You Shall Not Murder

Sunday Worship at Black Forest Community Church
Black Forest, CO
February 15, 2015
© Rev. Diane Kay Martin

                                                       You Shall Not Murder

Scripture Reading:       Exodus 20:13

“You shall not murder.”

I know, it’s almost comical, using this short four-word verse as our entire scripture reading—especially since the readings for the last several weeks have taken almost an entire page! But I did that on purpose, because in its unembellished brevity, this verse says at least as much as all the others.

At first glance though, this sixth commandment—the second in the moral code, the group of commandments that tells us how to relate to our fellow humans—probably seems less relevant to us, in day-to-day life, than all the rest. For I would guess that few (if any) of us here have ever seriously considered committing murder.

And that’s good, because human life—human lifeblood—is so precious to God! We were created in God’s own image, with God’s own breath blown into our nostrils. We are set above all other creatures to care for them, for our fellow humans, for ourselves, and for this planet we all call home. Our loving Creator set this whole system in motion with the best of intentions for all of it, and then put the humans in charge. What an awesome and wonderful responsibility and privilege that is! The writer of Psalm 8 was filled with wonder at this too, writing in praise to God:

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established;

 What are human beings that you are mindful of them, [what are] mortals that you care for them?

 Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor.

 You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet,

 All sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field,

 The birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas.

 O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth![1]

God created all of this and then set us in charge of it, to care for it, to nurture it. And we don’t even get four chapters into the Bible when one human violates this sacred trust by taking the life of another human. Cain killed Abel out of jealousy, and God asked him, with a broken heart, “Where is your brother Abel?”—just like God asked Adam, with a broken heart, exactly one chapter earlier, when Adam tried to hide his guilt: “Adam, where are you?” Like parent, like child, and God was grieved. God had such high hopes for his species, and now, twice already, they had gone their own way. This time, though, blood had been shed—innocent blood. God’s precious gift of life had been stolen and could not be returned. “Oh, Cain! Where is your brother? For his innocent blood is crying out to me from the ground!” …

I wonder if it had occurred to God before that moment that humans could be capable of such evil. Certainly their treachery in the garden had been a clue. But this was so awful, so horrible, so permanent—and such a far cry from the wonderful destiny God had planned for these human creatures he had set in sovereignty over the rest of this beautiful planet. They had been created to nurture; how could they murder?

Let us go back to our sixth commandment for a moment, because we need to get at the difference between “murder” and “kill,” and how that difference affects our understanding of the commandment. Almost every version of the Bible translates the Hebrew word ratzach as “murder”—not “kill”—and murder is the more accurate translation. The one notable version that renders is “kill” is the King James Version, and that’s the one most of us grew up with, so that’s the one that sticks in our minds, isn’t it? Actually though, there are several other Hebrew words that mean “kill,” but this one, ratzach, means “to shed innocent blood, to wrongfully take a life, to murder.”

So this commandment is about murder, which leaves the door open, just a crack, for certain other kinds of life-taking. Genesis 9:6 gives us the very first example: capital punishment. In that scripture, God says, “Whoever sheds the blood of a human, by a human shall that person’s blood be shed; for in [my] own image [I] made humankind.” Other examples in scripture show that God also allows for killing when necessary to defend the life of oneself or another human—in immediate attack or in the case of a just war. But the shedding of any blood grieves deeply the heart of God, because we are all created in the image of God—even those who are not faithful to God.

For example, according to one Jewish tradition, after the Israelites had passed safely through the Red Sea and water crashed down upon the Egyptian army, annihilating every last soldier, the angels began to sing the praises of God. But, according to this tradition, God silenced them, saying, “My creatures are drowning, and you are praising me?!?”[2]

God cherishes life in all its forms. Murder is the senseless stealing of a life, and we are commanded not to steal a life. This statement alone deserves more interpretation, a little broader application. Are we not stealing our own lives when we pollute our bodies with food, drink, chemicals and sedentary lifestyles that threaten our ability to live the full and fruitful lives God intends for each one of us? Are we not stealing the life of the very planet that sustains us when we fail to protect her fragile environment and take steps to restore the damage we’ve done through our careless use of her natural resources? And in those same acts, are we not stealing the very life and future of every creature God has called us to protect?

God cherishes life in all its forms, and humans are more than just physical beings. We are spiritual. We are emotional. We are intellectual. We are relational. We are social. And it is possible to “murder” humans in any of those ways as well. The earth’s environment is fragile—no reasonable person will deny that—but the human’s internal environment is just as fragile. When I gossip about you, engage in character assassination, publicly embarrass or humiliate you, refuse to validate your thoughts and your feelings, withhold forgiveness from you, I am murdering you emotionally and possibly even spiritually.

Jesus had something to say about the sixth commandment, and it’s recorded in the Sermon on the Mount, in Matthew 5:21-24. Jesus says, “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 a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council. … So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.” Jesus is saying that it is just as possible to steal the life of a brother or a sister (emotionally, spiritually) with our anger or our words as it is with a knife or a rock (or, in today’s weaponry, a gun). And that our relationships with our brothers and sisters are just as high a priority to God as our very acts of worship.

God gave me a unique opportunity recently to be on the receiving end of how this feels. Now, let me preface my story by saying that the people in this story are the sweetest people in the world and would not hurt anyone if you paid them to; this story is just a reflection of what my state of mind was at the time, and something I believe God wanted me to experience firsthand.

Some friends of ours were planning a housewarming party. I was asked by a family member to help plan the party, but every time I offered to do something, I was told, very innocently and unintentionally, “No, that’s already been taken care of”; or “No, we don’t need that”; or “No, we’ve already got that”; or “No, we know you’re busy, so you don’t need to come early and help set up.” … I ended up getting really, genuinely hurt and offended! I overreacted. I took it personally. I had a bit of an emotional meltdown—yes, me!—and when someone finally did ask me, a few minutes before the party, to do some small task, I said curtly, “No, I don’t think so.” I couldn’t believe I said that! Where had that come from? And who was I in all of this? Suddenly I realized that that is exactly how people who come to church feel when they offer to help but we say we don’t “need” them. They have put themselves out on a limb, and by saying “No, we don’t need your help,” we are emotionally and spiritually stealing their life. It’s a small facet of church life—such a “little” thing, but I will never forget how demeaning that felt.

In the case of my friends, all’s well that ends well. Mutual apologies and forgiveness led us back to a healthy place in our relationship. But in church and in families, all doesn’t always end well. Sometimes accepting God’s forgiveness is the easy part. Sometimes finding our way with the other people God has forgiven is the challenging part. God, help us to leave anger and insults at the altar so that we do not hurt the precious people you bring through our church doors. Help us to receive every gift, every offer to help, with gratitude. Help us to be the balm in Gilead that does not inflict wounds but makes the wounded whole. Amen.

[1] Psalm 8:3-9.

[2] Dr. Laura Schlessinger in her book The Ten Commandments, page 183.