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Matthew 5:21-26 (New International Version)
21"You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, 'Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.' 22But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, 'Raca,' is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, 'You fool!' will be in danger of the fire of hell. 23"Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift. 25"Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still with him on the way, or he may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison. 26I tell you the truth, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny.
9 THE CORRECT TRANSLATION
So, which is it—murder or kill? Anyone older than 50 grew up with the King James version of the Bible in which Exodus 20:13 was translated thou shalt not kill. And when the sixth commandment is quoted today, most often the word kill is still used. We need to know that what God is talking about here is murder. We need to know because otherwise we have an excuse for not taking it seriously.
What I mean by that is simple. All of us are involved in killing. Every Sunday the various outlets of Swiss Chalet are filled with people on their way home from church, so much so that the main item on their menu is sometimes referred to as “Christian” chicken. I’ve got news for all of you—none of those chickens gave their lives willingly! Of course, a similar charge could be made to those of us who go home to a barbequed burger. And even that seemingly innocent bowl of soup to which you go home most Sundays involved the “killing” of several tomatoes.
In the sixth of God’s Ultimate Top 10, God is talking about murder, “which typically requires an intention, often including premeditation and careful planning” (The Ten Commandments for Jews, Christians and Others, 114). Once we understand this is what God is talking about, then we are, I think, compelled to consider what it is that God has told us not to do.
To begin that process I would like to tell you about a way of understanding the commandments that was new to me as I did the reading for this series. It is part of Jewish tradition that commandments were etched on two stone tablets, five on one and five on the other. “The first five identified duties to God; the second five underscored obligations that persons have to one another.”
Let’s take a look at The Ultimate Top 10 with that understanding in mind.
“Thus, the sixth commandment, ‘You shall not murder,’ is especially linked to the first commandment, ‘…you shall have no other gods before me.’ Murder—the intentional, deliberate, and unjustifiable killing of one being by another—is wrong for reasons that go deep down because they violate the first commandment (Ibid., 118).
The creation story tells us that we were created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). One of the things this means is “no human act rivals murder in defying, disrespecting, and denying God” (Ibid.). What are we going to do then with this commandment? Every person here today would recognize how important it is to live within a culture that recognizes the value of human life. But there might also be a sense in which all of us wonder what #6 of God’s Ultimate Top 10 has to do with us because we are peaceable, kind and compassionate people. Yet, it is clear to me when Jesus spoke about the sixth commandment, he did so in a way that makes it everyone’s business.
9 “BUT I SAY TO YOU”
If you have your Bible open to Matthew 5, take a look at our text and particularly at the flow of the narrative. Matthew tells us the setting for this teaching was a mountain. Matthew intends his readers to connect this mountain with Sinai
and this teaching with the Torah or law. What follows are those bold, striking imperatives we call The Beatitudes. The next two paragraphs, I think, are a bit of commentary on the life of the person who lives the blessed life—they are the salt of the earth and the light of the world.
Jesus then speaks of his relationship to the law: he has not come to abolish the law or get rid of it but to fulfill it. Then comes our text. The first example Jesus speaks about in fulfilling the law is the matter of murder. Listen again to what he claims gets to the heart or spirit of this law. 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; and if you say, 'You fool,' you will be liable to the hell of fire. How do you think those words apply to your life? I can’t escape the idea that Jesus is asking me to examine how it is I contribute to any devaluing of human life.
There is a progression suggested here by Jesus—from anger to insult to defamation. Do you find it interesting that Jesus begins with anger? It is one of the cornerstones of Christian belief that Jesus was, as the writer of the letter to the Hebrews puts it, one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin (4:15). I suspect the closest many of us ever get to attaching the concept of sin to Jesus comes from the story of him turning over the tables of the money changers and throwing out of the Temple enclosure those selling animals for sacrifice. He claimed they had turned what should be a house of prayer into a hideout for thieves. You cannot read that story and not think that Jesus was one angry man that day.
Yet, in his own commentary on the spirit of the sixth commandment, he identifies anger as a first step on the road to hell. What can he be talking about? I think it has to be the anger that is the opposite of what we see in Jesus when he cleans the buyers and sellers out of the Temple.
What would that be? The experience with which I am most familiar is, of course, my own. When is it that I find anger most readily rising within me? How I would love to tell you that I, like the Lord, am angry when the will and purposes of God for humankind are resisted. I
would love to tell you that, but that would be a violation of the ninth commandment. Anger most easily rises within me when I am inconvenienced, when my plans are detoured, when my ego has been bruised. In other words, Jesus’ anger was God-centred, my anger is self-centred.
If I allow myself to indulge such an attitude, this may lead to the next step which is to believe that those I deem responsible for my inconvenience are to be put down, insulted. Again, if I allow myself that step, then the next is to question the mental, emotional or spiritual capacity of that person. I believe the reason Jesus calls our attention to such behaviour is that it is the devaluing of human life that leads to murder. What is it we hear from the authorities when another innocent bystander gets in the way of bullets fired by rival gangs? “They have no respect for human life.”
Heinrich Himmler told his S.S. Generals, “Whether ten thousand Russian females fall down from exhaustion while digging an anti-tank ditch or not interests me only in so far as the anti-tank ditch for Germany is finished” (quoted in White, You Can Experience An Authentic Life, 74). Never mind what might come in the next life, I’m here to tell you that any society that continues to lose respect for life created in the image of God is a little slice of hell fire here and now!
9 IT’S UP TO YOU
How then is the godly person to respond? How is the spirit of the law to be fulfilled in my life? Jesus offers some guidance for dealing with that which fractures a relationship. There are a couple of things of which we ought to take note. Jesus puts the responsibility on the person who has given reason for offense—if you remember that a brother or sister has something against you …come to terms quickly with your accuser. Do you see what Jesus has done? He was talking about me being angry, about me insulting someone, about me calling someone a fool; then he switches me to the other track, calling attention to the fact that I’ve done things which have sowed seeds of anger and hostility in someone else. Jesus says disarm that anger by
going to the other person in order to ask what can be done to bring about restoration.
The second thing Jesus tells us is to seek reconciliation quickly. I would hate anyone to miss the luncheon reception that follows worship today, but if God has brought to your mind something you have done which has damaged an important relationship, then the least you should do is make a quick call to find out if the two of you can deal with the matter later today.
You see, it is up to us to make the changes we can make, to seek the reconciliation that is possible. Thirty-one years ago when our first child was born my father called one of his relatives in Newfoundland to tell them his first grandchild had been born—Michael. Do you know what one of them said: “Why would Bill choose a Catholic name for his son?” All that seminary education and nowhere had I learned that God’s archangel was Roman Catholic.
There was a time when to make such a joke would have been to also cause offense, if not cause an emergency meeting of the Board of Deacons to be convened. But we have said no to such anger, no to such insult, no to such diminishing of human life. You’re not a murderer, thank God for that. You value life as a gift from God, humans made in God’s image. When you can, where you can, make the choices that lead away from self and lead toward God.