Sermon from Lent III on the Sixth Commandment
Lent III; March 15, 2020
Exodus 20:13 (with Matthew 5:21-26)
The more I have thought about this Commandment (“You shall not murder”) the harder it has become to know what God wants me to say to you about it. My range of thinking about it keeps growing and growing, and I want the sermon to be brief and to the point. And Jesus – as is typical – messes it all up by getting to the heart of the matter. Well, I’ve decided to just reflect on some things around the Commandment and hope that one of them sticks with you.
You may have learned the Commandment as “Thou shalt not kill.” This is another one of those Hebrew verbs that doesn’t translate easily, especially since its meaning seems to have evolved over the 2,000-year story of the Old Testament. Generally, it seems to mean, “Don’t take matters into your own hands and kill someone just because you think they have it coming to them.” Now, that would ruin the plots of many movies, wouldn’t it?
One of the gifts we have as Presbyterians is the Westminster Confession of Faith and its catechisms. The Westminster Catechisms explore the Commandments and do something wonderful with them: they consider the implications, both positive and negative, of each Commandment. And the so-called Larger Catechism (Book of Confessions of the Presbyterian Church USA 7.245) notes several positive duties that are implied by this Commandment; I can summarize them in two things: Take care of yourself; advocate for the well-being of others.
“Take care of yourself.” The Catechism is thorough: it tells us to be responsible in the way we eat and drink, that we should get enough rest, not work too hard, take time for recreation, and do whatever we can to have a positive mindset. Of course, not only now when people are concerned about COVID-19, but every year during flu season and when colds are around you, protect your health as best you can, but don’t give in to fear. And be sure to take care of your emotional well-being. For example, if you find yourself obsessing over the current crisis, constantly trying to be on top of the latest news, then please: unplug. Hide your phone, turn off your TV or computer, and do something else with your mind. Take care of yourself.
The Catechism also says that the disciple of Jesus should always be ready to be reconciled; that’s part of what Jesus advocated in response to this Commandment. When someone has something against you, do whatever is necessary to set things right. I wonder which is harder: to be the one who needs to set things right, or to be the one who was harmed and is asked to be reconciled. Both are hard. It’s hard to realize I’ve hurt someone, and that I need to go to them and ask to be reconciled. And it’s hard to offer reconciliation when someone who has harmed me asks it.
No, wait; I’ve found that it isn’t so hard. I’m thinking of two different situations. In one, a person hurt me repeatedly and in many ways, and continues to insist, “I never did anything wrong.” I don’t know how to be reconciled to that person, and I wish I could get them to stop taking up room in my head without paying rent. In another situation, a man said some very unkind and hurtful things about me, and after he thought about it, he came to me and apologized. I think quite highly of him; he was always a faithful disciple of Jesus and talented in many ways, but now I also like him. So when someone who has hurt me takes Jesus’ advice and comes to me to talk about it, reconciliation is possible. I hope that I can be big enough to go to any I have hurt, as well. As the Catechism suggests, it is good for our well-being.
The Catechism also says we need to advocate for the well-being of others, including caring for the distressed and “protecting and defending the innocent.” Last Sunday was International Women’s Day, and we celebrated it this week by sentencing Harvey Weinstein to twenty-three years in prison. Okay, that was a cheap shot. But much of the attention this year was on the ways women have been victimized. In Mexico, “a day without women” called attention to the high level of violence against women in that country. A prayer published in our Presbytery’s newsletter called attention to women who have been physically and emotionally abused and whose voices have been silenced. I think it is a positive step that men can no longer assume that we can demand whatever we want of women, and even go so far as to blame the women for it.
So, take care of yourself and advocate for the well-being of others. Let me conclude by riffing a bit on what Jesus does with this Commandment. As usual, Jesus goes way beyond the simple question of behavior to a matter of the heart. Jesus just can’t leave well enough alone; he is so wise that he realizes that our salvation is not just a matter of getting us to behave right but is also a matter of straightening out our heads. So it isn’t enough merely to refrain from killing someone when you’re angry with them. You need to do something about the anger.
If only Jesus would stay out of my head; right? Yours too? Sometimes it is so delicious to nurture that anger against the one who has hurt you; and it’s even more delicious to try to find ways to hurt them that fall short of outright murder. Remember the Klingon proverb? “Revenge is a dish best served cold.” Jesus demands that I not only refrain from murder but that I refrain from insulting the person who has hurt me. I suspect he was exaggerating a little bit when he said that calling someone a fool makes you liable to hell; after all, he called the scribes and Pharisees “fools” (Matthew 23:17). If Jesus means this as an absolute rule, then he breaks his own rule.
So please don’t get all legalistic and think you’re going to hell for what you said about your idiot brother-in-law, but do remember the will of God: work at overcoming your hostility toward others. I find a great tool for that is to try, honestly, to understand things from the other’s point of view. An illustration: One of the questions dividing our nation politically is pro-life vs. pro-choice. For various reasons, I align myself with the pro-choice group. And I work at understanding the point of view of those who call themselves “pro-life,” even if I think they’re wrong. I understand they believe they are advocating for the well-being of those who are most vulnerable among us. I understand they believe that a fetus that is on the path of becoming a human being has all the rights of a human being. And I appreciate this much: we are in danger of turning human life into a commodity, and the pro-life movement resists that trend. So even though I disagree with them, I’m not going to call them names or malign their motives; I’ll simply disagree. Please take that as an example and think of your own issues. Where are you inclined to speak and think badly of others; what can you do to understand their point of view?
Well, those are things that I feel compelled to throw at the wall; we’ll what sticks. “You shall not murder:” a few words that carry a big impact. Take care of yourselves physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Be ready to be reconciled. May God bless you and all the people of God.
Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master