Thou Shalt Not: God’s Law in the Life of the Baptized – 9th & 10th Commandments

Thou Shalt Not . . .
God’s Law in the Life of the Baptized
The Ninth & Tenth Commandments

We have all heard the story about the young puppy prancing to and fro with his precious bone when he happens upon a pond. He sees his reflection in the water, but doesn’t realize that the “other dog” is actually himself. Seeing the bone in the mouth of the other dog, the puppy decides it would be better to have two bones instead of one. When he opens out his mouth to try to take the second bone, the bone he already had tumbles into the water, and slowly fades from visibility as it sinks to the murky bottom of the pond. The poor puppy is forced to trek sadly back home with nothing.

Such a story illustrates the reality embedded in the 9th and 10th Commandments. These commandments forbid coveting the possessions (9th) or lifestyle (10th) of others; not only are we forbidden to covet another person’s house or car or private jet, we also are forbidden to covet their wife, family, relationships, etc.

Why does our Lord condemn coveting? Luther comments that because acts of theft and adultery have already been addressed by previous commandments, these last two commandments are addressed to those people “who wish to be commended as honest and virtuous because they have not offended the previous commandments” [LC.I.300].

While Luther’s words are true, there is more to be said.  As this whole series on the 10 Commandments has tried to show, there is more at play in the Moral Law than simply making sure every sinner is accused of something. While the Law after the Fall always accuses sin, the Moral Law itself existed before sin, and it will continue to exist after. Because the accusatory nature of the Moral Law will pass away in the New Heavens and the New Earth while the Law itself remains, accusation is secondary to what these Commandments  teach us about how God designed creation to work.

These commandments acknowledge that coveting always leaves people enslaved to anxiety, uncertainty, and a lack of perspective.  Coveting, at its root, is rejecting and despising the gifts of God. Any basketball coach knows the frustration of a tall player who wants to shoot only 3-pointers rather than using his or her height to play by the basket. Many of us go through life ignoring the unique talents and abilities God has blessed us with personally. Instead, we covetously focus on the talents and abilities of others: thinkers wish they were more artistic, musicians wish they were more athletic, and so on.

But what does such coveting get us except depressed at what we cannot do? The great gift of God is that he has created a world filled with a variety of gifts and abilities. “Woe to him who struggles against his Maker. Does the clay say to him who forms it, ‘What are you making?’ or ‘Your work has no handles.’?” [Isaiah 45:9]. To take such a view of God’s gifts robs us of the opportunity to use those gifts in faith toward him and in service to others. The body of Christ, though one, has many diverse members. The foot is not useless simply because it is not a hand, and the eye is not useless due to the fact that it’s not a kidney [1 Corinthians 12]. The 10th Commandment expresses the reality that coveting or obsessing over the abilities and life of others while despising my own ends in anxiety as I try in futility to obtain something that was not given to me.

The 9th Commandment expresses the futility of coveting money or earthly objects. If your goal in life is simply to get more, then you will never have enough. Because there will always be one more thing to chase after and acquire, it is a life that must always end in failure. But our Lord did not create us to live lives perpetual failure. He created us to experience the joy of fulfillment, which comes through using our unique talents and abilities in service of others.

When considering coveting and finding fulfillment in the life God has given, we have to recognize that some lives include physical or mental handicaps, others have relationships are hurt by abuse, while still others struggle under the weight of poverty. But this is not the place to explore the sad ways that sin has corrupted God’s design for this once perfect creation. Rather, this is the place to recognize the original intent of God’s design as we see it through the Moral Law. For the Baptized child of God, the life, talents, interests, and very existence we enjoy are gifts from a God who loves us. To covet and obsess over someone else’s gifts and circumstances ignores the personal gifts each of us has been given and blinds us to the joy to be found in embracing those gifts by using them in service to others.

God’s Law in the Life of the Baptized: The Eighth Commandment

c5eb77b68fc5ba622774b03443c36e9bI’m not rude, just honest.” Statements like this one are common. Their intention is to absolve the speaker from any wrongdoing and allow him or her to say hurtful things with a clear conscience. The idea is simple: I can call you names, so long as I’m being honest; I can spread gossip about you, so long as I’m being honest; I can destroy your reputation, so long as I’m being honest.

This is the attitude the Eighth Commandment addresses. Yes, the commandment not to bear false witness against our neighbors means that we should not tell lies about people. Certainly this commandment forbids telling blatant untruths that would do harm to our neighbor, like falsely accusing another person of assault. These types of lies are what Luther called deadly lies.[1]

However, this commandment also speaks to us in our everyday life that is often more complicated. Take, for instance, simple lies told by parents who tell their children that the tooth fairy put a quarter under their pillow or by actresses who make a living playing different characters on stage and screen. These may be examples of people being intentionally deceptive, but each is an example of what Luther termed a playful lie. The Eighth Commandment is not concerned with such situations.

      Beyond harmful or playful lies, there are even times in real life where a lie is not only allowed, but the right thing to do. Luther called this the obliging lie, like when a woman’s friend deceives an abusive husband about whether his battered wife is hiding at her place. Such a lie is told to protect a neighbor from harm.

While it is good to teach our children not to lie, Luther viewed the fundamental duty of loving your neighbor as more important.[2] It is in this light that the true purpose of the Eighth Commandment becomes clear to the baptized children of God. In the words of the Large Catechism, “No one shall use the tongue to harm a neighbor, whether friend or foe. No one should say anything evil of a neighbor, whether true or false … Rather, we should use our tongue to speak the best about all people” [LC, TC 285].

This is so important because, in Luther’s words again, “It is a common, pernicious plague that everyone would rather hear evil than good about their neighbors. Even though we ourselves are evil, we cannot tolerate it when anyone speaks evil of us; instead, we want to hear the whole world say golden things of us. Yet we cannot bear it when someone says the best things about others” [LC, TC 264]. Considering the ease with which we can instantly share our thoughts electronically, the effortlessness with which we can spread rumors and gossip electronically, and the joy that the sinful nature finds in sharing scandalous stories, the devastation that can result from breaking this commandment can be seen quite clearly in our world today.

But our call remains the same: defend your neighbors, speak well of them, and explain everything in the kindest way possible. Or, if you prefer grandma’s wisdom, ‘If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all.’ It doesn’t really matter if what you have to say is true. What matters is whether what you have to say is something that builds a person’s reputation up or tears it down. God’s children are called to build each other up.

Certain exceptions are of course made when it comes to positions of authority whose purpose is to investigate accusations, like police, parents, or the like. If we are called to testify in court, the Eighth Commandment requires that we tell the truth, regardless of whether it’s flattering or not. But in our personal relationships, in private conversations, in the school hallways and the coffee shops, we are called to turn our ears into a tomb [LC, TC 266]. In this way, no member of the body of Christ is dishonored. Our Lord created us to live in community, in relationships with him and with the people around us. The Eighth Commandment encourages us to value the reputation of the other people in the community, bearing with each other, making the body of Christ on earth a place of refuge.

[1] See Rev. Hans Fiene’s article in The Federalist “The Group Behind The Planned Parenthood Videos Was Right To Deceive”

[2] Robert Kolb, Teaching God’s Children His Teaching

God’s Law in the Life of the Baptized: The Seventh Commandment

411fda32-7e95-42ab-9528-4c6b78bf0cce720e06ee-684c-4f6b-93c4-9b0772783cf0 (2)One of my favorite children’s books is Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree. The familiar story recounts the many ways that a tree provides for a boy she loves. He provides the boy with a place to play in his youth, apples to sell in young adulthood, and wood to build a home and a boat. When the boy has taken everything the tree has to give, leaving nothing but a stump, the tree still finds joy in providing the boy with a place to sit in his old age. Each time the tree gives something else to the boy, the book says, “And the tree was happy.” The boy who took everything from the tree discovered that he never had enough – he always wanted something more. The tree who lovingly gave to the boy found repeated happiness.

This is precisely the point of the Seventh Commandment. The commandment against stealing covers more than giving yourself the “five finger discount” on that candy bar in the checkout lane. It covers much more than breaking into another person’s home to take their stuff. It is concerned with our attitude toward possessions in general.

In the Large Catechsim, Luther applies this commandment to both employers and employees. He writes that “thievery is the most common craft and the largest guild on earth” [LC, TC.228]. He speaks of business owners who rob their customers through dishonest measurements and false advertising; he speaks of business owners who rob their employees through unfair wages and working conditions; he speaks of employees who rob their employers through laziness or half-hearted effort on the job; he speaks of governments who rob their citizens under a cloak of legality; he speaks of citizens who rob their government through hiding income or other deceitful reporting.

In short, he speaks about how selfish and self-centered behavior destroys relationships. Our Lord created us to live in community – people gathered together as families, families gathered as communities, communities gathered as nations. Within these communities, it is our duty “not to harm our neighbors, to take advantage of them, or to defraud them by any faithless or underhanded business transaction. Much more than that, [we] are also obligated faithfully to protect [our] neighbors’ property and to promote and further their interests, especially when they get money, wages, and provisions for doing so” [LC, TC 233].

This commandment addresses the war between greed and giving, a war which is raging inside the heart of each baptized child of God. As our Synodical President has noted in A Little Book on Joy, our Lord would have us experience the joy of giving. The Apostle Paul says that godly generosity produces hilarity in our hearts [2 Cor. 9:7]. The love of money renders God’s children cheap and joyless, often under the false pretense of responsibility [Harrison, “The Joy of Giving”]. The Seventh Commandment’s prohibition against stealing is by extension a prohibition against the love of money, for like the little boy in The Giving Tree, the love of money will always leave us joyless and unsatisfied. How many relationships have been torn apart by greed? How many marriages have broken down over money? How many hours of work have been ruined by economic hand-wringing? How much joy has avarice sucked out of our lives?

The Seventh Commandment calls us to a godly perspective of the material things of this world. They are gifts from God given to people to be used in service of others. We are not to destroy our relationship with God or with the people around us by dishonest or manipulative gain. Those relationships are too important for that; they are a gift from God to be cared for and not so casually cast aside. The things of this world are not ours by right; they are gifts from God. How we use the things of this creation is not left up to us; we are stewards of God’s creation. We are called to be servants to others, not slaves to things, for it is in loving service to others that we experience the joy God has in store for our earthly relationships.

When we ignore this built-in dynamic to creation, the result is joyless relationships in which we are constantly wondering who is ripping me off. That is not the life our Lord has in mind for us. There is no joy like watching your child, spouse, or parent open the perfect gift you gave them for Christmas. Such is the joy of giving. Such is the joy the Seventh Commandment has in mind when it tells us not to steal other people’s things, but to find joy in helping them to improve and protect what God has given them.

God’s Law in the Life of the Baptized: The Sixth Commandment

LSB Icon_066 (2)Anyone who has visited one of the National Parks has probably heard some form of the slogan: “Take only pictures, leave only footprints.” The goal is for each park visitor to leave the park in good condition for future visitors by not leaving graffiti behind or taking the sea shells or wild flowers. The slogan asks people to think beyond immediate gratification to the wellbeing of the park and the future enjoyment of other visitors.

The Sixth Commandment is cut from the same cloth. It is God’s way of teaching us that sexuality is not simply a means for personal satisfaction; it is a gift from him designed to be shared with another. Of all the commandments, the one about God’s gift of sexuality is the most often treated as being only concerned with what people can’t do. More than any other commandment, it is treated as if the only reason it exists is so that God can make life miserable or punish people for being bad.

That is not the case. Like the other commandments, its primary concern is telling us who God created us to be and how we are designed to work. Like the other commandments of the second table, it speaks to the different relationships we are given with others. Rather than getting bogged down in the many ways this commandment could be broken, God’s children are called to embrace the gift and freedom that this commandment brings into our lives and relationships.

Yes, the Sixth Commandment is about sexual freedom. Despite the common view of marriage as limiting sexuality, marriage actually frees God’s gift of sexuality to be what it was created to be. God’s gift of sexuality is designed to be a special way in which a man and a woman give themselves entirely to the other physically as part of a unique relationship unlike any other.

While much of popular culture embraces the notion of “casual sex,” the emotional bond created in a sexual union cannot be denied. Think of the emotional pain that follows not only a divorce, but the ending of any sexual relationship. It is no mere coincidence that even in a sexually permissive culture like our own infidelity is still taboo. Even Hollywood recognizes this bond. How many movies or television shows are based around the premise of two people being “friends with benefits” until one of them recognizes the strong bond between them.

The undeniable bond created by a sexual union may be the source of many problems for those who are trying to live in a promiscuous culture, but it is helpful in its intended context: marriage. Sex is created to be one way that husbands and wives remain committed to each other through the many ups and downs of life together. This “adhesive” quality of sex is its strength, not a necessary evil that must be dealt with as one moves from bed to bed.  The very quality our world views as one of the biggest burdens associated with sex is in fact one of its greatest qualities in the eyes and design of God.

This bond is not merely hypothetical. It expresses itself in the birth of children, which is the natural result of a sexual relationship. While humans throughout history have spent countless hours trying to discover new ways to have sexual relationships while avoiding the “risk” of children, the simple fact remains that the birth of children is woven into the fabric of human sexuality. This too this is a good thing! Joining together to raise children draws husbands and wives together. Godly sexuality is designed to help God’s people focus on the needs of others by binding a man and a woman to one another in a unique life-long commitment and by joining them together as they raise the children that result from such a union.

Much more could be said about the way sin has ruined this great gift of God.  The resources are certainly out there for men and women who want to discover more fully how sex outside marriage, homosexual sex, pornography, or other sexual sins affect the whole life of a person. Additionally, the effects of the Fall are seen beyond temptations to sexual sins. There are also resources for those whose godly sexual relationships (through no fault of their own) have not resulted in the gift of children, or for those who have never known the gift of marriage.

But sin’s corruption of a gift does not destroy what that gift was first created to be. Sexuality remains a great gift of God designed to bind husband and wife together in a companionship unlike any other human relationship. The Sixth Commandment is not about what you can’t do. It is a gift from God, designed to be part of a lifelong human relationship unlike any other.

God’s Law in the Life of the Baptized: The Fifth Commandment

gift of lifeThe TV show Seinfeld provided laughter in many homes for 172 episodes. For almost a decade, America watched the show about nothing. Those who remember when Seinfeld aired its last episode likely remember the disappointment that followed in the hearts of many of its most loyal fans. At the end of it all, the four characters wind up in prison for failing to help another person who was being mugged. They violated the “Good Samaritan” Law, and their inaction resulted in incarceration. The show about nothing ended with the characters in trouble for doing nothing.

The Fifth Commandment speaks a similar message to the baptized children of God. Not only are we prohibited from ending life that we do not have the authority to end, we are called to be active in our support and defense of life. With regard to the ending of life, it is important to note that the commandment is not simply “You shall not kill,” but “You shall not murder.” The Fourth Commandment dealt with authority. Paul makes it clear in Romans 13 that the government has authority to take life in defense of life, to send soldiers and police out to defend the lives of its citizens and to curb the effects of evil in the world. Such ending of life is not murder, but is the justice of God meted out in this world.

The Fifth Commandment forbids us from taking life without authority. While the Bible certainly has examples of God using Israel or other nations to enact his divine justice by ending lives, individual Christians are told not to seek revenge for personal grievances, but to turn it over to God [Romans 12:19]. Other instances of ending life without authority are far more common than vengeance killing in our day and age. Our world as a whole condones the ending of unborn and aging life. It is common to hear of a person taking his or her own life. We have not been given the authority to end life in such circumstances, but are called to be people of mercy who maximize care for those who suffer from depression, an unplanned pregnancy, or the loss of abilities that comes with old age.

God’s children are called to protect and defend the gift of life, even the lives of our enemies.  This godly love for life comes from the realization that each day of our lives is a gift. It comes with the Psalmist who beholds the majesty of the universe and asks, “What is man that You are mindful of him, or the son of man that You care for him?” [Psalm 8:4]. It comes from the humble confession that I am not as in control of my existence as I like to believe I am. I do not cause my heart to beat or my lungs to work – these are gifts from God. Each day is a gift from God. Life itself is a gift from God, and we as his people are called to defend this gift in ourselves as well as in others.

Not only are we called to defend life in this commandment, but also we are called to honor the living. We are called not only to avoid the ending of another’s life, but also to avoid the anger or hatred of heart that would lead to such an action of the hand [1 John 3:15]. We are called to avoid killing another by tongue or speech [Matthew 12:36], by speaking words that would kill another person’s spirit or drive them to take their own life. The sinful tongue is full of poison, and its bite can be fatal [James 3:8]. Rather than using our tongues to make the life of another person miserable, we are called to speak words of kindness and forgiveness, for these are the words that Jesus has spoken to us.

While most people make it from cradle to grave without actively ending the life of another human being, no one goes that time without speaking hurtful words or harboring hateful thoughts. Thanks be to God for the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Thanks be to God that Jesus is in heaven now speaking words that give life, words that defend us, words that cover our sin [1 John 2:1]. Because such words are spoken of us, we speak such words of others. Because we have been given the gift of life, we treat our life and the lives of others as the gift that it is, supporting and defending it at every turn.

God’s Law in the Life of the Baptized: The Fourth Commandment

Luther Parents (2)

There’s an important distinction to be made in life between power and authority. Power is the ability to act; authority is the right to act. There are literally billions of people in the world who have the power to use a knife to cut open another human being, but that doesn’t mean they have the authority. Rather, licensed surgeons have the authority to cut open another human being while performing surgery. The difference between surgery and assault is one of authority. The same could be said of police officers or soldiers and their weapons. The power or ability to do something is not the same thing as the authority or right to do something.

The fourth commandment deals with authority. It addresses how God’s children are to treat those in authority over us in this life and how God’s children are to treat others over whom they have authority. There is a popular tendency to distrust authority, reject authority, or act as if I am the only authority in my own life. While such attitudes are the understandable result of the many ways that sinful people have abused authority over time, they display a lack of appreciation for godly authority. The Law of God shows us how we work best, how humanity works best, and how families and relationships work best.  Therefore, the baptized children of God rejoice in the gift of authority, recognizing that God himself is the one who put authority into this creation for our good.

The most basic authority God has established in creation is that of the family. The authority of governments, teachers, doctors, etc. is derived from the authority of the family. When God first created people he put them in families. Every person is born into a family. When families live in communities they organize themselves into governments, appoint educators to share the parents’ teaching responsibility, raise up doctors to share the parents’ responsibility to keep their children healthy, etc. But we should not forget that when God places a new life into this creation, he gives the care of that life first into the hands of the child’s mother and father. Those individuals whom parents enlist to help care for their child ultimately draw their authority from the home.

The fourth commandment teaches God’s children to receive this authority as a gift. We do this first by honoring the authority that the father and mother have over their children. Children honor their parents and obey them, for God has placed the wellbeing of that child into their hands. Likewise, even as adults the baptized children of God obey the authorities in our lives: the government with its tax laws and traffic laws, bosses and managers who require that a coversheet be placed on all TPS Reports, or whatever other authority we find over ourselves. This authority is a necessary part of people living together in community.

The baptized children of God also honor the gift of authority by not abusing it when we find ourselves in a position of authority over someone else.  Parents use their God-given authority to care for the physical needs of their children by providing food, clothing, shelter, medicine, and the like. Parents also have authority to care for the spiritual needs of their children by remembering them in their prayers, bringing them to the services of God’s house, teaching them God’s Word, and the like. Rather than lazily allowing someone else to care for their children or selfishly giving in to the desire to have their children “like” them or consider them “cool” parents, God’s people are called to honor their authority and take their responsibility for the wellbeing of their children seriously.

Likewise, bosses or managers or police officers or politicians are not to use their authority as a means to abuse those in their care. Instead, the authority is used for the protection and wellbeing of those entrusted to them. Authority is never given for the sake of the ones with authority, but always for the best interests of the one who has been entrusted to their care. God has established a hierarchy in his creation: some govern, some are governed; some lead, some are led. This hierarchy and the authority entrusted to certain people in it are intended to ensure that all people can live in peace and without fear of having their property or their person harmed. The baptized children of God honor his gift of authority when they take seriously any authority that has been given to them, using it as it was designed and for the betterment of the people under them.

God’s Law in the Life of the Baptized: The Third Commandment

wordKids learn from an early age that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. The food eaten early in the day gives one energy for the day’s tasks. But while breakfast may be the most important meal of the day, it is not the only one. People eat throughout the day. Some people, like myself, would prefer to “graze” throughout the day rather than sitting down and eating a few big meals. Others like the big farmhouse breakfast, hearty sandwich for lunch, and 5 course dinner. Whatever the case may be, healthy people take time to eat. If we didn’t eat, our bodies would not have the strength necessary to fight disease. We would not have the strength to accomplish whatever tasks lay before us. We need sustenance if we are going to make it through the days, months, and years of our lives.

The Third Commandment deals with sustenance, not of our bodies, but of our souls. The new creation given to us in the water of baptism feeds on the Word of God. Without consistent time in that word, our souls will become weakened and more susceptible to the temptations of the devil. Our Father in heaven knows we need this continued time in his Word to survive, so he has given us the 3rd Commandment: “Remember the Sabbath Day by keeping it holy.” As Paul tells us, things are made holy through the Word of God and prayer [1 Timothy 4:5]. The Sabbath day, then, is a time set aside to be in God’s Word and in prayer.

As with the rest of the commandments, this is a gift, not a curse. The Third Commandment is tantamount to a parent telling a child to be sure to eat a good breakfast before going on a field trip. The parent knows that if the child doesn’t eat before going to the zoo with her class then she will not have the energy to make it all the way back to the giraffe habitat. The parent’s commandment to eat is given for the benefit of the child; it is not given simply because the parent needs the emotional fulfillment of seeing the child eat the breakfast that mom worked hard to prepare. What is at stake is the health and wellbeing of the child, not the fragile psyche of the parent.

So also the gift of the 3rd Commandment. God’s children are called to set aside time to worship God and be fed by his Word not because he somehow needs it to survive. It is not as if God’s self-esteem is so low that without human praise he begins to become somehow less God. The Third Commandment is not ultimately about God; it is about his children. It is about the baptized. It is about the people of God having the strength needed to make it through the challenges and trials of everyday life. It would foolish be to attempt to drive Route 66 from Chicago to Santa Monica without stopping for gas. You’ll never make it. You need to replenish your fuel if you’re going to make it that far. So also God’s children need the regular refueling of Word and Sacrament. The gift of baptism brings us into the Christian life so that we can spend the rest of our days living in that baptismal grace, “fueling up” on God’s Word so that we can make it all the way to our eternal destination.

In his small catechism Luther explained the Third Commandment like this: “We should fear and love God so that we do not despise preaching and his Word, but hold it sacred and gladly hear and learn it.” We hold it sacred because without it our faith is lost. We hold it sacred because it is the heavenly food that nourishes us from day to day. We hold it sacred because it presents to us time and time again the honest truth about our sin and the sweet release of our salvation. The Third Commandment in the life of the baptized is a gift, the gift of spiritual nourishment and renewal, the gift of God’s Word.