This is very clear in the first reading for today from Leviticus. Listen again to get a sense of the Law’s many demands:
You shall not render an unjust judgement; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbor. You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor: I am the Lord. You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord. (Leviticus 19:15-18)
But all of the commandments are beautifully summarized as Matthew records Jesus’ saying, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38This is the greatest and first commandment. 39And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 22:37-39) Jesus in Matthew echoes the Leviticus passage appointed for today with its focus on the love of neighbor.
This summary of the Law is actually very appropriate today when we have Reformation Sunday in mind. For neighbor love is at the heart of a Lutheran approach to social ethics.
2020 marks the 500th anniversary of the drafting of Martin Luther’s famous treatise, “Freedom of a Christian,” where he explores his great paradox: “A Christian is a perfectly free sovereign of all, subject to none; a Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.”
Luther basically concludes that because we are freed by Christ, justified by grace effective through faith, we are then perfectly free also to give ourselves away to our neighbors, no strings attached, focused entirely on their need and opportunity. Again, with Lutheran ethics, it’s all about neighbor love. Christian freedom is a freedom for the other, not a licentious freedom from constraints to do whatever we wish.
So, today’s Matthean summary of the commandments to love God and our neighbors as ourselves reinforces Lutheran, Reformation Sunday themes.
But here’s the thing from a Lutheran point of view: we cannot help but break God’s commandments to love God above all and our neighbors as ourselves. Moreover, we cannot help but fail to keep these basic commandments.
Matthew’s relentlessness concerning righteousness is actually also very much in keeping with Lutheran views of divine Law and how we both break it and fail to keep it. Matthew is the Gospel that zeros in on divine righteousness. Matthew is the one who zeros in on sins of the heart – even if you look upon someone with lust in your heart you commit adultery, so Matthew records Jesus saying in the Sermon on the Mount (cf. Matthew 5:28).
Matthew goes on and on like this, chapter after chapter until what I find is the culminating moment in the Gospel, at least from a Lutheran theological point of view: “When the disciples heard this, [that it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for the rich to enter the dominion of heaven] they were greatly astounded and said, ‘Then who can be saved?’ But Jesus looked at them and said, ‘For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible.’” (Matthew 19:25-26)
There we have it, the grace-filled, grace-full moment in an otherwise relentless set of hard exhortations and commands by our savior Christ as written in Matthew.
With the source of salvation firmly rooted in what God does and not what we do, I now want to share with you how Luther engages the commandments devotionally, how he incorporates into his own spirituality elaborations on features of God’s law.
In his letter to his barber, “A Simple Way to Pray,” a brief treatise on his prayer life, Luther writes, “Out of each commandment I make a garland of four twisted strands. That is, I take each commandment first as a teaching, which is what it actually is, and I reflect upon what our Lord God so earnestly requires of me here. Secondly, I make out of it a reason for thanksgiving. Thirdly, a confession and fourthly, a prayer petition.” (from a “Simple Way to Pray,” Martin Luther)
As a garland, each strand is wrapped around the others so as to be intimately inter-related. So, each commandment is taken up first as a teaching, secondly, an occasion for giving thanks to God, thirdly, an occasion for confessing our shortcomings in relation to the commandment, and fourthly, and finally, an occasion for prayer and petition, “God help us to do better.” One strand leads to the next and the next, and then back again.
Note that Luther starts with each commandment as a teaching. Not a command, not a rule, but a proclamation. God’s commandments as proclamatory teaching are thus statements of good news to us! In addition to Law, they are also expressions of God’s grace, the gospel, that God loves us enough to hold us accountable to God and to each other.
The commandments as proclamations of the gospel then naturally lead to our offering thanks to God for such grace and kindness given.
And then it’s in a spirit of thankfulness that we are moved to confess our shortcomings, the ways we break the commandments and the ways we fail to keep them. Our giving thanks leads us to say “we’re sorry.” What a lovely reversal of usual expectations from a human point of view where our thanks may follow our being forgiven.
Then having confessed our shortcomings, we are then moved to pray in relation to the commandments, petitioning to God for the Holy Spirit’s help with living according to the commandments, not breaking them, but also keeping them.
What compelling dynamism and spiritual energy with each commandment as a garland of four twisted strands. What enriching nuance that takes us beyond the commandments being typically reduced to being “thou shall” and “thou shall not” statements. In short, the commandments themselves, expansively understood, are full of God’s good and saving grace.
May these gospel insights in Lutheran accents deepen your appreciation for God’s law, God’s commandments and give you a willing heart in the Spirit to strive to keep them. Amen.
Now for your reflection and conversation at home:
- In what ways might you experience God’s lawful commands as expressions also of God’s grace?
- What concretely might it look like in your life now to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind?” Name examples.
- Likewise, what might it look like concretely in your life now for you to “love your neighbor as yourself?” Again, give examples.