Confessions: Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 40, Q&A 105-107
Purpose: To call God’s people to a deeper obedience to the 6th commandment and so witness to Kingdom living.
Sermon prepared by Rev. Colin Vander Ploeg, Abbotsford, BC
Keywords: murder, anger, slander, neighbor, brother/sister in Christ, relationships/love
Congregation of our Lord Jesus Christ,
Today we look at the sixth commandment as guided by the Heidelberg Catechism, Question and Answer 105-107. The sixth commandment is, “You shall not murder.” To understand where the catechism is coming from in how it interprets this command, we turn to a part of Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount,” as it is usually called. This Sermon on the Mount has often been used quite literally. It is quoted to reinforce people’s stand against divorce or adultery, against judging others or against love of money. But not too often do you hear anyone beating the literalistic drum for Jesus’ words here about murder.
There seems to be too much distance in severity between calling someone an idiot and murdering someone. Neither is good or right, of course, but certainly murder is a vastly different thing than calling someone a fool. Yet in both Matthew 5 and in the Catechism’s reflections on the sixth commandment the two are tied together closely. Why is this so? Are we all murderers? Are we all capable of murder? Is what we need to guard against the first steps of murder, namely, wicked thoughts and words in order for us to avoid ending up as newspaper headlines?
To get at the connection between what Jesus teaches in Matthew 5 and the sixth commandment we need to be aware of how we normally understand the commandment. So, if someone asked you, “What is the meaning of, ‘You shall not murder?’” what would you tell them? Most likely, we would tell them that it means exactly what it says: we are not supposed to murder anyone, plain and simple. That would be correct. However, in light of Jesus’ words, that answer would also be incomplete.
Jesus tells the crowds, verse 21, “You have heard that it was said to the people a long time ago, ‘Do not murder and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.” Notice that Jesus does not say, “It is written. . .” He says, “You have heard . . .” By this Jesus points out that the old familiar 10 commandments were understood in a certain way, namely, that if you kill someone, shed their blood, remove their life, then you stand condemned and are in danger of judgment.
If you kill someone, then you are guilty of breaking the sixth commandment as given on Mount Sinai. And who will argue with that? Some translations add “without just cause” to “anyone who murders” in verse 21. But this is based on a later addition by a copyist probably trying to make room for things like capitol punishment or killing in self-defense or the killing done in a perceived just war.
Still, we usually accept this qualification without even saying it. When we hear or read, “You shall not kill,” we most often think of the kind of killing that has no just cause. We think of convicted murders we read about in the papers or see on TV, or the killing done by gangs warring with each other. Clearly the commandment is dealing with this kind of killing. Murder is killing someone and that’s what the 6th commandment is all about.
But then Jesus adds, verse 22, “But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment.” His words are carefully chosen. Murder is subject to judgment. In other words a murderer is condemned by the law of God and stands in danger of God’s judgment. However, says the Lord, this same judgment is also true if you are angry with your brother. In such anger, you stand condemned by that same law and are also in the same danger of judgment unless some remedy is found.
Also, note that Jesus says anyone who is angry with his brother. This is first of all about you and your brother or sister in the Lord. The Jews in Matthew’s day would understand that to mean, my brother Jew, my fellow child of God’s covenant in Abraham. To us it is our fellow Christian, our brother or sister in the same covenant fulfilled in Christ. You would think that Jesus would start with the anger of a murderer toward his intended victim. But no, Jesus points us to anger that can often flare up against each other in a congregation of believers.
The connection is plain. The same judgment that stands against a murder also stands against one who is angry with a fellow believer. Both are subject to judgment. Is the connection then that anger is the precursor to murder? So, perhaps Jesus is instructing us that if we avoid or address anger among us we can avoid any of us ending up behind bars for murder. That would be the meaning if Jesus stopped there. But he adds to this a few more almost ridiculous statements.
Verse 22b, “Again, anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca’ is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.” Now “Raca,” most scholars figure, is an Aramaic swear word of sorts. It literally means something like “empty-headed;” kind of like calling someone a “dumb-head” or “stupid” but with more of a foul language tone to it. And a “fool” is one who is rebellious against what is good and wise, instead doing what is rash and damaging.
We can see in the words “anger”, “raca” and “fool” a commonality of what is happening. In all three there is animosity against our brother. This results in attempts, as the catechism describes, to belittle, insult or hate by thoughts words, looks or gestures. This is an attempt, by hurling words at someone or about someone, to reduce your brother or sister to a state of worthlessness.
But it is the punishments described for these three that are the most puzzling. It seems that the worst punishment is reserved not for the anger or the murder but for the name calling. Why is this? Is Jesus changing the Law of God? That cannot be the case because if we read the verses just before this passage in Matthew 5, we find Jesus’ pointed reminder about the Law of God in verse 17, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.”
Instead of changing anything in the law, what Jesus is doing is deepening the impact and meaning of the Law. Actually that’s not exactly right; Jesus is deepening our understanding of the meaning and impact of the Law. The sixth commandment of God to not murder was always intended to guide God’s people in how to relate to each other. But too often we think this commandment has to do only with actual bloody attacks and physically fatal wounds. Jesus points us to the radical call in God’s Law to be holy in his presence in all our relating to others. Murder is, of course, forbidden. But with the same urgency so is anger and harsh words between brothers and sisters in the church of Jesus Christ.
What is at stake here? Why does Jesus bother to make this point at all? In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus is giving us guidance in how we are to live as his citizens in the Kingdom of God. This Kingdom will be fully revealed when Jesus returns, but it is not enough to wait till then to live like citizens of His Kingdom. Jesus’ message is always that the Kingdom of God has arrived already in Him.
By faith we are grafted into Christ and so we are members of that Kingdom already now. Therefore, we are called to live as children of that Kingdom in this life today. Now, in order to be recognizable as children of this Kingdom of God by living as disciples of Christ, there cannot be even a hint of murder among us.
What difference would it make if we just refrain from actual murder but still demonstrate anger, rage, slander and degrading gossip? Then we live no differently than anyone else in this world. Most people do not go around murdering anyone, but many are quick to shout angry words at anyone who crosses them or cuts them off on the highway or rips them off at the store. Many easily gossip about those they don’t like or are envious of. Christians, however, follow the Law of God. We are not to be that person stomping off in a rage, or calling someone names.
Where neighbors might enter a war of silence and disdain for each other destroying community, we in the Body of Christ are to guard our togetherness carefully. For as Jesus points out, just showing up at church is no substitute for true fellowship with one another. That is what Jesus means in verses 23 and following. Jesus gives us the two examples to make clear the message of the sixth commandment.
The first example is usually read the wrong way. We usually read verse 23 to be saying this: “If I have something against my brother or sister, I need to first settle that before I can take Lord’s Supper.” Often this verse is used by people who are upset at a fellow church member. The upset person doesn’t take communion because of how they read this verse. A person might say, “I am too angry with that person for what he did to me, for me to take communion.” However listen carefully to what is actually written for us here in verse 23, “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.”
Notice what this says. If you know that someone has something against you, then you are to go to him or her and attempt to resolve it. It is not that you are angry at someone because they hurt you. It is when they are angry at you because you have hurt them; you have treated them so sloppily that they became hurt or angry. It is nearly impossible for reconciliation to happen unless you recognize that you hurt them and go and ask their forgiveness and try to reconcile.
This must be done before you try to carry on with the rituals of the faith, such as, in Matthew’s day, giving a gift to sacrifice on the altar in the temple, or for our day, before offering gifts of songs, prayers or even money offerings in worship. Since the Lord’s Supper is not a gift we offer in any way, it is least likely in view here. The point is that reconciliation between brothers and sisters in the faith is essential to living as a people of God forgiven and reconciled to God in Christ.
It is so essential that Jesus even adds the second example of someone being taken to court for obviously some legal infraction has occurred. Verse 25 says we are to “Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still with him on the way.” The result of failing to do this is to be condemned, judged and thrown into prison. This prison mentioned here is most likely a debtor’s prison into which those who could not pay their debt were thrown. Their only way out was if others would pay their way out for them. For the convicted it would be too late.
The point of this example is that reconciliation in cases of offence between members of Christ is of the utmost urgency. As urgent as it is to be reconciled for someone who is on the way to court to be convicted, so should be our urgency to overcome any hatred, anger and malice that arises between us. We know that God requires us to live the gospel of reconciliation and not just enact the rituals of peace. And so that is how carefully we are to guard the harmony of our fellowship.
God’s command against murder points us in the direction of thankful living. How thankful can we be for the reconciliation, for the peace we have with God in Christ, if we are content to live with anger, hatred, or gossip right here among us in our fellowship with one another?
The Jews in Jesus day, especially the wealthy and the leaders among them were content to follow the outward simple meaning of, “You shall not kill.” But they scorned and mistreated those of lesser standing, those without the power to resist them. They neglected justice for those who could not defend themselves against injustice. They shunned those who could not make their own way in the world but had to rely on others. And so many of their poorer brother and sister Jews had things against them because of the treatment they received at their hands.
We today in the church of Jesus Christ need to be looking closely at how we treat each other, especially the ones who do not have the power to stand up for themselves. It is our call from God to reconcile ourselves to them especially since God watches all that we do. Often those who are slandered or slighted are too angry and hurt to reach out for reconciliation. But God knows what we do and say. So His call to us is to be pro-active in making sure that we have not hurt someone in our carelessness or our self-interest.
Murder is, of course, clearly wrong. Vengeance belongs to the Lord. Yet we are also called to a deeper obedience to the sixth commandment. We are called to live in the reconciliation and peace we receive as a gift of grace from the Lord Jesus Himself. As the catechism puts it in Question and Answer 107, “God tell us to love our neighbors as ourselves, to be patient, peace-loving, gentle, merciful, and friendly to them, to protect them from harm as much as we can, and to do good even to our enemies.”
Can we see now the direction of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 5 about murder? Refraining from actual murder is the barest of minimum. Even the non-Christian world understands that. But Christians live in a different Kingdom, where the Ten Commandments are capstones on ways of living in fellowship that run counter to the world’s ways and counter to the desires of our sinful nature.
We don’t simply refrain from evil, but in fact live out the good and holy before the watching world. And that is most visible in how we treat others, especially those who we say are our brothers and sisters in Christ. Therefore, going far deeper than simply refraining from murder, let us consider our fellowship, our togetherness as most precious and be wary of anger and bitterness. Instead, let us seek to love deeply and always seek to be reconciled to one another in all cases where we have offended against someone. And so we will fulfill the command of God to love, bearing witness to God’s love shown to us in Christ Jesus.
Prayer of Application: “Lord Jesus, you call us to a higher standard than this world does or our flesh desires. Grant us your Spirit’s power to live in reconciled fellowship with one another. Make us eager to be united in your love and just as eager to love our neighbors as ourselves. We desire this because you loved us first and in that love we find our peace with God. In your precious name we pray, Amen.”
Order of Worship
Welcome and announcements
GOD GATHERS US TO WORSHIP HIM IN CHRIST’S NAME
Call to Worship: Psalm 95: 6-7
Opening prayer for God’s blessing on the service: “May God’s grace, mercy and peace be ours in the name of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen!”
Opening songs: “God Himself Is with Us” PsH #244, “We Praise You, O God” PsH #237
SERVICE OF RECONCILIATION
Prayer of Confession
God’s Will for our Lives: Romans 12: 1-3
Time of prayer: Read Proverbs 25:21-22 then lead in a prayer for peace in specific troubled areas of in the world.
Song of response: “Dwell in Me, O Blessed Spirit” PsH #427
GOD SPEAKS HIS WORD
Prayer for the Spirit’s leading in the study of God’s Word
Scripture reading: Matthew 5:21-26
Confessional reading: Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 40, Q&A 105-107
Sermon: “Much More Than No Murder”
Prayer of response
Song of response: “Make Me a Channel of Your Peace” PsH #545
GOD GIVES HIS BLESSING
Prayer for God’s blessing as we depart: “May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God the Father, and the dwelling of the Holy Spirit be ours. Amen!”
Closing song: “Praise God, from Whom All Blessings Flow” #PsH 637