What does this mean?
If you grew up in a Lutheran congregation, you may be experiencing a sense of traumatic flashbacks at reading that question. Please don’t worry: I’m not about to quiz you on how well you have the Small Catechism memorized. If you missed out on the experience of memorizing and being tested on the Small Catechism as a 12-year-old, “What does this mean?” is the central question in Martin Luther’s Small Catechism.
The Small Catechism is a teaching tool, written by Luther when he realized just how little ordinary people knew about the Bible. Luther knew that in a time where few people could read, much less own a book, a summary of Christian faith had to be simple and short. There were many sorts of catechisms intended to teach by memorization, a sort of back-and-forth with the teacher asking the prescribed questions and the students repeating the answers.
Martin Luther turned that expectation on its head. Instead of the teacher doing all the asking, Luther wrote his catechism as if a small child were asking the questions. For instance, the Small Catechism begins with the 10 Commandments:
Q: What is the first commandment? A: You shall have no other gods.
Q: What does this mean? A: We are to fear, love, and trust God above all things.
Do you notice how different that feels if the answers are given by the teacher (or pastor or parent) than by the learner? Instead of just telling us what we need to know, Martin Luther wrote the Small Catechism to show us what questions we should ask. At the heart of these questions is the repeated refrain: “What does this mean?” What does this mean for me? What does this mean for the way I live? What does this mean for my neighbor?
Whether we are children or adults, these are pressing questions. What does it mean? What is this at the center of my faith? What is at stake? What difference does it make?
Martin Luther wondered about this, too! We can tell he was concerned that Ten Commandments were interpreted too narrowly because he broadened them from a simple list of don’ts to include expectations for how we should act. Take the fifth commandment:
Q: What is the fifth commandment? A: You shall not murder.
Q: What does this mean? A: We are to fear and love God, so that we neither endanger nor harm the lives of our neighbors, but instead help and support them in all of life’s needs.
Most people could say that they have never murdered, but could we say that we’ve never endangered our neighbors? Could we say that we’ve never turned away from helping and supporting them because it was too hard or too time-consuming? I couldn’t.
The Small Catechism is a gift because it challenges us to ask questions. It offers us a way to see the foundation of our faith through new eyes. It dares us to wonder: what does this mean? and to see what God has done for us.
Holy God, give me the courage to ask questions and wonder about my faith. Thank you for your servants like Martin Luther who have given an example of faith and curiosity together. Amen.