The Sixth Commandment: No killing
Our preaching tour through the Ten Commandments today reaches one of the most basic of principles of any human society. That said, it’s the toughest preaching assignment I’ve set myself in I don’t know when. I mean, how many of us are actually likely to face the temptation to kill somebody this week? So, I can, like, stand up here, and say, “All right, listen up! All you guys – don’t kill anybody, OK? Right? [thumbs up] Right.” But after you’ve said that, what else is there to say? I’m afraid we’re faced with a lot of dead air, waiting for something profound to show up.
Well, the obvious default position is to talk ethics and social policy. In one direction, we could talk about things like killing in war and about capital punishment; in another direction, we could talk about abortion or about physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia. These are all real issues in our society. They all matter a lot. And there’s a lot I could say, about each one separately or all of them together. But somehow, I don’t want to go down that path. I guess I’m afraid of shedding more heat than light. Yes, all these issues matter, but in an over-politicized time like an election year, where all such issues are discussed at the top of people’s voices (so to speak), I’m not sure that I would really be heard – regardless of where I came down on any of those issues.
So I thought I’d pair up the Old Testament commandment with John’s admonition that whoever hates his brother is as good as a murderer. And that approach, too, has its dangers. Spiritualizing the commandment can lead to moral cowardice, where we talk about feelings instead of justice. There are terrible things done now and then that need to be confronted and they are not confronted, where the Church comforts the victim instead of challenging the victimizer and where the passivity of the Church in the face of evil is shameful to recount.
Spiritualizing the commandment can also lead one to trivialize the commandment. Years ago, in some Bible study at one of my first churches, I remember a lady saying that she never prayed the Lord’s Prayer – at least, not the part about “forgive us our trespasses” – because she said she no longer sinned, so she didn’t need any forgiveness. Well, the other people all boggled at that, and one person said, “The Bible says you’re supposed to love everybody. Do you do that?” And her reply was, “Well, I don’t hate anybody.” Ah, there spoke the true Pharisee, the rules-monger par excellence – and what a perversion that was of the actual teachings of the New Testament.
It’s like the old story of the revival meeting where the preacher was preaching on the doctrine of entire sanctification – also known as “perfect love” – and asked his congregation, "Can anyone here testify that he loves everyone he knows? Can anyone here say, from her heart, that she has no hate for anyone?" And, of course, the congregation is sitting like this [head down], avoiding each other's eyes.
Finally, old Uncle Ernie, way in the back, 92 years old if he was a day, struggled slowly to his feet. "Uncle Ernie! Do you rise to testify to the love of God?" cried the preacher. "I do," said the old man. "Do you mean to testify that you love everybody you know?" asked the preacher. "Yep," came the reply. "That you have no hate in your heart for anyone on earth?" called the preacher. "That's right." "That's wonderful, Ernie!" said the preacher. "Tell us how you DID IT!" The old man cackled and said, "All them low-down, dirty, blankety-blanks I hated – they’re all DEAD!”
Still, despite the dangers, I thought I would take the spiritual tack and see if I could say something that would be insightful and challenging about the commandment, “You shall not kill.” And the first thing I want to note is that a better translation of this line would be, “You shall do no murder.” And the reason for that is, that the Hebrew of the Old Testament uses several words for killing that describe both justifiable and unjustifiable killing, so there are distinctions being made here. Even accidental killing had to be atoned for, for instance, but it did not to come under the commandment’s prohibition, nor did killing in self-defense, nor killing in battle.
God gives the Law to the People of Israel at Mt. Sinai – and it is the bedrock code of ethics for all time and all civilization - but it is not the same thing as righteousness or holiness. The Law is a lesser construct, meant to govern society – it’s not everything that God has to say about being good. Does that sound strange? Well consider:
(First,) there are things that are too minor for the Law to worry itself with, though that doesn’t mean that God is not concerned with them. Gossip is not against the law, but you’ll find more condemnations of gossip in the New Testament than of murder, simply because it’s more common.
Then, (Second,) there are issues that are not resolvable at Law, no matter what court you apply to. Sometimes, there’s just no remedy for the wrong done to somebody; that’s very hard for Americans to believe -- we are one of the litigious societies on earth. As Dorothy Sayeers noted in one of her detective novels, it does you no good to say the money is gone; people steadfastly refuse to believe that the money is gone, and they persist in the belief that all that required is a little direct confrontation of somebody else to produce it.
And finally, (Third,) Law – even divinely inspired law – allows for doubt. You cannot know, as God would know, that So and so is guilty. You have to prove him guilty in a human court, and in the words of our legal tradition, “beyond a reasonable doubt.” So there is – or should be – a humility about the Law; the fact that we have laws at all is a recognition of our limited ability to know what is right in any given circumstance. God grants to his People the Law to guide them in their actions, but it is not infallible, nor does it make them infallible; all it can provide is a rough approximation of the justice of God.
Now with that foundation laid, we can turn to John’s letter, where he cites the example of Cain killing Abel and then says, “He who does not love remains in death” and “Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer.” And the first thing that we need to say is, we can get rid of the silly idea that as long as I don’t “hate” anybody, then I have lived up to that principle. John requires, not refraining from a wrong action, but the doing of a right action. You can’t dodge the issue by saying you neither love nor hate (in fact, you don’t give a rip about anybody). That ain’t gonna get you anywhere – not with God, anyway. God has made us his children, and he intends to make us fit for the kingdom of heaven, and that means that to be made perfect in love is not a goal that SOME people can aspire to, but a basic condition of all the citizens of the New Jerusalem. Some of us have farther to go than others to get there, but getting there is the point, and all that nonsense about “to travel hopefully is better than to arrive” is just so much greeting card copy.
Now, John Wesley’s teaching about Christian perfection is not that we can reach a point where we never mess up, but rather, that the Holy Spirit of God works in us to give us the mind of Christ, so that we no longer fear, nor hate, but have nothing left in our hearts but love. And if there is nothing but love as a motivation, then – while we may misread a situation or decide a course of action wrongly – there is no sin done, because we were acting from the right start. It’s like cleaning out an old, abandoned house and fixing it up: God cleans us up and repairs us and makes us fit for his dwelling place; OUR problem is that keep bringing the same old garbage back in and leaving it everywhere.
And I’m not saying that if we just laced up our boots and got ON with the job, that we could succeed in staying clean by sheer willpower; no doubt every one of us has tried that at least once, and we all know how that turned out. But it is God’s intention to remake us so that as we open to him more, he makes us able to open yet wider and wider, until he fills us entirely, and there’s no ROOM for anything else. So, in order to aspire to being made perfect in love in this life, you have to give up unreasonable assumptions and work with God.
God doesn’t just demand perfection – he gives it. And God, who is the one offended against by every sin, no matter who else is involved, also forgives the sins of those who turn to him – even the sin of murder. I said that the Law provides only a rough approximation of God’s justice, but it also can provide only a rough approximation of God’s mercy. There are people in prison today, whom the State cannot forgive without outraging what justice the Law can provide; but God is greater than the Law, and he knows the condition of one’s soul with absolute clarity, and he can forgive even when the State cannot and dare not. In the end, the Law can keep society functioning, which is good, but it cannot make you fit for heaven. The Law is holy, but it will not make you holy.
So, what are we to say, finally, about the Sixth Commandment?
Well, first (and obviously), y’all go home and try not to kill anybody this week, okay? That’s the easy part; staying on the right side of the Law isn’t particularly hard. But remember, behind the commandment stands an even greater expectation. Not merely that you should refrain from killing another, but that you should set yourself to climb the mountain of Purgatory to the very top and leave behind the anger that is in you – and the fear that haunts you – and the despair the brings you down. And that you REPLACE those with the love of God. It’s not just DON’T that. It’s DO this. REPLACE wrong starting points with the right starting point, ask to see others with God’s eyes, pray earnestly to respond in situations as Christ would.
Forgive as you would be forgiven. When you forgive, you let two people out of the prison of your scorn, for the jailer is as much “in jail” as the prisoner and all that energy you’re wasting on maintaining your grudge is only keeping YOU in solitary. And don’t fall for the trap of being angry at yourself when you mess up. That just throws a boulder down the hole on top of you. Sometimes, the hardest person to forgive is yourself, but you are commanded to do it.
And remember: he who loves has fulfilled the law. Did you think that was a bit of high-flown sentiment? Oh, no – that was merely the literal truth. He or she who loves - who starts from God’s starting point – has not only avoided doing wrong, but done all that God expects his children to do, to be fit for the destiny to which he has called us.
To him be the glory forever and ever. Amen.