The final installment of this year's Lenten catechetical series, "God's Design for Life." Here we focus on Commandments 7-10 under the theme "Life with Gifts."
7th Commandment - God’s Gift of Possessions
Let’s say you want to find out how well a child knows the Commandments. You ask the young boy or girl to tell you the Ten Commandments. They pause and think. Then they proudly say, “You shall not steal.” Funny how the first commandment they think of is #7—as if the Ten Commandments didn’t begin until #7! Yet somewhere, somehow they learned that particular commandment.
I would guess that we always need to learn and relearn this commandment. You see, this commandment has to do with taking advantage of your neighbor in any way that makes him lose something. Yes, once again, God is protecting your neighbor from you. You are tempted to look at your neighbor’s possessions and take them. Perhaps you wouldn’t do so outright, as a burglar or pickpocket. This commandment also catches you red-handed permitting damage to your neighbor’s possessions or property, wasting things, or neglecting your neighbor’s goods. It applies to being careless or lazy on the job or at school. It applies to stealing the boss’s or the teacher’s time or materials. It certainly applies to any kind of business transaction that overcharges or is underhanded or passes off bad merchandise as top-shelf stuff. And, yes, it even applies to stealing from God by withholding tithes and offerings. We have to agree with what the Large Catechism says about thievery: “this is the most common trade and the largest union on earth” (LC I:228).
Instead of stealing and conniving, God’s design for you is to help your neighbor to improve and protect his possessions and income. (Yes, this does fly in the face of “Occupy Wall Street” movements and making “the rich” pay “their fair share”!) Love looks out for your neighbor’s benefit, not your own. God is gracious enough to give every person the possessions he or she needs—the possessions and wealth He wants them to manage. Whether the possessions are many or few, God gives each of you exactly what you need and what He wants you to manage. This, then, frees you up to help and serve your neighbor as you are able. God always gives you the money and possessions you need. So you don’t have to worry about seizing and taking from your neighbor. In fact, the money and possessions that God gives you are a rich supply for you to use, not only for your own needs, but also to help and share with those in need. On top of all this, you have a precious promise. Proverbs 19:17 says, “Whoever is generous to the poor lends to the Lord, and he will repay him for his deed.” You have a very rich Lord Jesus. He is certainly sufficient for your needs, and He will not let you lack anything you need.
8th Commandment - God’s Gift of a Good Reputation
This commandment deals with how you use your tongue regarding your neighbor. No one can live peacefully without a good reputation. So God wants you to preserve your neighbor’s good reputation. But that’s also precisely where you and I fail and fall. Often your neighbor’s reputation is the last thing you think about. The tongue gets going a mile a minute, and, before you know it, you’ve injured your neighbor—either to his face or behind his back—and often without realizing it. Something about your neighbor disagrees with you, and the tongue goes to work gossiping and slandering. You do it at home, at work, at church, at school, over the phone, even—and especially!—on social media. St. James knew what he was talking about: “no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so” (James 3:8-10).
Protecting someone else’s reputation is one of the smallest yet most important good works. And it’s God’s design for life. As St. Paul says, “Love does no wrong to a neighbor” (Rom. 13:10). Here are some tips, from Luther in his Large Catechism, for protecting God’s gift of a good reputation. First, if a neighbor sins against you, don’t talk to others. Instead, go talk to your neighbor. God wants you to win your brother back from his sin. Second, when you hear gossip, no matter how true it may be, defend your neighbor, no matter what his faults are. Third, if you cannot make official charges before the proper authorities, then make your ears a tomb and bury your neighbor’s sin. Now, you and I are going to stumble in keeping this commandment. And when you do, run to Jesus Christ, crucified and risen. He is your Neighbor who was spoken against and slandered. He was the victim of false testimony. And because of that, He won your forgiveness. And His forgiveness for you means that God does not speak against you, but for you. In fact, because of Jesus crucified and risen, God your Father puts the best construction on you and your life—and on your neighbor.
9th & 10th Commandments - God’s Gift of Contentment
Now we come to the real snare. These two commandments on coveting will catch you every time. You see, these commandments are directed against the most upright, good, religious people—you and me. Just when you think you’ve kept the other commandments, along comes this command: “Don’t covet!” In the other commandments, God deals with our actions. Now, in these last two commandments, He zeroes in on our hearts and desires. And again, God is protecting your neighbor from you. Coveting is looking to get what God did not give you. Several years ago, the title of one Lutheran Witness article described coveting in a very picturesque way. It said, “Thou shalt not suffer thine eyes to sprout hands.” An odd picture if you’re a literalist! Hands growing out of your eye sockets? But that’s what you do when you covet. You are not content with what God gives you, so you look to your neighbor’s things, or status, or reputation. “If only I could get my hands on that,” our heart and mind tell us.
Not only does this happen for you personally; it’s also common in the church and in society. In the church, we might hear, think and say things such as: “If only we could get more money” or “If only we could be more like that church over there.” In society, we might hear, think and say things such as: “No one should have that much wealth, or that much stuff” or “The rich really need to pay their ‘fair share’.” No matter where it happens or when it happens or who says it, the sin is still the same. You and I have a problem being content with what God gives us—whether it’s house or spouse, goods or kids, members or monies. These two commandments shine the light of truth on us good, religious people. They show us for the discontents we really are under the religious exterior. And it all goes back to the First Commandment: we really don’t trust God and how He chooses to take care of us.
So, the only way out of the coveting trap is by God’s giving and forgiving. Because of Jesus crucified and risen, you have a gracious God. Because of Jesus’ dying and rising, you have God’s good favor. God is content with you because of His Son. That’s God’s forgiving. And God’s giving also helps you. You have God’s promise that He knows what you need. You have God’s promise that He will always see to your needs. So you have what you need, and your neighbor has what he or she needs. God recreates your heart so that you do not need to covet anything that belongs to your neighbor. So why covet? You have a gracious God in Christ Jesus.
Conclusion to the Ten Commandments
We’ve spent these past five weeks rehearsing and relearning God’s design for life in His Ten Commandments. It may not have been flashy or entertaining; it wasn’t supposed to be. It’s been something like planting a garden. Every year it’s the same old thing—break up the soil, pull the weeds, plant the seeds, and water the ground. No flash—just dirt and seeds. No quick fix—just patient, steady growth. You are the garden plot. God is the gardner. And His Word in the Commandments is the seed. In the Commandments, you have the most precious teaching. Since it comes from God Himself, no one can improve upon it. We’ll also have our hands quite full just trying to keep these commandments. No, they’re not glamorous or showy. In fact, they keep us rooted in very simple, common, everyday actions of faith in God and love toward neighbor. But they are the very things God considers good works and good lives.
When we look at the Ten Commandments as God’s design for life, we also discover how we fail and mess up His design. Too often we even despise God for His design for life. That’s why we need our crucified and risen Lord Jesus. Only one Person has ever kept the Commandments perfectly. And they nailed Him to a cross for it. But that cross is also God’s design for life. There the design was completed and fulfilled for you. All of your commandment-breaking is laid on broken, bloody Jesus. And all of His commandment-keeping is now given to you through faith. Now you no longer live, but Christ lives in you. That’s God’s design for life, now and forever. Amen.