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Every Life Matters

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Posted by Ros Clarke, 13 Mar 2018

In today's Lent blogpost, Ros Clarke looks at the scope of the sixth commandment and finds that we are all culpable. Catch up with the whole series of posts on the Apostles' Creed, the Ten Commandments and the Lord's Prayer here.

The sixth commandment

“You shall not murder.”
Exodus 20:13.

Is that a little sigh of relief I can hear? Finally we get to a commandment most of us feel pretty sure we can keep. Maybe you know that you haven’t always honoured your parents, and that you sometimes misuse God’s name. But at least you’ve never murdered anyone.

Except, of course, some people have. And if that’s you, it’s very important that you know God can forgive you, through Christ, no matter what you have done. Christians aren’t just the ‘good guys’, the people who keep up appearances and never have a run in with the law. Christians are the bad guys, the sinners, of all kinds and in all ways, who have recognised their sin and turned to Christ in repentance and faith.

This commandment, together with the ones that follow it, doesn’t have any explanation, promise or warning. It should be obvious why it’s wrong and it should be clear to us why God commands us not to do it. Life is precious. Life is given by God. Only God has the right, therefore, to take a life away. There is a moral imperative here. It’s not just a law given to keep Israelite society functioning well. Life matters to God and therefore life should matter to us.

In English law, we distinguish between several different kinds of killing: murder, manslaughter, killing in self-defence, killing as a soldier in war and so on. The Hebrew word used in the sixth commandment means more than just what we would call murder. It’s about taking the law into your own hands, killing someone without the authority of the state behind you. Accidental killing was recognised as something different and provision was made to protect accidental killers in the cities of refuge (Numbers 35: 6-32).

Murder polluted the whole community, even the land on which they lived: “Do not pollute the land where you are. Bloodshed pollutes the land, and atonement cannot be made for the land on which blood has been shed, except by the blood of the one who shed it. Do not defile the land where you live and where I dwell, for I, the Lord, dwell among the Israelites.” Numbers 35:33-34

How is the sixth commandment a mirror?

God is the lifegiver. He breathed life into Adam and he breathes life into each one of us: ‘he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else’ (Acts 17:25).

God is the sustainer of all life: ‘For in him we live and move and have our being’ (Acts 17:28).

And so, to take a life is to set ourselves up directly against God. Killing someone takes away the life that God has given and God has sustained. He is the lifegiver and we must not be lifetakers.

More than that, since life is a gift from God and life is precious to God, we should do whatever we can to preserve life.

How does the sixth commandment act as a deterrent?

Did the Israelites really need to be told that murder was wrong? Do we really need God to point that out to us? Surely we all have enough of an inherent sense of morality to have worked that out for ourselves?

Well, yes and no.

It’s true that in pretty much every human society the act of deliberately taking someone else’s life is reckoned as wrong. Or at least in some contexts it is, even if in some circumstances it is permitted.  But as we saw earlier, the sixth commandment isn’t only speaking about the kinds of killing that our courts would reckon as murder. Killing in revenge, killing by negligence, killing under the guise of medical intervention are all prohibited.

We don’t just have a responsibility not to take life; we also have a duty to prevent lives being taken in any and all of these ways, insofar as we are able.

That means speaking out against euthanasia and abortion. But it also means being careful in the way that we drive and ensuring that health and safety guidelines are kept in our workplaces. It means giving generously to people who don’t have access to food or medical care. It means teaching our children that every person’s life matters to God.

How does the sixth commandment set a standard for our behaviour?

“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.”
(Matthew 5:21-22)

Jesus shows us that the standard set by the sixth commandment is far higher than we might have first thought. It’s not just those who pull the trigger or drive the knife in who will be judged under this command. It’s “anyone who is angry with a brother or sister”. It’s anyone who calls names and mocks with insults. It’s anyone who hates in their hearts whether or not they take action with their hands.

It’s you and me.

Questions for reflection:

1. Why is human life so precious?
2. What actions could you take to help protect lives?
3. How have you broken the sixth commandment?

Prayer: Almighty God, the giver of life, who sustains us through every breath, may we never take the gift of life for granted. Lord God, we are sorry for all the times we have committed murder in our hearts by our anger and mockery. Please show us how we can do more to protect and preserve the lives of others, for your glory. Amen.

Ros Clarke is the Associate Director of Church Society

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