READ : Matthew 5:21-26
Most of us know that God’s law says, “You shall not kill,” but do we understand all that means?
New religious movements often turn destructive towards the past. While visiting one of the magnificent cathedrals of England several years ago, I noticed a number of empty niches on the walls. During the Middle Ages, these had been filled with statues of saints, but in the Reformation era the statues were destroyed because they were thought to break God’s commandment against the use of images in worship. That sort of reformist zeal is called iconoclasm, and it has an ancient pedigree in Christian history. The first literal iconoclasts were Greeks who conducted a campaign against pictures (“icons” in Greek) that were being used in Christian worship. Nowadays we use the word to describe those who take a negative or destructive attitude toward the values, institutions or tastes of the past.
Iconoclasm, albeit in milder forms, still exists today. New movements often view the past with distaste, as when, for instance, contemporary churches reject the liturgy, language and music of previous generations of believers. So it would be natural to expect that Jesus would have been an iconoclast. After all, here was an exciting new figure bursting in on Israel’s religious scene. He was totally different, a radical contrast to the religious establishment of the day. Jesus’ coming was new wine indeed, and it was only to be expected that he should call for new wineskins to hold it. He spoke about spiritual things with a unique authority, so it would not have been surprising if he had called for the old religion to be swept away to make room for his new teaching.
But Jesus was not an iconoclast. His own view was that he had come to complete the Old Testament, not overthrow it. “I have not come to abolish the scriptures but to fulfill them,” he said. He was the meaning behind all the old prophecies, the reality of which the ceremonies and sacrifices were a picture. His purpose was not to repeal God’s law but to explain its true meaning, to expose the depths of its ethical demands and apply them consistently to human life. And so in his sermon on the Mount, he offers an extended commentary upon several of the 10 Commandments of the law, beginning with the sixth commandment, “You shall not kill.”
You have heard that it was said to those of ancient time,
‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ 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. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court . . . or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.
Matthew 5:21-26, nrsv
Notice how Jesus introduces his commentary on the commandment. He sets up a sort of contrast between past religious authorities and his own opinion. “You have heard that it was said . . . but I say to you.” The contrast is between the law in its traditional interpretation and Jesus’ own ideas. Notice too the almost casual assumption of authority behind his words. It sounds as if he thinks he knows more about the law than all of the specialists and experts and teachers in history. “You know the commandments,” he’s saying, in effect. “You’ve heard all the traditional interpretations and explanations, but now I’m telling you this.” The Jewish rabbis loved to cite authority. They quoted endlessly from past generations of scholars to explain the meaning of the law and its commandments, but Jesus didn’t talk like that at all. He talks like someone who is on an entirely different level, who comes from a different place altogether. He talks not like a student of the law but like the lawgiver himself.
“YOU SHALL NOT KILL”
So what does he say about the particular commandment with which he begins? The sixth of the Ten Commandments prohibits unlawful killing, “You shall not kill”; or, it could be translated, “You shall not commit murder.” Jesus modifies this basic law of human conduct (one which, by the way, is common to every human ethical code) in two different ways.
First, he internalizes it. According to Jesus, God’s intention in the law was not simply to prohibit the overt act of killing or physical violence against another. God is also interested in the attitudes which lie behind violent acts and lead up to them or actually trigger them. So Jesus begins to probe within the landscape of our souls, talking not about bloody deeds or serial killers (which are probably quite foreign to most of us) but about things that are very close to us all the time, things like anger and hatred and contempt. “Listen,” he says, “when the law forbids murder, it’s also condemning the ways we can kill people in our thoughts or with our words, even if we never lay a hand on them.”
He explains what he means with a series of examples drawn from everyday life. If you like to indulge your anger against people who do things you don’t like, if you’re good at carrying a grudge, then, says Jesus, you’re going to be judged for it. If you despise and condemn your neighbor, if you like to hurl insults at people – Jesus talks about calling your brother “Raca,” a contemporary term of abuse that means something like “Fool” or “Idiot” (substitute your own favorite insult and you’ll get his meaning) – if you do that, then you put yourself in great danger of being condemned by God. I can still remember hearing these verses in church when I was a boy and feeling nervous about them. I was pretty sure I had never called my brother Tom a “Raca,” but I knew I was in trouble on the anger issue. And I also recall thinking how lucky it was for me Jesus hadn’t said, “Whoever calls his brother a jerk will be in danger of hell.” But, of course, that is exactly what he meant. It’s not the particular words we choose, it’s talking this way at all that is wrong. And it’s entertaining the thoughts and the feelings that give birth to the words. That is how breaking the sixth commandment actually starts.
Jesus’ teaching here opens a window into a hidden world inside of us, a world of passions and emotions – the things of which our physical acts of violence are simply an extension. Killing begins with anger. It is made possible by contempt, by despising other people, or perhaps whole classes of people, by thinking of them as beneath oneself. Do you realize that prejudice and racism are forms of murder? The use of insults and epithets, slander, ridicule – these are all ways of killing. Here’s how one classic Christian confession explains it:
I am not to belittle, insult, hate or kill my neighbor, not by my thoughts, my words, my look or gesture and certainly not by actual deeds . . . by forbidding murder God teaches us that he hates the root of murder: envy, hatred, anger, vindictiveness.
(Heidelberg Catechism, Questions 105 and 106)
What Jesus is really talking about is how important people are to God. People matter! Their persons are sacred and are not to be injured or defiled or defamed in any way. And Jesus adds an awful warning to his teaching when he says that hatred will be judged by God. God will visit a terrible punishment upon those who with their thoughts or words or actions hurt others.
When I hear that I realize that every one of us is a murderer. That does not mean, of course, that it is just as bad to be angry with someone as it is to actually kill them. That isn’t Jesus’ point at all. But it does mean that every single one of us is guilty, and if Jesus is right, we are quite literally deserving of hell. If you still think you can earn salvation or merit heaven by your good works, then a careful reading of Jesus’ sermon will put you straight in a hurry. And it will also drive you to repentance, to mourn for your sins, to admit your spiritual poverty, to plead with God for his mercy and forgiveness.
THE MEANING OF THE LAW
I said Jesus interprets the commandment in two ways. First, he deepens and intensifies it by drawing attention to our attitudes, thoughts and words. The other thing he does is to expand it by describing the positive steps it requires us to take. God’s law isn’t just negative. We might think of it that way because so many of the commands come in the form of prohibitions, all the “Thou Shall Nots.” What we may not realize is that each of the negatives implies a positive. Not only does the law forbid us from doing certain things; it also requires us to do certain other things. Every commandment implies its opposite, so here in the command against outward killing (and inward hating), the positive duty Jesus talks about is reconciliation.
Suppose you say, “All right, I’m not supposed to be angry or insulting or hurtful toward my enemies; what do I do then?” Jesus replies, “Make friends with them.” And, he adds in a very practical suggestion, do it quickly, do it right away, do it now, today, even if you’re in the middle of worship. Don’t worry about who is to blame or whose fault it was. Whatever the cause of the conflict, you seek the other person out and try to be reconciled, right now, because the longer you wait to make peace, or to apologize, or ask forgiveness, or just to try to make up, the harder it will be. And, Jesus says, the greater the eventual price that will have to be paid.
So this is what I’m supposed to do, you ask? Not only to live and let live, but to hold my temper and my tongue, and when I lose them, to go seek out the other person and make the first move to be reconciled – even if he’s the guilty party? Why should I do that? It sounds impossible!
Well, if you are not a Christian, I don’t know if there’s anything I could say to convince you, although I’m sure that if you followed Jesus’ teaching, it would actually make you happier and healthier. But if, on the other hand, you are a Christian, then I only need to say one thing why. You should obey this commandment because it is the law of Christ.
My family and I were enjoying a children’s concert at the symphony when the conductor stopped to explain to the audience how good musicians approach their work. “They hate wrong notes,” he said. “It isn’t enough to get nine out of ten notes right, not even 99 out of 100. If there’s just one wrong note in a thousand, a good musician still hates it.” Why? Because of their love for the music, for getting it right, exactly right, every time.
As Christians, our lives are a work of art, a sort of performance that we are offering up to God. He’s given us a score to follow so that we can get it right every time. And we need to care about hitting all the right notes, not out of some narrow kind of legalism or fear of punishment if we make a mistake, but to please him, to play the song the way he intends it to be so that he will take delight in us and we can show our love for him. That’s what keeping the law is all about.