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So far in our exploration of the 10 Commandments, we have examined the first three Commandments that make up the 1st Table of the Law, “You shall have no other gods;” “You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God;” and “You shall honor the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.” Jesus summarizes the 1st table of the Law like this, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind.” The 1st Table of the Law tells us how we are stand directly before God – ‘Coram Deo.’
Jesus summarizes the 2nd Table of the Law like this, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The 2nd Table of the Law tells us how we are to stand before man – ‘Coram homo.’ So far, we have explored the 4th Commandment, “You shall honor your father and mother.” This morning, we will explore the 5th Commandment, “You shall not murder.”
But by way of introduction, let’s understand that there is, in the Scriptures, an interesting and important connection between the 1st and 2nd Tables of the 10 Commandments. The temptation that we all face is to separate these two tables from each other in such a way that we miss the connection between them. The temptation we face goes something like this:
“My standing before God depends on my faithfulness to the 1st Table of the Law and not very much on the 2nd.” This kind of misunderstanding produces very “religious” people, who feel confident about their standing before God even though they are lacking in charity towards their neighbor.
On the other hand there are those who feel very confident about their standing before God because they are very faithful to live according to the 2nd Table of the Law, with very little concern for the 1st. We see this kind of misunderstanding in people who are very charitable and whom everyone would call a ‘good person,’ but are not religious. They feel confident before God because they are very charitable, even though they never go to church or call on the name of the Lord.
As it turns out, both Tables of the Law are far more interconnected than we may realize. In the 1st Table, we stand before God ‘directly,’ in the trust of our heart, the use of His name and attendance at worship. In the 2nd Table, we also stand before God. But here it’s more ‘indirectly.’ God is in the person of our neighbor, disguised if you will, in the flesh and blood of those whom we come into contact with every day.
So for example, when Jesus talks about the final judgment in Matthew 25, He talks about separating the sheep and the goats. And the separation is based on their treatment of their fellow man. But listen to how Jesus puts it. To the sheep He says, “I was hungry and you gave ME food. I was thirsty and you gave ME drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed ME. I was naked and you clothed ME.” And He says the same thing to the goats, except they did NOT do these things.
Neither the sheep nor the goats understand this. Both ask the same question, “When did we see YOU hungry, thirsty, a stranger, naked” and so on. And Jesus replies, “In as much as you did it (or didn’t do it) to the least of these, you did it to ME.” (Matthew 25:31-44).
God is hidden in our neighbor and as we treat our neighbor, so we treat God. The 1st and the 2nd Table of the Law are inseparably connected to each other.
Another example is that time when Saul is on his campaign to purge the land of Christians. While he’s headed to Damascus, he’s knocked off his high horse by a bright light. The voice of Jesus says, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting ME? (Acts 9:6). The persecution that Saul was inflicting on the Christians, he was inflicting onto Jesus Christ Himself.
So, in the 4th Commandment, “Honor your father and mother,” we find ourselves standing before God in the person of our parents. And as we said, the office of ‘parenthood’ spills out from our immediate family into the greater society. And it is now, into that ‘greater society’ that we are led by the 5th Commandment. In the 5th Commandment, we find ourselves standing before God who is disguised not simply as our neighbor in general. But in the 5th Commandment we find ourselves standing before God who disguised as our ENEMY in particular.
The 5th Commandment, Exodus 20:13, is just two words long. In the Hebrew it’s “Lo Taratzach.” “Do not murder.” “Ratzach.” One of those words that sounds like it’s meaning. “Ratzach” has to do not only with premeditated murder based on anger, revenge, greed, jealousy. But also with the careless act which results in someone else’s death.
In the Scriptures, “ratzach” is the word that describes Cain’s murder of his brother Abel because of Cain’s jealousy; David’s murder of Bathsheba’s husband Uriah because he wanted what belonged to Uriah. It is also the word used in those cases where someone’s neglect or carelessness results in the loss of someone else’s life.
Let’s rehearse our assignment for this week. What is the 5th Commandment? “I am the Lord your God. You shall not murder.” What does this mean? “We should fear and love God so that we do not hurt or harm our neighbor in his body, but help and support him in every physical need.”
“You shall not murder.” “Murder” is not the same as “killing.” We know that in the Old Testament, God gave certain members of society the authority to execute certain people due to the severe nature of their crime. In the New Testament, this right to take the life of another is given to those particular civil authorities who are appointed to “use the sword.” Paul writes to the Romans, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities… For he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the SERVANT OF GOD, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.” (Rom. 13:1,4).
Here is where we can see clearly the foundation on which the 5th Commandment is laid. It is God and God alone who has the right to take a person’s life. He alone is the giver of all life, both our own and the life of our neighbor, even the life of our enemy. He creates it and He sustains it and He has given His only-begotten Son, Jesus Christ to die on the cross for it. You and I therefore, have NO RIGHT to take the life of another person. It is not ours to give or to take.
I suppose that God could exercise His right to take the life of a person by a lightening bolt from the sky or in some other direct way. But as He is prone to do, God works through human beings. He works through human beings to announce His gospel of forgiveness. He also works through human beings to “carry out His wrath on the wrongdoer.”
Even here however it is very important for us to make the distinction between “killing” and “murder” very clear. The civil authorities are not authorized to ‘murder.’ God does not contradict Himself or make exceptions to His own law.
The Law is, “lo taratzach”, “do not murder.” No taking of life based on anger or revenge or prejudice or politics. And no taking of life due to irresponsible carelessness, sloppy judgments or negligent carrying out of the law. The death penalty is not unbiblical. The question is whether or not sinful man can carry it out apart from “ratzach.”
The 5th Commandment forbids us to act on our anger or our apathy towards our neighbor. It demands that we see every individual human being as a person whom God has created and redeemed at the cost of His own life. This is the responsibility of the judge, soldier and policeman, as well as each and every one of us.
If there is one commandment out of the 10 that we may be tempted to think we will probably never break, it’s this one. Which one of us has ever murdered or is likely to? But Jesus opens the 5th Commandment in such a way that we find ourselves confronted by it in every single human life, friend and enemy, unborn, elderly, handicapped, immigrant and foreigner.
In His famous parable about the “Good Samaritan,” Jesus tells the story of a man who was beaten, robbed and left to die. His attackers cared nothing for the man or his life. They only cared about what he had that they wanted and they were willing to murder him in order to get it. They were guilty of breaking the 5th Commandment by their violence.
The surprise of this parable comes from the religious men who see the dying man in the road and yet make a wide arc around him rather than stopping to help him. They care just as little about this man’s life as his attackers. They were just as guilty of breaking the 5th Commandment by their apathy.
When you look at our situation from this perspective, doesn’t it just seem as though everyone is our enemy – the one who wrongs us, as well as the one who, because of his problems and troubles, his handicaps or foreign language or bad timing, interrupts our life, and demands that we sacrifice some of our precious time and resources, or plans that we had so carefully made, to help and support him.
Isn’t it true that we can confidently go so far as to say that even God is our enemy. In the 5th chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans, Paul says that “while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of His Son.” (Rom.5:10).
In our anger towards God, we murdered Him by nailing Him to a cross. Some carried out the violence with their own hands. Some stood by and just watched and did nothing, said nothing, even denied knowing Him. All failed to see the face of God in the person of Jesus Christ.
And yet, as amazing as this may sound, by that one MURDER, God has given us a whole new life to all murderers. By His murder at the hands of men, we murderers are forgiven all of our sins. God has used this most heinous of all crimes to produce the most holy of all His blessings. And to all who believe this, God gives a new heart that not only sees the face of God in the person of Jesus Christ, but that also sees the face of Jesus Christ in our neighbor, even our enemy and responds to our enemy with the heart of Christ.
Remember how Jesus responded to His enemies, even as they were driving the nails into His hands and feet? No anger or revenge. Neither any apathy but only, “Father forgive them.”
What the 5th Commandment really wants to get at then is not simply the control of our hands, but the renewal of our heart. In His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus applies the 5th Commandment to the heart as well as the hands like this, “You have heard it said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment.” (Matthew 5:21-22).
For a Commandment that consists of only two words, we find a lifetime of opportunity for repentance as well as good works.
In a sermon titled, “A Sermon On Good Works,” Luther suggests a spiritual exercise for every Christian. He says that we should identify a particular enemy and think about him in friendly terms, to wish him the best, to care for him, and to intercede for him in prayer. As we do so, the Holy Spirit will transform our heart towards this person, because this is according to His will. And with a ‘clean heart’ and a ‘right spirit’ the Lord turns us away from violence and apathy, “to help and support him in every physical need.”
“I am the Lord your God. You shall not murder.”