We have begun “Affirming our Baptism” as Luther begins the Small Catechism: with the Ten Commandments. More than a list of things to avoid or things to do, the Ten Commandments show us what it looks like to live as God’s people; they show us the kind of community God has in mind.
For the last two weeks we’ve talked about the commands on the first tablet, or the way to journey with God. Today we start to look at the second tablet, or the ways to journey with each other and the neighbors God gives us.
In today’s Gospel reading (part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount) Jesus doesn’t simply repeat the commandments, he takes them and raises the bar. In a set of contrasts framed as “You have heard it said…but I say to you…” Jesus takes a couple of laws that are already difficult enough and ratchets them up to include not just actions, but also intentions.
Luther follows Jesus’ lead in raising the bar in his explanation of each commandment. For example, when it comes to commandment #8 “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor,” not only are we to “not tell lies about our neighbors, betray or slander them, or destroy their reputations,” but we are also to “come to their defense, speak well of them, and interpret everything they do in the best possible light.”
One might think that we as Christians would do this, but I think we are as culpable as anyone when it comes to filling in the gaps with the negative rather than explaining our neighbors’ actions in the kindest way. For example, if someone is driving slowly in front of me, I’m more likely to think that person can’t drive very well than I am to wonder if he or she is ill, can’t see, is being careful, or something to that effect. According to Jesus and Luther, that’s enough to convict me of breaking the eighth commandment.
Trying to keep the law in this way about drove Luther crazy (as it would anyone), until one day Luther understood anew what he read in the Scriptures: we will not be judged on our own righteousness (on our own ability to keep the commandments); instead, when God looks at us, God sees Jesus’ righteousness. God sees the righteousness of the one who came not to abolish the law (because the law reveals God’s grace, too), but who fulfills the law by being the grace of God for us.
The law, then, not only functions to keep good order or to show us the kind of community God has in mind, but it also shows our inability to perfectly keep the law, thus pointing us toward the one who fulfills it by being the grace of God for us. Luther begins the Small Catechism with the Ten Commandments because they point us toward God’s grace in Christ as the creeds confess.
Can you guess what follows the Ten Commandments in Luther’s Catechisms?