Rocherty UMC May 15th, 2022
Series: 10 Ways to Love God and Neighbor
“Preserving Life” 
Exodus 20:1-17; Matthew 5:21-26

 

          Today we’re moving on in our discussion of the 10 commandments. So far we’ve covered five of them. We’ve learned that we are to worship God and God only. We aren’t to have any idols—no divided loyalties in our devotion to the one God of the universe. We aren’t to use the name of God in a way that brings dishonor on God or God’s character. We are to rest, and to make sure that everyone in our community gets to rest, too—so that we may remember and celebrate God’s provision and care for us. And last week Larry reminded us that we are to honor our father and mother—and by extension those that have filled those roles in our lives, so not just our biological parents.
          This week we come to the 6th word of wisdom, the 6th guiding principle. It is a command that is used by many people for many different and often opposite political, social, and religious agendas. In the Hebrew of Exodus 20, this command is just two words in length: Lo Tirzach. If we all understood Hebrew, we’d have no problem understanding what this commandment is trying to say. Problem is, not many of us have had the time or opportunity to learn Hebrew, so we rely on our English translations. The Bibles we carry in various versions (KJV, NIV, NASB, etc.) usually agree, at least for the most part. But here, right in this central teaching section of the Old Testament, we get a variety of translations. The Old Standby, the King James version reads “Thou shalt not kill.” We’re all familiar with that one. But many other Bibles, like the NIV and the NASB (very good translations, I use them both heavily) translate this as “Do not murder.”
          Normally, the differences between the translations are minor and they don’t matter much when it comes to living out the Christian life. But here on this point, there is a significant difference—one that does indeed affect how we live our Christian life. There is a large difference between what we view as murder, the intentional taking of a human life without authorization, and say for instance, accidentally killing someone in a traffic accident. Murder has intent behind it. The killing of someone in an accident, by Pennsylvania law anyway, is termed manslaughter—but only when culpability or negligence have been sufficiently proven.
          So, it’s very urgent that we understand what this commandment is actually saying. Is this just a prohibition against murder? The intentional taking of a life? If so, then you and I are most likely in the clear on that. And, if we search ourselves, in other words do a moral inventory, we’ll find that most of us are morally opposed to such a thing. And this is a near universal all across humanity and religions—there is no culture I know of that is ok with murder… except…
          I hate to be the bearer of bad news. But murder is not the only thing that this commandment is speaking against. As I was researching for this sermon, I took some time to do a little research on the Hebrew underlying this commandment. In about ½ of the instances this word “ratzach” is used, it does indeed refer to murder—the intentional taking of a life. But in 40 percent of the cases in which it is used, it refers to what we might today label as manslaughter. And in the rest of the cases it refers to things that cause death in general. We might even translate it this way: You shall not slay. You shall not take a life.
          And here is the stunning news I found out when doing my research. You didn’t even have to be the one doing the killing to be guilty of violating the commandment. Indeed, many of the people who were accused of this were, in fact, only accomplices of those who did the killing. And not just that. Things that today we would consider social ills—things like poverty, abuse of widows and orphans, rape, etc?  All of these things were closely categorized under this word. For, in the ancient world, to be marginalized like this was very much a death—a death of one’s honor, respect, and reputation—the foundation of the ancient perception of personhood. And being on the fringes of society, there was no help for the sick, the hungry, the poor, the abused—they were left to “die a natural death”… except it wasn’t natural, because someone had caused them to be in that situation in the first place. Neglect, abuse, injustice. The price to pay was death. And the ones who always pay the highest price are the victims.
          And based on that insight, it comes as no wonder that Jesus takes this command and turns the screws even tighter. Jesus says, in essence, “well of course you shouldn’t kill—that’s a no-brainer. Deep down in your heart we can all agree that that is so… But remember, we become guilty of this sin when we harbor hatred in our hearts for our enemies. We become guilty of this sin when anger crosses a line and is expressed in hurtful words and violent actions. In short, you don’t need to murder someone to effectually kill them. Be careful, lest you commit this sin. Search yourself, and follow the heart of this command.”
Have you ever heard the expression, “they’re dead to me?” That’s a kind of murder by social ostracism.
          And in today’s world, the commandment against taking life is more pressing than ever. And, as I believe Jesus made very clear, this commandment goes further than just the act of premeditated murder or a so-called crime of passion where a life is snuffed out. Rather, this commandment speaks to the very way our society is structured, what we do as a human community, and how we live out our lives as the global body of Christ, the foretaste of the Kingdom of God on earth.
          Oftentimes, and this has been the case throughout Christian history, the best way to come at the ten commandments is to work from negative to the positive for those commandments that have a “thou shalt not” attached to them. In other words, to fully understand the commandment, “thou shalt not kill,” we need to work towards the opposite end of the spectrum. As Christians therefore, it’s not enough that we merely don’t kill, though of course that’s important. But rather, we must then be about the business of preserving and defending life.
          But right off the bat we get ourselves into trouble. Just about every topic that I could discuss in relation to the commandment to kill is fraught with controversy. Most have been made into political weapons that have been crafted to damn the other side of the aisle. The left and right use these topics to bludgeon each other and create disdain for the opposite side. And, ironically, in so doing, I believe that both sides violate this commandment, in precisely the way that Jesus forbade. Arguments and accusations, assumptions and arrogance, create enemies, harbor hatred for those that think differently, and—perhaps worst of all—closes our own minds and hearts to see the plank in our own eye.
          Please hear what I’m not saying. I am not saying that it is wrong to have a political opinion on things like abortion, the death penalty, whether war and military service are justified, etc. On these very topics Christians have and will continue to have differing opinions. Particularly in larger denominations like the United Methodist Church there are wide ranging opinions on these issues.
          So, what do we do when we come to a stalemate on these issues? How do we handle the result? I want to take these three controversies and use them as examples of how to think Christianly about some of these fraught topics.
          Let’s start with perhaps the most controversial topic and the one that has been in the news the most recently. I’m talking of course about the abortion laws debate. Women have a unique, miraculous gift and ability to grow something from practically nothing. They create life. And it doesn’t stop at 9 months, but includes the incredible ability of mammals to feed their babies from their own bodies. The very same terms are used of God in creating humans, giving birth to life, making something from nothing, nurturing and caring for creation. But that process doesn’t always go smoothly. In fact, the whole process is full of pain for women. And on top of that, we have deep, dividing arguments.
There are those in our community that will say that abortion is 100% never an option—even in cases where rape, incest, or the mother’s life is on the line. And even in cases, like ectopic pregnancies or other cases in which the result would yield a child who could not live (these cases are not as rare as some argue, I personally know someone for whom this was the case). And then there are those who contend that there are many valid exceptions to the general rule—usually with the intention of preserving life (usually the mother’s) in the foreground. And to add one more layer of complexity, the word “abortion” is a medical term for an interruption, specifically to pregnancy. It includes accidental and devastating loss of pregnancies, such as miscarriage and still birth. I think one reason people are so heated about this topic is because our feelings and experiences run so deep, mean so much. There are no easy answers to this debate.
          Things don’t get any easier when we come to the death penalty. There are some passages in the Bible where the death penalty, at least in Israel, seems to be commanded by God. But many assert, and I am one of them, that Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount supersedes that teaching and makes mercy, rehabilitation, and restoration the benchmarks in the workings of justice.
          And on the topic of war, again I could point out many examples in the Old Testament in which God’s people were called to wage war against enemies, seemingly with God’s explicit sanction. But many, and I am again of this number, believe that Jesus’ teaching about peace and reconciliation abrogate that Israel-specific and time-limited set of circumstances and push us toward pursuing peace against all else.
          These issues are not easy to come to an agreement upon. The Bible has a great deal of wisdom to speak into each of these cases, but by and large, especially in the New Testament, there are no beeline direct quotes about surgical abortion, capital punishment, or war.
          It might then seem like we are at sort of an impasse here. Earnest Christians, those that love God and love the Bible too, seem to disagree on this. Even in my own family there is disagreement. My father was a decorated Vietnam veteran, hunter, and gun owner who somehow raised a son who is a pacifist, a peace-seeker, and a person that, for a wide array of reasons, will never own a gun. If issues like this divide families, how can we ever make sense of this commandment?
          I think the answer to that question comes by reframing the discussion and asking a key question about this commandment. Just why is life so sacred? When we talk about this question with our family, our neighbors, our community, I believe we will be well on our way to working toward answers on even the most fraught of hot-button topics. We still might not come to an agreed conclusion, but at least we’ll understand how we got to where we are.
          Writ large across the pages, starting on page one of the Bible is this astonishing claim: human beings are created in the very image and likeness of God. Fully explaining what this means would take us too far afield today, but suffice it to say that because you and I and every other human being is created in the image and likeness of God, the human realm and the divine realm are in a very close and interlinking relationship. What we do and do not do to our fellow human beings, those who also bear the image of God, is, in a direct way, a demonstration of how we think about God. Just turn to any of the prophets in the Old Testament and you’ll see the link. If you want some guidance, turn to Isaiah 58 and 61or Micah 6:8 as just three places for theological reflection.
          In the Micah passage in particular, following God is linked to three very explicit commandments: seek justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.
          I truly believe that if the Christian church as an institution would place these three imperatives into practice for just one year…just 365 days in a coordinated effort, the entire face of the world would be changed.
          Seeking justice means working to rectify those places in which you and I are complicit in making the world not the way it’s supposed to be. It means being careful about what we buy, from whom we buy it. Are the workers treated well or are they in wage slavery? Is this product produced in a way that harms the environment, thus making it difficult for people to live with clean water and air? I can’t get into all of this, but these things matter. Just because we don’t see it doesn’t mean it isn’t happening. The quality of human life is central to our well-being. So you and I are commanded to seek the justice not just for ourselves but for the entire human race.
          And that leads us to loving mercy. Not just to those that look, think, act, and vote like we do, but for all people. We must NEVER find ourselves in the triumphalist position of celebrating the downfall of our enemies. Think of what God modeled to us. God is merciful. God does not exult in the downfall of the wicked but rather desires their repentance, their conversion. This, to many theologians, scholars, and prayerful Christians, is an argument against the death penalty and warfare. Mercy calls all to repentance, and sometimes that takes a long time. As Scripture tells us, though God has the power, God does not wield the power of punishment immediately, but rather extends mercy and forbearance to all so that we might freely choose to change our ways.
          And finally, we must walk humbly with God. Humility is perhaps the cardinal virtue of Christians besides love. But even love must be tempered by humility lest it turn into a fundamentalist fanaticism of exaggerated love for ourself that leads to violence and bloodshed in the name of our beliefs—one only need to look at some of the sad consequences of that in our own Christian history—things like the Crusades and the profound anti-Jewish sentiment in even some of the greatest Christian minds like Martin Luther.
          I hope by now in this series on the 10 Commandments that you’re starting to get the impression that I’m sort-of repeating myself. Maybe I’ve even become something of a broken record in my preaching. Maybe you hear me say, “love God, Love neighbor” almost every week. And there is a reason for that: Human beings are created in God’s image. In the image of God we are made and what we do to others we do to God. When we bless our fellow humans we pour blessings to the Heavenly Father. But when we do harm, we pour scorn upon that same Father.
          Love and Hate are opposites. Killing and Preserving Life are opposites in just the same way as death and life are opposites. I pray and hope that as you seek to follow after God, seeking justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly, that you find ways to preserve life—not to fulfill a political agenda or ideological requirement but rather out of love of God and love of neighbor. Amen.