In this series of understanding the 10 commandments for today, I explored the fifth commandment, the first commandment with a promise. I described it as the transitional commandment, because in honouring our parents, it did not speak about God directly, but the promise of the Promised Land, clearly seemed to be connecting relationship with earthly parents was indicative of relationship with heavenly parent, for promise to be realised.
It is also transitional in the sense that the commandments now seem to move from an obvious focus on our thoughts, words and actions toward God to our thoughts, words and actions toward other human beings. Having said this, there is a continuation of the theme of last week, that is, to say,
‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ (Matthew 25:40; NRSV)
The sixth, seventh, eighth and ninth commandments read in our prayer book as starkly as they are stated in the biblical text of both Exodus and Deuteronomy,
6. You shall do no murder
7. You shall not commit adultery
8. You shall not steal
9. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour
The only distinction we may make regarding the sixth commandment is that, in the old King James Version (KJV), murder is translated as ‘kill’. I think it is obvious that ‘kill’ is an inadequate, and too general, translation of the commandment because it would mean that we would go hungry, even as vegetarians. ‘Murder’ is a specific definition of killing.
It is helpful, I think, that these four commandments begin with the commandment, ‘You shall do no murder,’ because all four commandments express a reminder and need for protection from the ways that we can, and do, take away the fullness of life others.
Murder in its blatant form is obvious in how it takes away the life of another. It is irreconcilable. I would be happy to believe that there are no readers here who have murdered. Indeed, there may be some who may have gone to war and killed another human, as much as a burden that may be, or have been, for you, but there are none who have murdered.
There is a more overarching recognition for Jesus, as to how we describe and murder,
“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; 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. (Matthew 5:21-22; NRSV)
We can take away the fullness of life of another, simply by the words that we use to them, or of them. We have many words which we can describe as swear words, but in Australian culture those words can equally be used as terms of endearment as well as a means to insult. It is not the words themselves that are problematic; it is the motivation behind the words. The intent to put someone down, to make them less than, is to take away their fullness of life. The old proverb, ‘Sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me,’ would be absolutely nonsense to Jesus. The names that we use, even ‘you fool’ take away the fullness of life of another and are murderous. We are, perhaps, more guilty of murder than we are willing to accept.
Jesus also brings new definition, other than the obvious blatant one, for adultery,
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. (Matthew 5:27-28; NRSV)
Adultery is not just in the action of sleeping with a person that you are not married to. It is also an action of the thoughts. Adultery is not, then, simply concerned with misplaced sexual conduct. Adultery is any situation where there is a betrayal of the most intimate trust between a husband and wife, or between any person and another where a trust relationship exists. God, too, sees the idolatry of we humans as adulterous, a breach of the trust relationship between God and us. How hard it is to repair a relationship where trust has been shattered.
Whether it is murder, adultery, stealing, or bearing false witness, Jesus reinterprets these things to be more than what they literally mean. It is our tendency only to interpret these commandments literally that enables us to claim that we have fulfilled them. The essences of these four commandments speak about the sinful nature that leads us to deny, or take away, the fullness of life that belongs to others: we put others down, we betray trust, we take what belongs to others, we tell lies, all to make ourselves look and feel better than others.
As we approach the cross of Good Friday to be a people who rely on the law to define our relationship with God is to be a people who continue to nail Jesus to the cross. Our response to the commandments determine whether we are the man born blind who can now see, or the Pharisees, who think they can see, but are actually blind in their heart.
We are all entitled to, and invited to, have life to the full,
The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly. (John 10:10; NRSV)
When we baptise we are not entering the candidate into a religion of rules and obedience to rules, we are inviting him into a promise of new life and life to the full in relationship with God and amongst people who share that relationship with God. Our sinfulness is not defined our inability to fulfil the commandments. The commandments reveal that we are people who tend to break down relationship with God, with others and with self, but they are also to protect us from that tendency and enable us to have life abundantly, and to the full.