Friday, October 5, 2007


The Ten Commandments as Grace and Law

Exodus 20:13, 21:12-17; Matthew 5:21-26

[The first of two sermons for this weekend]
As we have moved along through this extended reflection on the Ten Commandments we have mused about the significance of the order, or if there is any significance to the order at all. We have seen a kind of order emerge: first, a commandment about loyalty to this one God; second, a commandment about not trying to remake this God into our own image; third, a commandment about being very careful how we use the name of this God; fourth, a commandment about "ceasing work" so that we may rest and remember who this God is and who we are; and fifth, a commandment about the means by which the knowledge of this God is passed from one generation to the next -- honoring our heritage by passing it on to our children.

At least to me, there seems to be a progression there, all related to preserving our relationship to God. Does it seem that way to you? It also makes a certain sense to me that there are five for our relationship to God and five for our relationship with our neighbors. That makes it neat when you look at your two hands and ten fingers. We'll never know if that was what was originally intended in the order.

Whatever significance you attach to the ordering of the commandments, it seems clear that the final five are the fundamental pillars that govern all human relationships. I also believe that while the final five are the indispensable elements of any meaningful community life, that the commandments not to murder and not to commit adultery head the list of five because murder and adultery are the greatest destroyers of individuals, families, and communities. This is at odds with the current values in our culture: our culture for the most part takes murder seriously but it tends to wink at adultery. We'll talk more about adultery next week.

We would probably not question the command not to murder being in the number one position of commandments having to do with human relationships. Of all the things we can do to each other, there is finality about murder that is different from the other four. Once a life has been taken it cannot be given back, no matter how great the sorrow, no matter how great the punishment. In that regard, murder is in a class by itself.

Having stated what we agree on about this commandment, stating what else we might agree on is more difficult. The stark simplicity of the command, "no murder," raises as many questions as answers. How are we to understand this commandment in issues that face us today: capital punishment, war, euthanasia, and abortion? When the people of Israel tried to understand what it meant for them to obey the commandments they didn't conclude that this commandment forbad capital punishment. As you heard from the reading from Exodus 21, the chapter following the one containing the Ten Commandments, you heard about those conditions under which another life could be taken. Premeditated murder, the striking of one's mother or father, kidnapping, and even cursing one's parents were all crimes punishable by death, as well as a whole host of others we didn't read. The people of ancient Israel didn't understand this commandment to forbid killing in wartime, and perhaps not in euthanasia or abortion.

Whether or not you agree with them, these harsh laws of capital punishment are offered in defense of human life, to preclude actions that would destroy community. If we've learned anything in our time it should be that "valuing human life" is not simple. The proponents of capital punishment, those who accept the sometime necessity of war, those who advocate some practice of euthanasia, and those who oppose abortion, all value human life. But of course, those who oppose capital punishment, those who are pacifists, those who oppose euthanasia, and those who are labeled "Pro Choice" in the matter of abortion, they too, value life.

Although our disagreements over these issues are deep and complex, our discussion of them is made more difficult by the tendency to demonize our opponents by saying that they do not value life. As we wrestle with the public policy implications of these issues, I wish we could acknowledge that both sides are represented by people trying to be faithful to the valuing of life implicit in the sixth commandment.

In the 20th century there may be no one who struggled with the questions of violence and valuing human life more than Dietrich Bonhoeffer. When Hitler took power in Germany in the 1930s, this brilliant scholar left the security of the United States to return to his own country where he became one of the leaders of German Christians who refused to accept Hitler's doctrines of National Socialism and even entered into an unsuccessful plot to assassinate Hitler. Bonhoeffer was arrested, kept in prison, and executed in April 1945, just before the Allies liberated the area where he was imprisoned.

Bonhoeffer's expertise as a theologian was in the area of Christian ethics ("Ethics" is the study of values and principles that guide one's actions). His "valuing of life" led him to the conclusion that killing Hitler would save many lives. In retrospect, that seems so obvious to most of us, doesn't it? So seriously did Bonhoeffer take the sixth commandment and all of the teachings of Jesus that he is said to have confessed to a friend, "I know that I may burn in hell for this action." I think Bonhoeffer was wrong about his fear, but I know he was right in his extreme reluctance to take a life, even in such a justifiable situation. If we followed his example we would be more reluctant to execute people on death row, more reluctant to make war, more reluctant to engage in "mercy killings," and more reluctant to have abortions. I didn't say that those things were never the right course of action. The sixth commandment and Bonhoeffer's example all warn that "valuing human life" requires that such acts be taken only with the greatest reluctance and with the knowledge that we have to answer to God for those actions.

"But what did Jesus say about murder?" you may be asking. If you are looking to Jesus to give you a legal code like that of the 613 rabbinic laws in the Old Testament, you will look in vain. Those who have taken his teachings in the New Testament and tried to make a new legal code of love have, in my opinion, misunderstood him. He did not remove the inherent ambiguity of this commandment. Out of respect for the commandments the people of ancient Israel attempted to work out a system of regulations, both written and oral, that could tell a person the "right" or "wrong" action in every situation. The result, however well meaning, was to establish a massive set of regulations that only religious professionals could hope to keep. The regulations became a way of categorizing people into "good" and "bad," "righteous people" and “sinners." A system designed for moral uprightness had become small-minded pettiness, a practice that Christians have all too often repeated.

That was the situation into which Jesus was born. His teaching about the Law is directed to the abusive system of rules and ordinances that had been institutionalized over the centuries rather than to the Ten Commandments themselves. In the passage we read this morning Jesus said, "You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, '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…" Jesus was not equating "anger" and "murder." It was a statement that physical violence was not the only way to hurt someone: "anger" can also do damage. Jesus' words were intended to show the limitations of the legal system erected to interpret the commandments. It is as if he were saying, "You think that the legal system has all the answers as to what constitutes violence to another person. I'm telling you that even verbal abuse is violence and makes you liable to God's judgment." Jesus was not giving a new law: he was saying that even adherence to their intricate system of law did not cover all the ways that they could hurt each other. In our culture where so much of our violence is "domestic violence," it is well to be reminded that God cares not only about physical abuse, but also about verbal abuse. We may not be legally accountable for verbal abuse, but we are accountable to God.

If Jesus were to talk today about expanding our understanding of violence, as he did in the first century, he might point to the ways God may hold us accountable for "murder" indirectly committed by government or corporate policy. Suppose, for example, an auto manufacturer knows from statistical projections that a defect in one of their cars will result in five additional fatalities in a year and that as a result of those five deaths the auto manufacturer will have to pay out $20 million in liability settlements. The manufacturer also knows that to have a recall and change the defects would cost $40 million. If the manufacturer knows this and doesn't make the change to save $20 million, is the manufacturer guilty of murder? If stockholders know this and continue to hold stock in the company are they also guilty of murder? At what point are death-causing government or corporate policies "statistically insignificant" and at what points do such policies constitute "murder?" In our high tech and interdependent world, actions that kill people can be very indirect, but just as deadly.

We should not take comfort in the fact that neither the commandments nor Jesus' teaching gives us clear answers for all the ethical dilemmas with which violence confronts us. While individuals and societies in each time and place must work out what the "valuing of human life" requires and restricts, Jesus insists that the absence of rules governing every situation does not exempt us from responsibility to God for our actions. God expects us to use our heads and our hearts.

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