Pandemic in Light of the Ten Commandments

I’ve been thinking of doing a sermon series on pandemics in light of the Ten Commandments. I don’t do many sermon series. Aside from Lenten services, I think I have only done one series for Sunday mornings. Otherwise I’ve stuck to the lectionary readings. But, occasionally, something comes up that needs direct attention. Our current pandemic is one of those things.

I realize that a series like this would have been most timely a month or two ago, but I’m kind of a slow thinker. If I’m going to address something new, it takes some time to observe the way people behave, listen to how other theologians address something, consider what biblical teachings apply to a certain situation, and then process it all to figure what, if anything, I have to say on the matter.

I also recognize that this is a very sensitive matter. And of course it is; it has changed the way we live day-to-day. And so everything related to our current pandemic has become very controversial. So I would ask that you at least listen to what I have to say and consider it charitably before you chuck tomatoes at me. Remember, I’m not addressing pandemics in light of being a Democrat or a Republican; I’m addressing pandemics in light of the Ten Commandments. This should not be controversial, at least for Christians.

Here’s a preview: In my observation, the commandments that apply most directly to our current pandemic are the First, Third, Fifth, and Eighth.

The First Commandment, “You shall have no other Gods before me” (Ex. 20:3), teaches us that “We should fear, love, and trust in God above all things” (Small Catechism). While it is certainly appropriate to be concerned about a pandemic, or any other physical danger, the one true God exercises authority over all things, and he is the only one we should fear.

The Third Commandment, “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy” (Ex. 20:8), has to do with worship. It is necessary for us to gather together.

The Fifth Commandment, “You shall not murder” (Ex. 20:13), teaches us that we should “do our neighbor no bodily harm, nor cause him any suffering, but help and befriend him in every need” (Small Catechism). It is necessary for us to protect each member’s health, including our own.

And the Eighth Commandment, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (Ex. 20:16), teaches us to “not deceitfully lie about, betray, backbite, not slander our neighbor, but defend him, speak well of him, and put the most charitable construction on all that he does” (Small Catechism). When we disagree, it is necessary for us to do be charitable and humble. This includes being willing to listen, learn, and change our minds.

I might also touch on the Fourth Commandment, which deals with honoring and submitting to authorities.

There’s a preview. But since we are opening our doors soon (May 31, so you might actually be reading this after we opened), it is especially timely to say a little more concerning the Third and Fifth Commandments. The following is similar to the introduction of our “Coronavirus Risk Reduction Plan,” which you can read here. I helped to write the introduction of that document. Here’s my condensation of the introduction:

It is essential to the spiritual health of Christians that we gather together for divine worship. We must also protect the physical health and safety of our fellow members.

This is a point of intersection between the Third and Fifth Commandments. The Third Commandment deals with the necessity of worship, while the Fifth Commandment forbids us from causing our neighbor any bodily harm and requires us to help and befriend them in every need (see Luther’s Small and Large Catechisms for further explanation). The Third and Fifth Commandments are not in conflict with each other, but we must use wisdom in discerning the best way to keep both commandments.

Part of the solution is that we encourage vulnerable parishioners to stay home whenever there is a significant risk. Live streaming will continue (it should actually be much-improved). I will also make DVDs or CDs for anyone without internet access.

It is right and biblical to protect our own health. When God breathed life into Adam (Gen. 2:7), he intended that life to stay there. Life is good. Furthermore, our bodies are not our own (1 Cor. 6:19-20). They belong to God, and we are merely stewards of them. We have the responsibility of protecting our bodies and using them for the benefit of our neighbors. We do not have the right to risk our lives irresponsibly, because we are not the owners of our lives; God is. To risk your life is to risk something that you do not own. Yes, on the one hand, Christians should not fear death. And yet, on the other hand, we must not test God. The devil used Psalm 91:11-12 to tempt Jesus to throw himself off the temple (“He will command his angels concerning you … On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.”). Jesus didn’t go for it. He said, “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test” (Deut. 6:16; Matt. 4:5-7). We must not test God either. It is wrong to fear death, but it is also right to avoid it.

These are certainly difficult times. We’re all learning a different way of life. We’re all adjusting as new information is made known, and we will continue to adjust. But “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Heb. 13:8). He has brought his Church through worse. He will bring us through this.