Third Sunday in Lent – Sunday, March 4, 2018

March 4, 2018  

Exodus 20:1-17

What exactly are the Ten Commandments? I’m not asking what each one says, we just heard what each commandment commands. I’m asking what are they? How do we approach them? How do we incorporate them into our lives?

Martin Luther wrote in the Small Catechism that God said this about the Ten Commandments:

I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments. (ELW “Small Catechism of Martin Luther” p. 1161).

When asked what this means, Luther responds, again in the Small Catechism:

God threatens to punish all who break these commandments. Therefore we are to fear [God’s] wrath and not disobey these commandments. However, God promises grace and every good thing to all those who keep these commandments. Therefore we also are to love and trust [God] and gladly act according to [God’s] commands. (ELW “Small Catechism of Martin Luther, p. 1161).

So… setting aside the “fear” part of Luther’s explanation, are the commandments supposed to be etched in stone, planted in parks, hung on walls as moral absolutes, as rules we have to follow no matter what? Or are they something other? I would like us to think about them as something other, as moral principles. But first I need to explain the difference between an absolute and a moral principle.

Immanuel Kant was an 18th century philosopher who was the mastermind behind moral absolutism. A moral absolute is a rule we ought to follow, no matter what. Kant’s favorite example was lying. Kant believed no one should ever tell a lie. Ever. Never. Kant said we know that lying is wrong. That’s the known truth. It is wrong to lie. Even if we think the consequences of lying will be good, will bring comfort or save lives… we should never tell a lie because we don’t know for sure what the actual consequence will be. We might be 99.9% sure, but we don’t KNOW. What we do KNOW is that lying is wrong.

Which brings us to the 8th commandment. The 8th commandment tells us “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” In his explanation Luther wrote “We are to fear and love God, so that we do not tell lies…” (ELW “Small Catechism of Martin Luther” p. 1161).

Is this an absolute, as Kant might believe? Or is this commandment a principle?

A moral principle is a statement of belief we base our decisions on. If I am saying “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” I have to have a logical reason why bearing false witness is wrong to do. Simply saying “Because God said so” would be moral absolutism, but without logical reasoning. Here’s an example of logical reasoning:

Bearing false witness is deliberately deceptive.

Deliberate deception (using Luther’s logic) betrays people, it is slanderous.

Betrayal and slander destroy lives (again, using Luther’s logic).

Therefore, it is wrong to bear false witness.

God builds an entire covenant with God’s people based on ten commands. God has given us a covenant, a promise. If we live by this set of principles, if we base our decisions about how we ought to live based on these ten commands, we will be living as God intended for us to live. We will be living lives of love, love for and from God, and love for and from each other.

Read the commandments with eyes of love.

We “remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy” (3rd commandment) because we love God, because we value God’s word, because we want to keep God’s word holy. We gladly hear and learn it (Luther’s explanation of the 3rd commandment in the Small Catechism of Martin Luther, ELW p. 1160). This commandment guides the decisions we make about how we spend our Sundays, or our Sabbaths.

I’m thinking I want to rename the Ten Commandments. I want to make them the Ten Moral Principles.

Because that is what they are.

These ten commands are statements of belief. We believe it is wrong to bear false witness, to lie. We believe it is necessary to remember the Sabbath, to keep the Sabbath holy. We believe our parents deserve honor and respect. We believe these things and others because we love God, because we love others, because we know our covenant with God is rooted in a mutual relationship of LOVE.

The Ten Commandments, or Ten Moral Principles, are statements of our belief in God’s love.

As Luther wrote in his explanation, God will show God’s “steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love God…” (ELW “Small Catechism of Martin Luther p. 1161).

May we love God with all our hearts, all our souls, all our lives—as God loves us.