No Murder

Reading: Genesis 9.1-6; Matthew 5.21-26

The command to honour father and mother is of key importance in our awareness of responsibility to God and to society and in our basic respect for human life itself. The remaining five commands spell out the duties to our neighbour – first of all securing life, marriage and property from active invasion or attack, and then, proceeding from deed to word and thought, forbidding false witness and coveting. So the sixth commandment comes to us with stark directness – "Do not commit murder" (Ex. 20.13).

No Murder

Our physical life is the basis of our human existence. An attack on our physical well-being is also an attack on personality. Murder is a universally recognised wrong. It is a gross sin against the sanctity of human life itself – "Human beings were made like God…" (Gen. 9.6).

It is important to note that the command is absolute, and not only is the accomplished fact of murder condemned, but also every act that endangers human life, whether arising from carelessness (Dt. 22.8) or irresponsibility (Lev. 19.14), or from hatred, anger and revenge (Lev. 19.17,18). All killing is a serious matter indeed, but murder is specifically the wilful and premeditated assault on human life. Cities of refuge were established, not to give protection to the murderer, but to allow proper judgement of the ease to distinguish between the murderer and the one who killed his neighbour accidentally, without hatred or intent to harm (Num. 35.9-34).

Capital Punishment and War

The command against murder is not taken as a prohibition of either capital punishment or war. In fact, the law of Moses prescribed capital punishment for murder and a variety of other offences. Clearly this has to do with the responsibilities of duly constituted civil authorities. In the New Testament, we note Paul's teaching that the state authorities have been put there by God to bear the sword and execute wrath on evildoers, as the King James Version put it (Rom. 13.1-7). There is civil justice in the principle of "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth" (Ex. 21.23-25).

Clearly the state also has responsibility to protect its citizens from aggression from without. But it must be clearly stated that, however just or necessary capital punishment or war nay seem to be, they are never "good" in themselves and can just as easily become an expression of, rather than a punishment for, human sinfulness.

Abortion and Euthanasia

Any action of the civil authorities noted above must be for the protection of human life. Two current social issues must be considered here – abortion (the deliberate termination of foetal life) and euthanasia (or mercy-killing, the quiet putting away of those suffering long terminal illnesses).

There are many issues involved here. But is should be clear that this present command forbids the termination. of human life at whatever stage, and the civil authorities have a responsibility to protect that life. It is not for us to play God and to decide that a new life is not convenient or that an old life has passed its usefulness. Yet, in protecting life, we are also responsible to consider the quality of life. The Christian is called, not simply to refrain from killing, but to give himself in positive love.

Kathy Malloy wrote, "I'm a housewife and a registered nurse from Jacksonville. I worked the 11pm to 7am shift, and when we weren't busy, I'd go out to help with the newborns. One night I saw a bassinet outside the nursery. There was a baby in this bassinet – a crying, perfectly formed baby – but there was a difference in this child. She had been scalded. She was the child of a saline abortion.

"This little girl looked as if she had been put in a pot of boiling water. No doctor, no nurse, no parent, to comfort this hurt, burned child. She was left alone to die in pain. They wouldn't let her in the nursery – they didn't even bother to cover her.

"I was ashamed of my profession that night!… I thought a hospital was a place to heal the sick – not a place to kill…"

I am sorry if sharing this story has painful associations for any of you. God knows and understands your situation. But we do need to understand how he feels about what we hide behind white gowns and nice words.

Today we also hear nice words about euthanasia. Listen to what Dr. Leo Alexander, consultant to the office of the Chief of Counsel for War Crimes, wrote about how German physicians started a trend which resulted in the euthanasia of 275,000 people before the Second World War began:

"It started with the acceptance of the attitude, basic in the euthanasia movement, that there is such a thing as a life not worthy to be lived. This attitude in its early stages concerned itself merely with the severely and chronically sick. Gradually the sphere of those to be included in this category was enlarged to encompass the socially unproductive, the ideologically unwanted, the racially unwanted, and finally all non-Germans. But it is important to realise that the infinitely small wedged-in lever from which this entire trend of mind received its impetus was the attitude toward the nonrehabilitable sick."

A Wider View

Jewish tradition in the time of Jesus restricted the sixth commandment to the actual act of murder and limited its punishment to the judgment of the courts of the land. Quite clearly the courts of the land have a responsibility to punish the murderer (note Ex. 21.12). Clearly also, courts can hardly punish wrong thoughts and motives. The common saying that brought this command and the punishment together tended to bind men to the wider implications of the law. So we find Jesus responding, "But now I tell you: whoever is angry with his brother will be brought to trial, whoever calls his brother 'You good-for-nothing!' will be brought before the Council, and whoever calls his brother a worthless fool will be in danger of going to the fire of hell" (Mt. 5.22).

No Anger or Insult

Jesus had been emphasising that the comparative moral achievements of the scribes and Pharisees were not enough – "For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven" (v.20). We are accountable, not just to earthly courts, but to the God and Lord of all. And we are accountable to him, not just for our outward actions, but for our thoughts and motives as well.

So, by way of illustration, Jesus makes clear that the sixth commandment goes beyond murder and physical violence. It includes both concealed anger and the hurled insult. Just as, in the previous study, murder itself is to be seen as a gross sin against the sanctity of human life since human beings are made in God's image, so too these attitudes and acts that deliberately destroy or wound the soul and spirit of a person, no matter how justified they may seem to be in our eyes, are a gross sin in the sight of God. They may be (and usually are) beyond the jurisdiction of earthly courts, but will bring the sternest judgments of God!

Clarence Darrow, a famous criminal lawyer, once said, "Everyone is a potential murderer. I have not killed anyone, but I frequently get satisfaction out of obituary notices."

Positive Reconciliation

But it is not enough somehow to turn off the anger and insults. We must take the initiative in positive reconciliation. "So if you are about to offer your gift to God at the altar and there you remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar, go at once and make peace with your brother, and then come back and offer your gift to God." (vv. 23,24).

Jesus had earlier pronounced a blessing on the merciful (v.7) – that blessing is available to the one wronged. But these words are directed to the one in the wrong. An unrepentant attitude may will lead to full penalties (vv. 25,26), as well as the fact that we cannot expect God to accept us or our worship as long as we harbour anger and resentment in our heart against anyone else. In the Lord's Prayer we are taught to ask for forgiveness on the basis of our own willingness to forgive (6.12,l4,15). This is not unrelated to today's passage, for an unforgiving spirit is probably the major way in which we harbour resentment.

Gospel Need

So Jesus, in this command brings us face to face with our need for the gospel, for in terms of word and attitude, who is uncondemned? Yet our loving Father longs for us to be reconciled to him, has made provision in Christ for this restored relationship and waits to bestow that newness within that enables us to live in the full measure of his love.

© Peter J. Blackburn, Buderim Uniting Church, 16th November 1997.
Except where otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from the Good News Bible, © American Bible Society, 1992.
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