of the price he paid to claim us, no Judgment remains upon us. This is not license to sin; this is power to resist temptation and to live as God’s people. Because we fear and love God, we will not steal from our neighbors, but we will help them to keep and improve what God has given them. J.

Protecting marriages

God says, “You shall not commit adultery” (Exodus 20:14).

Luther explains, “We should fear and love God so that we lead a sexually pure and decent life in what we say and do, and husband and wife love and honor each other.”

Salvageable adds: In explaining most of the commandments, Luther lists things we should not do as well as things we should do. Only in the first commandment and in this commandment does Luther omit the negatives and describe only the positives. Perhaps he feared that the list of things we should not do regarding marriage and intimacy would become too long to be practical. Perhaps he feared that such a list would give people sinful ideas. Probably, though, Luther wanted to emphasize the positive about a matter that too often is discussed only in negative terms.

As people hunger for food and thirst for water, so most people have an appetite for the intimacy that belongs in marriage. God created that appetite for good reasons, including the mutual support of a man and a woman, and the raising of children in a secure environment. As people can crave food and drink that is not healthy for them, so people can seek to satisfy their desire for intimacy in ways that are impure and indecent. This commandment of God protects marriages. Marriage is important to God. In a perfect world, he created a man and a woman, both in his image, to love and honor each other, to care for the planet and all that it contains and to be helpers or teammates to one another.

The devil and the sinful world hate everything that is good. They seek to damage or destroy the good things God made, twisting those good things into things that are adulterated, indecent, and impure. Whether a person is married or single, that person should respect the marriages of others and not seek to undermine them, whether for personal gain or just out of spite and envy. Jesus said that looking at another person for the purpose of lust is adultery, but the world surrounds us with suggestive images, seeking to inspire lust within us. Lust is sinful, not merely because of this commandment, but also because it treats another person as an object, an It, rather than a person, a Thou. The devil has an additional trick, throwing guilt at a person who has been tempted and has resisted the temptation. Luther had an expression for people who felt guilty about experiencing temptation: “You cannot keep the birds from flying over your head, but you can keep them from building a nest in your hair.” When we encounter temptations to sin and resist them, we should feel thankful and not guilty, for we are partaking in the victory Jesus won over all evil.

Also, Luther may have noted how Bible writers often compare idolatry to adultery. They do this because God compares his people—Israel in the Old Testament and the Church in the New Testament—to his Bride, saying that he loves his people as a husband loves his wife. Any attack on marriage, then, is an attack on love in general and on God’s love in particular. Paul counseled husbands to love their lives as Christ loves the Church; he goes on to paint a picture of Christ purifying the Church by his own sacrifice to make her holy and acceptable. Having been made pure, we want to remain pure. Christ’s forgiveness is available every day to remove the stain of sin from our lives. This redemption changes us, subtracting lust from our hearts, teaching us truly to love, building intimate love within marriages, and causing us to respect also the marriages of others. J.

Protecting lives

God says, “You shall not murder” (Exodus 20:13).

Luther explains, “What does this mean? We should fear and love God so that we do not hurt or harm our neighbor in his body, but help and support him in every physical need.”

Salvageable adds: This commandment prompts discussions in many controversial areas: abortion, euthanasia, the death penalty, and just and unjust wars, to name a few. Christians should seek God’s will in these extreme cases, but too often Christians become absorbed with these cases and overlook the everyday ways in which we are tempted to sin against this commandment.

This is the first of four brief commandments which protect, in order, lives, marriages, property, and reputations. (They are so brief that three of them are tied for shortest verse in the Bible, if we count letters in the original languages rather than in English translations.) Luther indicates that we not only are forbidden to kill our neighbors, but we are not to hurt or harm them in any way. Jesus goes even further, indicating that rage and insults against a neighbor also trespass this commandment.

Obedience to this commandment involves attitudes as well as actions. All human life is to be respected and even treasured. We should not even want to harm a neighbor. This includes deliberate acts of violence, and also carelessness. When we carelessly risk harming a person’s life or health, we break this commandment. That applies to our own lives as well. We are to be good stewards of our bodies—neither obsessing over our health and fitness to the point of idolatry, nor engaging in unhealthy habits that can shorten our lives or reduce our ability to serve God by helping our neighbors.

Even neglect is sinful. Not only are we to avoid hurting and harming others, but we are to help and support others. Both Old and New Testaments call God’s people to care for widows and orphans and all that are poor and vulnerable. Deuteronomy 15:4-5 says, “But there will be no poor among you; for the Lord will bless you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance to possess—if only you will strictly obey the voice of the Lord your God, being careful to do all this commandment that I command you today.” But Deuteronomy 15:11 says, “There will never cease to be poor in the land.” God knew that his people would sin, failing to honor and protect the lives of their neighbors, allowing selfishness and greed and cold-heartedness to keep them from caring about the lives of their neighbors. Those sins continue today. Enough food is produced in the world each year to feed every person alive, preventing starvation and diseases caused by malnutrition. The food is not distributed evenly, though, so that those who have more than enough can share with those in need. Politics, waste, and greed all play a part in the inequities of the world. We could be doing better.

Special circumstances call for a lifting of this commandment. Soldiers on a battlefield behave in ways that would be inappropriate anywhere else. Medical and religious professionals help families make difficult decisions about care given to the terminally ill. Many Christians believe that it shows respect for human life to deprive a murderer of his or her life. Even Jesus laid down his life as a sacrifice, dying so his people can live, purchasing forgiveness for all of our sins, including sins against the lives of our neighbors. J.

God’s name

God says, “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain” (or, “You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God”) (Exodus 20:7).

Luther explains, “What does this mean? We should fear and love God so that we do not curse, swear, use magical arts, lie, or deceive by God’s name, but call upon it in times of trouble, pray, praise, and give thanks.”

Salvageable adds: Notice that in this and all the other commandments, Luther ties our obedience to our fear of God and our love for God. Because we cannot earn anything from God by our obedience, our efforts to live according to his commandments are part of our relationship with the Lord who has washed away our sins, purifying us, and making us acceptable in the sight of God. The commandments help us to imitate Jesus, since he lived a life of pure righteousness, faithfully following all these commandments.

In the narrow sense, God’s name is Yahweh (or Jehovah), the special name that means “I am.” In a more general sense, God’s name is anything that he is called: God, Lord, Jesus, Christ, and the many other names that belong to him. In the broadest, sense, God’s name is anything that teaches us about him or reminds us of him, including the Bible, church buildings, and crosses.

People insult God when they use his name to punctuate their conversation, declaring by God’s name how hot it is, or how happy or angry they are, or how much it hurts to drop a book of boxes on one’s foot. The roofer who worked on my house some years ago sounded like a very holy man, using God’s names in every sentence he spoke. On the other hand, he was neither praying to God nor witnessing about him. But, as Luther indicates, God’s name can be misused in other ways that are even worse than thoughtless and careless utterances of his name.

We should not curse. To curse is to wish harm on someone else. “I hope you fall down the stairs and break your neck” is a curse. The worst thing we can wish for anyone is eternal condemnation and punishment. Therefore, when a person tells another person or object to “go to hell” or says “damn you” or describes someone or something as “god-damned,” that person is cursing. (Other obscene language has come to be known as cursing as well, but Luther is using the word with its original meaning.) Only God can judge and decide who will go to hell. We have no right to make that decision for him, not even while driving on the expressway.

We should not swear. To swear is to use God’s name to back a promise. Luther taught that the government can require us to swear—when we bear witness in court, or when we take an important job with the government, for example. In our daily conversation, swearing is unnecessary and insults God’s name. We should be honest enough with the people who know us that they require no oath from us to prove that we are telling the truth. When we say yes, we should mean yes; and when we say no, we should mean no. If people can trust us to speak the truth, swearing is unnecessary.

We should not use God’s name for magical arts. Magic is part of many pagan religions, in which people use special words, gestures, ingredients, and objects to try to control the world. We are not to use God’s name in that way. His name is holy, but it has no magic power. We cannot control God or the world around us by using God’s name in a special way. In the broadest sense, people misuse God’s name when they believe that wearing a cross or carrying a Bible keeps them safe from certain kinds of harm. These things are holy because they remind us of God and teach us about him, but we should not look to them for magical power over the world.

We should not use God’s name to lie or deceive anyone. Luther says “deceive” as well as “lie” because he knows there are ways we can trick someone into believing a lie without actually lying. To claim that one has a message from God when one has no such message is a serious sin. Those who have made careers and become wealthy by using God’s name to lie and to deceive others face severe judgment when they finally meet God face to face.

It might seem that we can never misuse God’s name if we never speak his name. Neglect is also abuse. Luther says we should call upon his name in times of trouble, pray, praise, and give thanks. God wants to hear our prayers. He wants us to talk to him about what matters most to us. He calls us to praise and thank him, not because he wants to be flattered, but because he wants us to remind ourselves how good he is and how many good things he has done for us. Of course we also use God’s name to tell other people about him. We praise him to others as we speak of his grace and mercy and forgiveness and as we describe the victory Jesus won against all our enemies. Other people need to hear these things, and God expects us to use his name as we share this faith and hope. J.