By the Rev. Lee Woofenden

Third Sunday in Lent
Bridgewater, Massachusetts, March 15, 1998


Exodus 20:1-17 The Ten Commandments

Then God spoke all these words:

I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.

You 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. You 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 fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.

You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.

Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But 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 foreigner living in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.

Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.

You shall not murder.

You shall not commit adultery.

You shall not steal.

You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

You shall not covet your neighbor's house; you shall not covet your neighbor's wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

Matthew 5:17-22, 27, 28, 43-48 Fulfilling the Law

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, "You shall not murder"; and "whoever murders shall be liable to judgment." But I say to you that if you are angry with your brother, you will be liable to judgment. . . .

You have heard that it was said, "You shall not commit adultery." But I say to you that anyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. . . .

You have heard that it was said, "You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy." But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly father is perfect.

True Christian Religion #289 Deeper Meanings in the Ten Commandments

The literal meaning of the Ten Commandments contains general instructions on doctrine and life; but their spiritual and heavenly senses contain universal instructions. (from the section heading)

In their spiritual and heavenly meanings, the Ten Commandments contain in a universal pattern all the commandments relating to how we believe and how we live, and therefore they embrace everything relating to faith and kindness. This is true because every single detail of the Bible's literal meaning conceals two inner meanings, one called "spiritual" and one called "heavenly." These meanings contain divine truth in its own light and divine goodness in its own warmth.

Since the Bible is like this, both overall and in each detail, each of the Ten Commandments can also be explained on these three levels of meaning: the material, the spiritual, and the heavenly.


You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, "You shall not murder"; and "whoever murders shall be liable to judgment." But I say to you that if you are angry with your brother, you will be liable to judgment. (Matthew 5:21)

After last week's service, with its sermon on "Taking Inventory," one of you said to me, "You mentioned having a shelf list of the books when you do shelf reading in a library, and when people take inventory in a store, they have an inventory list. My question is, when you take spiritual inventory, where's the list?" This week's sermon is one answer to that question.

I say one answer, because there are as many different spiritual inventory lists as there are material inventory lists. Hardware stores have one list, stationery stores have another, grocery stores another, and so on. Similarly, there are many different religions on our earth, each with a different "list" of laws for its faithful to live by. Each of these "spiritual inventory lists" is specially suited to the people for whom God gave that particular religion.

However, there are some universals. Our earth has adopted a few universal standards, such as the twenty-four hour clock and our global system of time zones. Gold has value nearly everywhere, in a sort of de facto "gold standard." There are also certain behaviors that are illegal everywhere, such as theft and murder. These cultural universals reflect the fact that there are spiritual universals behind all the diversity of religion on our earth.

In Christianity, those universal standards are expressed in our sacred book: the Bible. In one sense the entire Bible is our spiritual inventory list. But that is too much to cover in a single sermon! On the other end of the size scale, we have a very compact list in the two Great Commandments given by the Lord:

"You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind." This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commandments. (Matthew 22:37-40)

This gives us the general categories, but it would be nice to have more than two items on the list! Fortunately, we have a very nice ten item list that will do very well for our spiritual inventory list. That list, of course, is the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments are the divine standard for our lives--a standard that we can always look to when we wish to take our personal spiritual inventory.

Most of us know what is in the Ten Commandments, and we do try to live according to their standard. In our religion and our culture, the Ten Commandments are the primary statement of the universals that run like a golden thread through all religions. We can hardly help internalizing them and measuring our lives against them.

What we may not know is the spiritual meaning of these commandments. To fill out our spiritual inventory list, I would like to take you on a quick survey of the Ten Commandments, and some of the deeper meanings we can find in them as we seek to follow the divine standard on a more and more inward level, and in a more and more universal way.

I will draw on the chapter in Swedenborg's True Christian Religion on the Ten Commandments, and also on the extracts from Apocalypse Explained which have been published in the book, The Spiritual Life, the Word of God. In explaining the Ten Commandments, Swedenborg used the Lutheran (and Catholic) way of numbering the commandments, which puts what we would consider the first two commandments together into one, and divides the last into two. But since the last "two" go together, Swedenborg joined them back into one.

1: You shall have no other gods before me; you shall not make an idol

On the literal level, this means we are not to worship other gods besides the Lord. Our culture has left polytheism and idol worship far behind, so we don't have much trouble with this. But as we go deeper, we find that this commandment is not only about literally worshiping the Lord alone. In order to follow this commandment, we must put the Lord at the center of our lives--above material and financial needs; above personal desires and ambitions; above even the love of family, and friends, neighbors and co-workers. All of these can become idols and false gods if we put them before the Lord. And at the deepest, heavenly level of meaning, this all-important first commandment urges us as Christians to see the Lord God Jesus Christ as the infinite and eternal source of everything. Until we have accepted and have experienced the living reality of that universal, divinely human love and wisdom at the core of all being, we still have work to do on this commandment.

2: You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God

On the literal level, this means respecting God by not using any of God's names in a disrespectful way. If you're going to cuss, at least use something else besides the Lord's name! But also, if you seal some sort of oath or promise with the Lord's name, don't break your promise! Of course, breaking promises isn't a good idea in any case.

Looking deeper, we find that this commandment refers to respecting everything that the Lord's name stands for: everything the Lord teaches us in the Bible. Keeping this commandment spiritually means respecting the Lord by following all of the Lord's commandments, both within ourselves (in our hearts and minds) and in our outward actions. That could keep us busy for a while!

3: Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy

To follow this commandment on a literal level, we need to set aside regular time in our lives to refocus ourselves on the Lord and on living in a spiritual way. The simplest way to do this is to come to church each Sunday. This method does not work for everyone; but everyone can set aside a certain time each week, and even each day, to think and learn about the Lord, and to pray for the Lord's help in becoming a better person.

Spiritually, this commandment refers to going through the six days of inner labor in struggling to reform ourselves according to the Lord's teachings. Through this inner labor, we can arrive at the Sabbath day of spiritual rest that we experience when we put ourselves in the flow of the Lord's love and wisdom, and live at peace with ourselves and with each other.

4: Honor your father and your mother

As we are growing up, we need to respect our earthly father and mother by listening to what they tell us, in order to avoid getting ourselves into a lot of needless trouble and pain. As adults, we need to respect our leaders; and even if we sometimes cannot respect the people who are in leadership roles, we must respect the role or position itself, and abide by the laws that our leaders represent. Looking deeper, we know that our true father is the Lord, who created us all and watches over us like a parent. Our true mother is the church, which raises us spiritually and tends to our deeper needs. And at the highest level, the Lord encompasses both father and mother. This commandment tells us that we are to respect both our mother and our father in God--meaning we are to respect the Lord's love and wisdom, and to consider them the highest standards that we are to live by.

The commandments so far have focused on the first Great Commandment: that we are to love the Lord our God above all else. These commandments are written on the first table of the Ten Commandments, with the commandment to honor our father and mother providing a bridge to the second. The second table covers the other Great Commandment: that we are to love our neighbor as ourselves. For most of these commandments, the literal meaning is so clear that we can move right into the spiritual meaning.

5: You shall not commit murder

The Lord himself points us to the spiritual meaning of this commandment when he says, "You have heard that it was said . . . 'You shall not murder,' . . . but I say to you that if you are angry with your brother, you will be liable to judgment" (Matthew 5:21, 22). Physical murder comes from anger and hatred in our hearts and minds. To follow this commandment, we must not only avoid hurting others, but must reject the self-centered thoughts and motives that prompt us to such things. And in particular, Swedenborg tells us that we must avoid "murdering" someone spiritually by attacking and destroying their faith. I believe that an extension of this is that we should not destroy other people's faith in themselves by insulting them and tearing down their self-esteem. At the deepest level, we must not murder the Lord within ourselves by rejecting the Lord from our hearts and minds.

6: You shall not commit adultery

As the Lord points out, this commandment speaks not only of literal adultery and promiscuity, but also of having obscene and lustful desires. Even in our society, there are many people who have kept this commandment literally; yet I suspect there is not a single person in this room who has never indulged in "inner adultery." At an even deeper level, we commit adultery when we abuse the Lord's teachings and the Lord's love for our own purposes. For example, if we get people to trust us by acting religious, and then abuse their trust, we have adulterated the goodness of Christianity.

7: You shall not steal

Spiritual stealing is similar to spiritual murdering. It involves stealing other people's faith and beliefs from them. If we think we are right and they are wrong, and we set about trying to show "them" that they are wrong, we are probably acting as spiritual thieves. But the deepest level of stealing happens entirely within ourselves: if we claim for ourselves what is really God's, we are stealing from the Lord. To avoid breaking this commandment, we must recognize that everything good and true in us comes from the Lord, and not from ourselves.

8: You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor

We bear false witness spiritually when we intentionally persuade other people of things that we know are wrong--especially spiritual things that we know are wrong--in order to serve our own purposes. For example, if we have some personal vice that we enjoy and indulge in, we may encourage others in the same bad habit so that we will have company and support. In doing this, we are bearing false witness to what we know within ourselves to be the truth: that we ourselves should break this bad habit. And of course, if we ever think or speak false things against the Lord and the Bible, we are spiritually bearing false witness.

9 and 10: You shall not covet

This commandment puts its spiritual meaning right on the literal level--and it applies to all the rest of the commandments. It teaches us that we are not even to want within ourselves any of the things that the Lord tells us are wrong. We may sometimes pride ourselves in our outward keeping of the commandments; this commandment brings us back to the reality that it is only when we have kept the commandments fully in our minds and hearts that we have truly obeyed Lord's commandments fully.

Of course, none of us ever reaches the complete perfection that a full obedience to the Ten Commandments on all levels would mean. There are always more items on our spiritual inventory list that we need to work on. The Lord does not allow us to rest on our laurels, but always calls us forward in our quest for spiritual development.

The divine standard that the Lord puts in front of us is simple: "Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly father is perfect." This standard has enough to keep us busy taking our spiritual inventory to all eternity. Amen.

Read this sermon's prequel: Taking Inventory


Point of Focus
With Special Thanks to Susan!

Music: On a Distant Shore
1999 Bruce DeBoer