Editor’s note: This article is the third in a four-part series exploring the relevance of Martin Luther’s catechism for our lives today.

“Here reflect on your walk of life in light of the Ten Commandments: whether you are father, mother, son, daughter, master, mistress, servant; whether you have been disobedient, unfaithful, lazy, whether you have harmed anyone by word or deed; whether you have stolen, neglected, wasted or injured anything.” – Martin Luther’s Small Catechism

I am always haunted by the words we Lutherans sometimes use in the ELW Order of Confession and Forgiveness: We confess we have sinned “… for what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart. We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.” How can we possibly understand what we leave undone? What does it mean to love God with our whole heart? How can we tell if we are loving our neighbors as ourselves? And of course, just to make life more complicated, we have this gem of a quote from Martin Luther’s Small Catechism that describes the nature of sins as disobedience, faithlessness, laziness, harming by word or deed, theft, neglect, waste and/or injury. Sounds like a typical Monday morning in this cultural climate.

Of course we want to love God with our whole heart and we try to love our neighbors as ourselves. But we accomplish the loving act not as we ought but only as we are able. We are limited by the stresses of the moment, the distractions of life and the fears that blind us to opportunities for relationships. This is why we leave so much undone.

I wonder if Luther had any idea the extent to which the definition of the word “neighbor” would change in the span of 500 years? Technology and globalization have made the world a much smaller place than it used to be. Now more than ever, our neighbor is not just the person next door but people from all walks of life, socio-ethnic and economic backgrounds and places. In the words of hymn writer Tom Colvin: “Neighbors are wealthy and poor, varied in color and race, neighbors are nearby and far away.”

If you need proof of Colvin’s statement, look at the tag on the shirt you’re wearing as you read this. Odds are it was manufactured by someone in a vastly different world than yours. Were their wages fair? Are they working in humane conditions? Are we U.S. Lutherans contributing to their well-being or keeping them locked in a cycle of poverty and oppression? Was this shirt manufactured in such a way that it contributed to climate change that might hurt our neighbors? Do these neighbors know the love of Jesus? We seldom think about these things as we thumb through the shirts on the rack. We only think about price and aesthetic appeal. Perhaps this is part of what we are leaving undone.

Not knowing the narrative concerning the production of a shirt or the harvesting of a tomato is laziness on our part, to be perfectly honest. Perhaps by making such a purchase we do harm to our neighbor by supporting a non-equitable system. Perhaps by paying lower prices on a sale item we even rob them of a fair wage or a sustainable lifestyle. And, of course, when we get bored with the clothes in our closet and toss them in a bin, we are being wasteful. We manage to ping all the highlights of Luther’s definition of sin without nary a thought.

This sin stuff is complicated! Thank God for grace!

Where do we begin to learn more self-awareness? How do we get to know our “glocal” neighbors and our part in contributing to their living conditions? How can we start to contribute to solutions that lift others as we grow in faith and love, both as congregations and individuals? The answers to these questions call for nothing less than a re-orientation of the way we live. “The Story of Stuff” website is a good place to start in order to raise our self-awareness. Otherwise, the things we leave undone will be our undoing.

Martin Zimmann
The Rev. Dr. Martin Otto Zimmann is an adjunct professor of church and society at United Lutheran Seminary, Gettysburg campus. He holds a Ph.D. in American culture studies.

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