A Sermon on the Ten Commandments in Luther’s Catechism
The Rev. Dr. Leah Schade
I just finished collecting the results of a research questionnaire asking pastors how – and even if – they are approaching controversial justice issues in the pulpit. I had over 1200 respondents, and I’ve been reading through some of the comments. A few of pastors state unequivocally that the church should never address any issues that have to do with the public interest, and especially not preachers in the pulpit. I’ve heard similar comments from parishioners who strongly believe that our churches should only focus on spiritual things like forgiveness, and being a good person, and having a strong faith. So there is a question about whether the Bible and the church are for individual morality, or whether they also have something to say about issues being debated in the public square – what some might call “politics.”
A sermon on the Ten Commandments as explained in the Lutheran Catechism has to ask that question as well, because it was one that Martin Luther himself addressed. Are the Commandments meant to be applied just at the personal and interpersonal level, or do they have wider application and ramifications for government, businesses, institutions, and society at large? In order to answer that question, we have to look at two things: 1) the context out of which the Commandments were given, and 2) the way in which Luther answered the question.
But first, let me start with a little story, and I want you to see how many commandments are referenced in the story. (Let’s go over them – Honor God; don’t take God’s name in vain; honor the Sabbath; honor your parents; don’t murder; don’t steal; don’t commit adultery; don’t bear false witness; don’t covet). Here’s the story:
Imagine a husband and wife decide to adopt a little boy. They welcome him into their home, provide him with a room, clothes, food, and the basics for all he needs. But, sadly, the father dies, and the wife marries a different man. One day the boy’s new father offers to play a board game with him. As they’re playing, the little boy notices that his new father is secretly switching cards in order to win the game. What do you think the little boy says? That’s not fair! You’re cheating!
And the father says: “Don’t you ever talk to me that way again! God made me the father. I make the rules. And by god, you will do as I say. And you will be silent and you will be obedient. You’re here at my pleasure, and if you cross me, you will regret the day.”
The little boy is stunned. And that day marks a change in the house. The boy is made to do all the housework while his parents order him around to the point where he feels like a slave. He is fed only bread and water while they dine on opulent food. Once when he looks longingly at their food and reaches out to get a little for himself because he is so hungry, he is beaten and then locked in a closet because his parents say that he has stolen from them. They call him awful names and constantly accuse him of lying. But what hurts the most is that they will not allow him to go to church anymore, which he used to do before he was adopted. And they threaten him that if he ever tells anyone about what goes on inside the house, or if he tries to escape, they will torture and kill him.
So how many of the commandments did you hear referenced in that little story? All but one – there’s no adultery in this story. There was bearing false witness, taking God’s name in vain, idolatry, stealing, breaking the Sabbath, the question of honoring parents, coveting, and the threat of murder. But it was the parents breaking the commandments, wasn’t it?
Now imagine if we transposed the elements of this story to a national level. Because this is what happened to the people of Israel. Remember at the end of Genesis the Israelites were, in a sense, adopted by the nation of Egypt. Because of the famine in their land, they sought refuge and relief in another place (like the boy in the story) and Joseph was able to secure his family and tribe in Pharaoh’s land. At first they were welcomed and were provided land, food and all the basics they needed.
But after that Pharaoh died, a new one who was a tyrant eventually came to power, and things changed. He enslaved the Israelites, forcing them into hard labor making the pyramids and serving the Egyptians’ every need. So they not only stole the Israelite’s freedom, they stole the people’s labor. If ever the Israelites tried to get what they needed to survive (like that little boy), they were accused of stealing and severely punished or incarcerated for breaking the rules. The Israelites were denigrated by the Egyptians – called terrible names and made to feel like nothing more than work animals, so in fact their own humanity was stolen from them.
But what hurt the most was that they were not allowed even a day’s rest and time to worship God. Pharaoh was god, and they were to worship and serve only him. So any attempt to speak out against the Pharaoh or the system that had enslaved them resulted in their being tortured and killed. In fact, Pharaoh even ordered the state-sanctioned murder of their baby boys in order to instill fear, and to remove the possible threat of young men rising up against him.
It was because of this national system of oppression and violence that God sent Moses to liberate the people of Israel. And after the plagues, after the dramatic escape through the Sea of Reeds, they finally arrive at God’s holy mountain where Moses is given the Ten Commandments. It was upon this set of guiding principles and expectations that the newly freed Israelites founded their new identity as God’s people.
Now when we read the Ten Commandments today, most people only think of them as a set of rules for the conduct between individuals. But these commandments were a direct result of a nation and its leaders exploiting people, stealing their freedom, stealing their labor, punishing anyone who dared speak out against them, and demanding obedience as if the ruler himself were God. Pharaoh and the Egyptians squelched any effort of the people to practice their faith, and committed genocide against the people by murdering their children.
So God is very clear that the Hebrew people freed from slavery are to build their nation on rules and expectations that everyone must abide by – including and especially the ones who are charged with leadership, the ones who are charged with the care and education of children, and anyone who has authority and power, whether it’s a parent, or a tribal leader.
Luther explains this in his Large Catechism when he discusses the Fourth Commandment to honor your father and mother. For Luther, this commandment is not limited to parents by blood, but extends to all who have responsibility for the care and governance of others. This includes teachers, employers, and government leaders. Luther is clear that we are to show honor, be obedient, and respect those who have charge over us. But here’s the thing – Luther also says that this commandment carries equal expectations for those in power. He says:
In addition, it would also be well to preach to parents [and, by extension, those who have the role of leader]* on the nature of their responsibility, how they should treat those whom they have been appointed to rule. . . For God does not want scoundrels or tyrants in this office of authority . . . They should keep in mind that they owe obedience to God, and that, above all, they should earnestly and faithfully discharge the duties of their office, not only to provide for the material support of their children, servants, subjects, etc., but especially to bring them up to the praise and honor of God. Therefore do not imagine that the parental office [or the senatorial office, or the CEO office, or even the presidential office]* is a matter of your pleasure and whim. It is a strict commandment and injunction of God, who holds you accountable for it. (LC, 409). [Sections in brackets are this author’s.]
But then Luther goes on to say, “the real trouble is that no one perceives or pays attention to this. Everyone acts as if God gave us children for our pleasure and amusement, gave us servants merely to put them to work like cows or donkeys, and gave us subjects to treat as we please, as if it were no concern of ours what they learn or how they live. No one is willing to see that this is the command of the divine Majesty, who will solemnly call us to account and punish us for its neglect,” (LC 409 – 410).
This was exactly the case for those with power and authority in Israel who did not always carry out their duties in accordance with these commandments. And so God sent prophets from time to time to point out where there were discrepancies between the actions of the leaders and the commandments of God.
Always the prophets spoke on behalf of those most vulnerable – widows and children, the poor, the foreigner, the resident alien, and those with no power in a system that was becoming just like the oppressive nation of Egypt that had enslaved all of them generations ago.
Of course the leaders hated when the prophets spoke. Read about Elijah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, Micah. Read about John the Baptist and Jesus in the Gospels. They were all told by the leaders, and even by their fellow citizens, to sit down and keep their mouths shut. But no matter how they were pressured or threatened, and no matter how much they suffered, they would not back down from critiquing the leaders, and the systems of government, and the religious hierarchies, and any aspect of society that was exploiting the vulnerable. They never backed down from holding them accountable to God’s commands.
This year we mark the 500th anniversary of another prophet’s work – a young upstart monk named Martin Luther who saw the truth about how the religious leaders, in cahoots with the government, were breaking God’s commandments left and right and putting incredible burdens on people, while they sinned and abused their power with impunity. And so Luther, like the prophets of God who came before him, took a very strong and very public stand.
Just writing the Catechism was a radical act for its day. Most of us were taught to think about the Catechism as a morality document. How many of you went to Catechism classes, or sent your kids to Confirmation classes? You probably thought that you were sending them to learn the basics of the faith and to instill in them moral values to make them good people. And that is certainly part of what Luther intended.
But there is a revolutionary aspect to the Catechism that people often forget or want to gloss over. You see, educating people about what God expects not only for them, but for their religious and secular leaders – this is a form of resistance to tyranny. Because an educated population is a population that is not so easily controlled. That’s why they tried so hard to shut Luther up with court trials and excommunication. They were worried that pretty soon not just this one monk, but everyone will start rising up against tyranny. And, indeed, that’s what happened.
In today’s churches, many people still feel uncomfortable when they hear a prophetic sermon. Some people insist it’s not appropriate to talk about public issues in the pulpit. But the prophets and Luther would tell us this – for the person who is living with oppression, for the person who is being targeted and exploited by those who are abusing their power, for the Israelites, for the poor, for the foreigner, for that little boy in that house with the abusive father – they are praying for someone to speak out on their behalf. What is law for some is absolute gospel for another who is longing for a representative of God to see them, recognize their pain, and call to account those who are holding them captive, and then working to set them free.
You see, Luther saw the commandments as “God’s word for diagnosis, God’s X-ray, to show us our sin, our sickness,” (Schroeder, 41). If you go to the doctor for a check-up, and the doctor announces that something is wrong, you could get mad at the doctor. You could even seek out a second opinion. But wouldn’t you want to know the truth so that you could take the steps to address the problem?
I would caution that we not try to domesticate the Ten Commandments. If pastors and their parishioners refuse to apply the commandments to the justice issues of their day, if clergy are expected to never engage or critique those in power, then they become nothing more than “chaplains of empire,” instead of being ministers of God’s prophetic gospel.
A few days ago, a friend of mine sent me a picture of a group of men in Germany – the land of Luther – standing at attention saluting with the sieg heil. And they were all wearing pastor’s robes and clergy collars. And it made me ask myself – will I be a chaplain of empire or a preacher of the gospel?
Because, you see, within the law of the commandments is actually the gospel – the good news of new life that is possible when we address what is wrong – both within ourselves and within our society – and take steps to change it. The Ten Commandments are given to us because of God’s Divine love and care for everyone. They exist to protect relationships: relationships between parents and children, between family members, between friends, between citizens and their elected leaders, between CEOs and their employees, between human beings and the very planet itself.
God cares enough about us to care about our relationships. And that’s why we have the Commandments. Thanks be to God! That is good news indeed!
Leah Schade is the author of the book Creation-Crisis Preaching: Ecology, Theology and the Pulpit (Chalice Press, 2015). She is the Assistant Professor of Preaching and Worship at Lexington Theological Seminary in Kentucky, and an ordained minister of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
“Discipleship and Spirituality According to Luther’s Catechisms,” Edward H. Schroeder, Together by Grace: Introducing the Lutherans, edited by Kathryn A. Kleinhans (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 2016).
“The Large Catechism: The Ten Commandments”; The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Lutheran Church, Edited by Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2000).