Last month, both the Adult Catechism and the Confirmation class spent a good deal of time exploring the 10 Commandments and Martin Luther’s explanations for them. We discussed many aspects of the Commandments such as the numbering of the Commandments (Lutherans number them differently from Jews who number them differently from Catholics), the question of whether some Commandments are more important than others (Luther argued that they were written in descending order of importance), and other interesting and challenging questions. One of the most interesting conversations that came up in both classes involved Luther’s expansive understanding of the Commandments. By this I am referring to Luther’s creative interpretations for what the “heart” of a Commandment might be. For example, in his explanation of the fifth commandment, “You shall not murder,” Luther says not simply that we must not “endanger nor harm the lives of our neighbors,” but he also adds, “instead [we are to] help and support them in all of life’s needs.”
This expansive practice was not unique to Luther. Jesus too understood the commandments of God to be more extensive than their surface meanings. In his sermon on the mount Jesus teaches, “You have heard… it said… ‘You Shall not murder…’ but I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment… and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.” (Mt. 5:21-22).
I think that Jesus was teaching his disciples that our anger and destructive words can be as catastrophic as physical murder. In fact, our anger and words can lead to death in a literal sense. Destructive words often dehumanize others in the guise of jokes or a “venting” of anger. Our anger can turn our brothers and sisters into something that is wholly other and it is easier to ignore, abuse, or kill that which is other- what we cannot identify with ourselves. I believe that this is what has happened to Jews in the early 20th century; Palestinians and Israelis; Irish Catholics and Protestants; whites, blacks, and latinos in America, and countless others. Jesus saw that not murdering others by your own hands was not enough to encompass God’s will. We have to love our neighbors by our own hands too.
Luther’s Small Catechism is nearly 500 years old, yet it contains lessons and principles that continue to challenge us today. It teaches that our understanding of God’s will in our lives is not so limited as to encompass merely our own personal piety. God’s will is not for us to remain pure, yet isolated. We are not just to avoid murder, go to church on Sunday, avoid stealing, and have sexual relations with only our spouse. Instead, God wills us to be in loving relationship with our neighbors. Those previously mentioned virtues are important, but they are not all that God wills in our lives. God desires us to care for each others’ “life needs,” to listen for God’s word, to support others in their financial troubles, and to love and honor our spouses or partners.
Jesus said that the most important commandments are to love God “with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind,” and to love our neighbors as ourselves (Mt. 22:37-39). Jesus and then Luther understood that all of God’s commandments must read in light of an imperative to love God and our neighbors. Love is no static force, but it is dynamic and engaging. Love demands that we not only avoid harming our neighbors, but that we actively support goodness in their lives. The Commandments as understood by Luther and interpreted by Jesus call us to integrative and loving action with the world.