1Then God spoke all these words: 2I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; 3you shall have no other gods before me.
4You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 5You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, 6but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.
7You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.
8Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. 9Six days you shall labour and do all your work. 10But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. 11For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.
12Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.
13You shall not murder.
14You shall not commit adultery.
15You shall not steal.
16You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour.
17You shall not covet your neighbour’s house; you shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour.
Like many, we memorized the Ten Commandments in confirmation class. And Luther’s explanations as well.
We learned that the commandments consisted of two parts (the ‘two tablets’. The first part orders our relationship with God, the second with one another.
Once a month we celebrated Luther’s German Mass and as part of the order of Corporate Confession and Fforgiveness, the Ten Commandments and the Great Commandment to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind, and to love our neighbour as our self were read.1 So, I heard them at least once a month.
I wouldn’t say that I had much trouble with the commandments. Of course, I am speaking about the theoretical level. I can’t say that I always treat God as the greatest good and I cannot say that I always act in love toward others. But I believe that the commandments are good and should help me order and direct my life.
Only the fourth commandment never completely convinced me. Not that I objected to honouring my parents, but the way I read the commandment and the way Luther explained it (We should fear and love God that we may not despise nor anger our parents and masters, but give them honour, serve, obey, and hold them in love and esteem) made me uncomfortable.
I think that I always would have argued for the reciprocity of the fourth commandment. We are to honour our parents and they are to honour their children. The only problem is that the commandment does not say it and neither does Luther. Ephesians six says that fathers are not to provoke their children, but not here.
For much of my life I have read the fourth commandment from the perspective of a child, which is the audience to whom it is addressed. What bothered me from this perspective was that the commandment appears to cement power inequality by affirming those who have it and prescribing compliance to those who don’t.
I will admit that when I was a child I experienced this power imbalance and I often felt trapped and knew that I was.
But I have noticed that such interpretation of the commandment to love one’s father and mother does not fit the pattern of the other six commandments that deal with interpersonal relations. Killing, adultery, stealing, bearing false witness, and coveting are all things one would do from a position of power, not of powerlessness. The pattern of the commandments of the second tablet is that they guard against the abuse of power. How then could it be any different with the commandment to honour one’s father and mother?
To gain a better understanding of the fourth commandment it is helpful to assume the context of an early agrarian society without retirement plans and retirement homes. The commandment is not spoken to young children who are dependent on their parents but to children whose parents are dependent upon them. The commandment prohibits the driving away of parents from one’s home when the parents are no longer able to work.2
Walter Brueggemann says that the Commandments are situated in the memory of the Exodus from Egypt. The commandments will therefore generate Exodus-like relationships, and God’s people shall not become oppressors but liberators.3
I think the problem with the Ten Commandments has often been that we have read them with an early capitalist ethic in mind, so that the Commandments became the defenders of the established order, when in reality, the commandments are given to prevent the abuse of power, and thereby to liberate us from being what Luther called incurvatus se, the person turned in on themselves. A person turned in on themselves will see the world as commodity and at their disposal.
However, in Christ God has provided our Exodus and has freed us. In faith our lives are given the gift to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour. (Luke 4:18-19)
1 in his answer Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 6:4–5 and Leviticus 19:18
2 Brevard S. Childs, Old Testament Theology in a Canonical Context, Fortress Press: Philadelphia 1985, page 72
3 see Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament, Fortress Press: Minneapolis 1997, page 184