Tales of a Midwest Lutheran on the East Coast

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Love and the 12 Commandments

Grace to you and peace from God our father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ. Amen.

I am a big Jane Austen fan. I’ve read her books, I’ve seen the movies, multiple times, so I was both surprised and delighted when last year it was announced that one of her little-known novellas made it onto the big screen. Imagine, the first big Jane Austen hit in YEARS! It was a BIG DEAL! (At least for me!)

It’s called “Love and Friendship,” based on Austen’s short story “Lady Susan,” a widow who uses ever person and situation to her own advantage. Not even the 10 Commandments are safe from her. She tried to convince her daughter to marry a very silly but very rich farmer by using the fourth commandment. Which is……? Take a wild guess? That’s right, “honor your father and mother.”

But this rich farmer-gentleman, named Sir Martin, has his own opinions about the 10 commandments. While on a visit to Lady Susan’s family, he hope to impress them by talking about “the old prophet who came down from the mount with tablets bearing the Twelve Commandments.”

When he is told that there only 10, he exclaims, “Really?? Only 10 must be obeyed. Excellent. Well, then, which two to take off? …Many of the ‘thou shalt nots’ – don’t murder, don’t covet… one simply wouldn’t do anyway! Because they are wrong.”

Yes, Sir Martin, they indeed are wrong. I think that many of us, myself included, can tick off most of the 10 commandments and think “well, this week I didn’t murder anyone, I didn’t rob a bank, I didn’t go on a date with someone who is married, and I haven’t wrongfully used the Lord’s name. All things considered, I think I’m actually doing pretty well.”

The Atlanta Falcons in last week’s Super Bowl game might have gone into half time thinking the same thing, when the score was 21-3 in their favor. That they had this “winning the Super Bowl thing” locked in, in the bag, and for the rest of the game they could sit back and phone it in. But we all know what happened in the second half. The lesson of that game was clear – you gotta show up for the second half of the game.

The last two weeks in the Sermon on the Mount were the wind up, believe it or not. You are blessed. You are salt and light. And now, this week Jesus is really digging into the hard stuff, the kind of topics that would have make most people walk away if he had started his sermon here. This is the second half of the game, where the rubber meets the road about what it means to be a disciple. Following Jesus doesn’t give us a pass. In fact, the standards will be higher and the stakes will be greater, and our actions under more scrutiny.

After I bought my car last year, I got a Luther Rose magnet to put on the bumper. When that went on, and especially now that I have the official “Family of God” sticker on the back there too, I find have to check myself while driving. Just the other day, someone cut me off to get into the left turn lane, only to notice what I could already see: their lane had been blocked off by a police officer. I admit, I had some very not nice thoughts about them, and I almost didn’t let them back into my lane. But, not only was it the right thing to do, but I also knew that I had to do it because of who the back of my car advertises – Jesus and Family of God. Did I want to let them in? No way. But successful driving not just about what is lawful. It’s about what’s best for the flow of traffic as a whole. In other words, how would Jesus drive?

The rules of the road that God gave us is the 10 Commandments. But it seems that even these 10 are not enough for us. We always seem to find our way around following the rules. Squeaking through at the end of a yellow turn arrow because we know there is time buffer between lights. Parking crooked because we’re in a hurry. Following a little too close to the car ahead of us. Been there, done that. But… technically NOT illegal.

 So Jesus takes on a couple of the well-known commandments that we might feel pretty confident about, and – surprise! Jesus ups the ante for those of us who claim to follow him. Which is not very nice of Jesus at all.

“You have heard it said you shall not murder.” But, according to Jesus, it turns out that if we are angry with any of our fellow human beings, if we insult them and call them names, when we convince ourselves that this is acceptable behavior, we have made them into less than people. When we reduce the humanity of any of our neighbors, forgetting that they too bleed and have feelings, we are putting our own lives above theirs. It is as if we have killed them in our minds. Been there, done that.

In Martin Luther’s Small Catechism, Luther provided explanations for each of the commandments. For the 5th commandment, “you shall not murder,” Luther writes: “We are to fear and love God, so that we neither endanger nor harm the lives of our neighbors, but instead help and support them in all life’s needs.”

Keeping the 5th commandment is NOT about NOT killing, pardon the double negative. Truly keeping the 5th commandment in the Jesus Regime also means not labeling people or not insulting them and their families. AND, as Luther adds, it also means living together in unity and helping our neighbors out when they are in need. 

The same goes for Jesus’ take on the 6th commandment – “you shall not commit adultery.” Luther’s explanation reads: “you are to fear and love God, so that we lead pure and decent lives in word and deed, and each of us loves and honors his or her spouse.” Jesus takes it a step farther and says this shocking statement that is one of the banes of preachers everywhere this week: “everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” 

It could have been worse, folks. This could have been my FIRST week with you instead of my THIRD. But bear with me. This is not the first time that Jesus goes into some pretty uncomfortable territory, and it won’t be the last.

When a man looks at a woman in this way, he sees her only as function of what she can give to him, he denies her autonomy as a person, and he reduces her to commodity be acquired. Take a look at any magazine in the grocery aisle, every billboard, every commercial on TV. 

When a half-dressed, photo-shopped female body is used to sell a product, she too becomes an inanimate object rather than a person with hopes, dreams, desires, and a will of her own. And so it has been throughout human history, before advertising was even invented. Women’s bodies have always been feared, shamed, and controlled.

With this additions to the 6th commandment, Jesus isn’t telling women to cover up because “boys will be boys.” Jesus is instead calling boys to be men, to put an end to centuries of blaming and shaming, and to remind them that God created women to be people too.
Jesus lived at a time where women could not have a career, make a living, or live independently from her husband or male relatives. Marriage provided financial stability and the assurance of a future through children. The idea of romantic love, or our obsession with a holiday that celebrates romance and couples would be completely foreign to them.

So imagine divorce at this time. Divorce is a traumatic, life-shaking event no matter what the context. Imagine though, that a woman in Jesus’s time is divorced by her husband – because it is the husband who initiates this, not the wife – what are her options? She would either be homeless, or go back to live with her family of origin in shame and disgrace… or she could get married again. All pretty bleak options. All leave her with even less value in the eyes of her culture.

Imagine the kind of man who would pursue such a woman at her most vulnerable, after her previous husband had used his societal advantage to cast her aside. Such a man is taking advantage of this woman when she is at her most defenseless.  He participates in and condones in the first man’s sin for his own gain.

By calling this a sin, Jesus is affirming that, in the words of a colleague of mine, “Each person is sacred and deserves to be treated that way.” In Jesus’s time, and in ours, the sacredness of each life is threatened when anyone is treated as less than human. In Jesus’s time, Jesus said that meant for men to be faithful to their marriage promises in a world where women had much less power and choice than they do now. In our own time, I believe that Jesus would say divorce is the most loving option when it is the only way that the sacredness of human life can only be upheld, and that remarriage between two consenting adults who respect the sacred humanity of one another is never wrong.

Love in its truest form is more than just red hearts and a nice dinner. Love is seeing the needs of the other as important. Love is living in a relationship built on mutual kindness.  Love is seeing every person as sacred and deserves to be treated that way. Love is how we were created to live with one another.

God is love. And God created us to love. Love gives us life. Jesus is the love of God with skin on, literally love fully fleshed out.

Love is hard. It calls us to do difficult things. Love asks us for our words and our deeds to be life-giving, not life-limiting. Love calls us to walk the truth path of who we were created and called to be: no more and no less than beloved Children of God.

As it turns out, silly Farmer Martin from the movie “Love and Friendship” was right all along. When Jesus was asked which commandments were the greatest, Jesus actually gave us two more, clever man: “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’.” (Matthew 22:37–39)  Ten plus two equals twelve. There you have it. The Twelve Commandments. Only, we don’t get to “leave any of them off.”

When we leave here today, as we brush the crumbs from coffee hour from our coats, we’ll hop in the car, and I know I’ll probably break at least three commandments on the way home. But we keep driving, knowing that we don’t believe in a God of Rules. Our God is a God of Love and Friendship and Forgiveness. So don’t worry about trying to keep at the commandments all at once. Just keep the one that’s right in front of you. Take it one day at a time. We got this. And God’s got you. Amen.

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