The second use of the law is as the mirror. It shows us our sins. One of the old Rabbi’s ways of using the Decalogue was to line up one through five on the first side and six through ten on the other and use it as a diagnostic. (Sorry any reformed/evangelical readers, Calvin and Zwingli messed up your order because two commandments on coveting offended their reason and they needed to bolster their iconoclasm. The numbering used is the Jewish, Catholic, Lutheran.) If your community or society was engaged in rampant adultery (sixth commandment), the deep problem was idolatry (1st Commandment). That particular insight is often found in the prophets where Israel is compared to the harlot. Likewise if your culture is driven by coveting stuff (“ox, donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor”, 10 Commandment), the deeper problem is with the 5th (don’t murder). The presenting problem may be late stage capitalism, but we are willing to make commodities of everything because we have already made commodities of each other. We can see this in cases big and small, the over 1 million aborted a year to the Chicago murder rate. And if you take Jesus in the Sermon in the mount at his word that hating your neighbor is murder, well our every 4 year festival of hatred where the people wearing the other color are compared to Hitler and real friends are sacrificed should be troubling.
A particular outgrowth of that media cycle that I find almost like cat-nip is the attributing of the worst possible meaning to whatever the red/blue flag bearer said yesterday. Charity assumes that what was said has some reason behind it, that there is some way in which it captures truth, until the pure malevolence of the speaker is proven. I may not understand it, but it is my moral obligation to attempt to or at the least assume there is one. This is the 8th commandment’s territory. You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor which Luther glossed with a positive force of “defend him, speak well of him and put the best construction on everything.” Not being a Pollyanna type, more specifically being a hyper-analytical person who likes winning, I have too often put those traits not in the service of charity but destruction, of figuring out the worst possible meaning and imputing that to the speaker. It has been a conscious effort and struggle of mine to control that impulse. It is depressing how often I fail.
That might be the sin that lives in my members, the battle against the flesh, but if I look at the parallel commandment, the 3rd (Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy), I think I am staring at what the world is attacking. When asking what does this mean Luther wrote that “we do not despise preaching and His Word, but hold it sacred and gladly hear and learn it.” That Sabbath commandment to Luther is about our handling of the Word of God. As Jesus would say “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” The Word of God is given to us for our good. If I am willing to intentionally distort my neighbor’s words, that stems first from my willingness to impugn God’s word. When God’s Word is not taken as sacred, it is real easy to treat my neighbor’s word as trash.
We can lament that the world does not take the Word seriously as Alan Jacob’s article in Harper’s a few weeks ago did, but we really should have no expectation of the world doing so. That was part of my response a couple of weeks ago which I posted here. It is another thing when the church neglects the Word. This interview with Kenneth Briggs, the “godbeat” editor for many years at places like the New York Times, talks about what he has seen. His pungent phrase is that the Bible has “become a museum exhibit, hallowed as a treasure but enigmatic and untouched.” Until the church is willing to reform its house back into what Luther called “God’s mouth-house”, the place where the Word forms us deeply, we will find it tough living with our neighbors. The church is the salt of the earth. If we can’t treat each other with charity, how will the world know?
I occasionally get asked why I insist on or put so much effort behind things like VBS, Sunday School, Bible Class and confirmation when the numbers are few. My response is usually something like “that is the call”. If the Pastor doesn’t put the Word first, then who will. Do I worry, especially around budget season, that someday that focus will leave me without a paycheck? I’d be lying if I said no. Another thing to repent from – “each day has enough trouble of its own, don’t fret”. So I turn back to the call, to call out all to repentance for the Kingdom of God is near, and to proclaim that now, in your hearing, is the year of the Lord’s mercy. Or taking that out of the high Biblical register, it’s Rally Day. Sunday School and Bible classes are starting again. I’d invite you to set aside a Sabbath to hold it sacred and gladly hear and learn that Word.