Sermon: Valuable Life

Exodus 20:1-17

It was in the Autumn when he brought his gift, when the leaves turn and the days grow shorter and the wind begins to blow just a little colder in the evenings. It was his favorite time of year.

The winter was horrible. Nothing grew. Even if he could have plowed the seeds would be wasted. The frozen ground was unyielding. It refused to receive and if forced to accept, refused to give anything back. In the winter he hated the land.

He welcomed the spring with its promise of new life. In the spring, he fell in love with the land again. It seemed to almost beckon him to begin. He endured the heat and weeds and work of summer with patience since he knew that autumn followed soon. And in the autumn he could reap the fruit of his sweat and labor.

So he brought his gift to the Father; the first fruits of the harvest. The best part. It wasn’t exactly what the Father had asked for, but it was what he loved most. And wouldn’t the Father accept so loved a gift? His brother, too, brought an offering, part of one of the animals from his flock. It was bloody and greasy.

Brown dirt stuck to the red meat and the flies swarmed. It was loathsome to smell. They waited there side by side at the altar for the Father to accept their gifts. Then He came. The Father looked first at both men, then at their gifts. Cain waited for His smile. But His smile did not come. His face was cold as the Winter and Cain hated the Winter. The Father looked at Abel and smiled approvingly.

He took the dirty, red meat and without a word He vanished. Cain’s beautiful gift, the fruit of his sweat and toil, was left on the altar to wither in the sun.
The emotion he felt that day was not a new one. Cain knew anger. He’d been angry at the land, angry at the weeds, angry at the heat. But this anger was different. It was directed not at something, but someone. Cain was angry with his brother Abel. And in a strange way, the anger felt good.

Then the Father spoke. “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it.”

He’d heard of sin. His father and mother had told him of it, warned him about it. As a child he’d been afraid of it. In the field once, he’d seen a serpent slithering among the plants. Out of fear he had crushed its head with a heavy rock. He remembered how the long, slender body had rolled in the dirt, coiling around the rock until all movement stopped. Now, the Father was telling him that sin was crouching at the door. But he felt no fear this time. Only anger.

The Father left and Cain rose to find his brother. “Let’s go out to the field,” he said. Abel, always the compliant one, led the way. As he followed behind him, Cain glared at his brother and felt his anger grow. The wind gusted and he caught the odor of sheep on his brother and the anger turned to hatred. When they walked over the crest of a hill where no one could see, Cain shoved his brother from behind, knocking him to the ground. Before Abel could catch his breath and voice a protest, Cain picked up a large stone and raised it above his head. He had wielded this weapon before out of fear. There was no fear this time. Only anger. Only hatred. With all his might he hurled the stone down upon his brother. Just like the snake, Abel rolled in the dirt for a moment, then was still. The last thing
Cain saw before he turned to walk away was his brother’s blood gathering in a depression in the earth.

The first murder on planet earth might have happened in that way. The sixth commandment may not be the most frequently violated of all the commands, but as we see from the story, when this one is disobeyed, more is broken than the law. From the beginning, human life has been sacred to God.

In Genesis 1:26, God said, ” “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; “

Vs. 27 adds, ” And God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them..”

In Genesis 9:5- 6, God told Noah, “And surely I will require your lifeblood; from every beast I will require it. And from every man, from every man’s brother I will require the life of man. Whoever sheds man’s blood, By man his blood shall be shed, For in the image of God He made man.”

God has valued life from the beginning, but from the beginning human beings have sold it at a bargain price. Besides Cain’s murder of his brother Abel, Genesis records other acts of violence. In one of the earliest poems ever composed, in Genesis 4:23 – 24, Lamech said to his wives, “Adah and Zillah, Listen to my voice, You wives of Lamech, Give heed to my speech, For I have killed a man for wounding me; And a boy for striking me; If Cain is avenged sevenfold, Then Lamech seventy-sevenfold.”

Genesis was just the beginning. The Bible records hundreds of murders. And they didn’t stop with Revelation. History records millions. We are a murderous people.

But is there more to the sixth commandment than a way of measuring how far the human race has fallen from the ideal? Isn’t there something we need to hear? None of us is guilty of murder. Probably haven’t even been tempted by it. But that doesn’t mean we can breeze through this commandment as if it has nothing to say to us. As with all of these commandments from God, there is more than first meets the ears.

Before we talk about what some of the implications of this commandment are, I want to mention several things that are not prohibited by this commandment.

First of all, it is significant that the commandment God gave was not “Thou shalt not kill” but rather “Thou shalt not commit murder.”

The Hebrew word that is used here is very specific and refers to murder. And, of course, as we know there’s a big difference between murder and killing.

It’s obvious that God didn’t intend to prohibit all life-taking, because the penalty for murder under the law of Moses was death. So if this commandment meant that you could never take a person’s life, then you couldn’t have someone punished for murder. There is a definite distinction made in the Bible between killing which is lawful and killing which is unlawful. Lets look at some of these…

Justifiable homicide
The law of Moses said there were certain times when a person was justified in killing another person. Suppose, for example, someone breaks into your house in the middle of the night. You wake up and discover him, there is a struggle and the thief is killed. According to the law of Moses, that type of killing didn’t fall under the sixth commandment.

We read in Exodus 22:2 “If the thief is found breaking in, and he is struck so that he dies, there shall be no guilt for his bloodshed.”

War
The Bible is clear also that the same God who told the Hebrews not to murder often sent them into war and told them to kill. And nowhere in Scripture New Testament or Old, are soldiers told to give up their military careers in order to be faithful to God. I would assume, then, that there are at least occasions when a person would be justified in taking a life in times of war.

Capital punishment
The Old Testament not only permitted but required the death penalty for certain crimes.

It’s interesting to me that this is the only law that is repeated in each and every one of the first five books of the Bible. God commanded the death penalty be given for murder, rape, kidnapping, and several other crimes.

When we look to the New Testament, when Jesus was on trial before Pilate, He never challenged the state’s right to execute criminals. Rather, Jesus acknowledged that right and told Pilate that his authority came from God (John 19:10).

In Romans 13:4, Paul makes it clear that the authority of the government to punish wrongdoers comes from God. “For he is God’s minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil.”

Well, enough of what the sixth commandment does NOT say. Let’s talk about what it does say and, more importantly, why it says it.

The Reason Behind This Commandment
God says, “You shall not murder.” What is the message or the principle that God is trying to get across to us in this commandment?
Basically, what God is saying is that human life is precious, it is sacred, and we ought to have the utmost respect for all human life.
I believe that there are two reasons.
1. Human life is sacred because we are made in the image of God.
God created all of life, including plants and animals. But if you look at Genesis chapter one, you’ll see that humans were created in a different way than the way all the other things were created. In every other act of creation, God said, “Let there be,” and it was so.

“Let there be light.” “Let there be plants.” Let there be birds and fish.” God spoke and creation occurred. But the creation of human life was different. God said, “Let us make man…” God didn’t just speak us into existence as he did everything else. No, he made us. We are the closest thing in all creation to God. We are the only part of creation made in the image of God.

In Genesis 2:7, “God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being.” God didn’t “breathe the breath of life” into any other creature, only man.

I like the words of T. S. Eliot who said, “…There’s something in us, in all of us which isn’t just heredity, but something unique. Something we have been from eternity. Something… straight from God.”

2. Human life is valuable because of the price that was paid
I was visiting a member of our congregation a little while back and found that he collected Comics. What’s a Comic worth? Well, I’m sure if you added up the material cost, it might be around a couple of rand. But if you’ve got a rare Comic that everybody wants to buy, it might be worth several hundred rands. You determine the value of something by what someone is willing to pay.

That concept is important, because it tells us exactly what a human life is worth. Paul writes in Romans 5:8, “But God demonstrates his own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
Jesus said in Mark 10:45, “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.”

So let’s get practical here. Your next door neighbor – the one whose dog barks all night – The one who plays loud music and refuses to mow the lawn on the pavement – who complains about the trees in your garden. How much is he worth? He’s worth so much that Jesus Christ was willing to give his life so that he might know salvation.

How about the guy who cuts you off in the traffic? Or the driver who just sits there when the light turns green? Guess what, they’re worth that much, too. And so is every man and woman who irritates you, who frustrates you, and even those who may ridicule and abuse you.

You see, ultimately, the sixth commandment is about more than just murder. Which is a shame because I was beginning to feel pretty self-righteous because I’ve never murdered anybody. Ultimately the sixth commandment has to do with the respect I have for people and the value I place on their lives.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ’You shall not murder,’ and whoever murders will be in danger of the judgment. But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment. And whoever says to his brother, ’Raca!’ shall be in danger of the council. But whoever says, ’You fool!’ shall be in danger of hell fire.” (Matthew 5:21-23)

I think what Jesus is saying is that when we get this angry with someone then deep down inside we’re thinking that this person doesn’t deserve to be alive. In that instant of anger, we’re saying, “I don’t want to have anything to do with this person….as far as I’m concerned my life would be better if his life would end.” And perhaps we have been at that point more often than we’d like to admit. If we’re not careful, we can live our lives motivated by anger and hatred.

But I would suggest that the principle of the sixth commandment even goes beyond that. It is a call to respect people and care about them.

That means that if we want to see the true value of human beings, we need to see them from God’s perspective. Because the only way to truly cherish the lives of other people is to see each and every person the way God sees them: made in his image, and worth more than the life of his only Son.
Let me give you an example of how we might do this – you might remember the story of Terry Schaivo. This is a quote from Wikipedia..

Theresa Marie Schindler “Terri” Schiavo was an American woman who suffered brain damage and became dependent on a feeding tube. She collapsed in her home on February 25, 1990, and experienced respiratory and cardiac arrest, resulting in extensive brain damage, a diagnosis of persistent vegetative state (PVS) and 15 years of institutionalization. In 1998, Michael Schiavo, her husband and guardian, petitioned the Pinellas County Circuit Court to remove her feeding tube. Robert and Mary Schindler, her parents, opposed this, arguing she was conscious. The court determined that Schiavo would not wish to continue life-prolonging measures. This controversy stretched on for seven years and included involvement by politicians and advocacy groups, notably pro-life and disability rights ones. Before the local court’s decision was carried out, on March 18, 2005, the governments of Florida and the United States had passed laws that sought, unsuccessfully, to prevent removal of Schiavo’s feeding tube. These events resulted in extensive national and international media coverage.

By March 2005, the legal history around the Schiavo case included fourteen appeals and numerous motions, petitions, and hearings in the Florida courts; five suits in Federal District Court; Florida legislation struck down by the Supreme Court of Florida; a subpoena by a congressional committee to qualify Schiavo for witness protection; federal legislation (Palm Sunday Compromise); and four denials of certiorari from the Supreme Court of the United States.

She died at a Pinellas Park hospice on March 31, 2005, at the age of 41. Some have since maintained that her death constituted judicial murder.

It seems to me that not only physicians but the rest of us are smart enough to know the difference between protecting, enhancing, and empowering a human life with reasonable hope of recovery and merely prolonging the process of dying. Skill and technology that help our recoveries are admirable and ethical; the same skill and technology used to prolong our dying are unnecessary and ill-advised.

Maybe a key issue here is our common insensitivity which fails to see that what is best possible treatment for a person lacking higher brain function is not always the most treatment possible. The idea that an emotional observer’s faint hope of another’s recovery is better than peer-reviewed medical judgment under extensive court scrutiny over several years is simply irresponsible.

Death is sometimes an ally instead of an enemy. Perhaps death itself needs to be reconsidered by all of us. It is not an absolute evil. It is sometimes an instrumental good for those without reasonable hope of recovery. Sometimes the real evil lies in forcing someone to endure existence that is no longer really life.

At the root of the Sixth Commandment is God’s concern for how we treat each other.

And any time we violate the dignity of a human being we are treating that person with contempt
Any time we permit our anger to seethe and boil without resolution, we devalue not on the relationship we share with that person, but also that person’s life.

Any time we dismiss someone out of prejudice, dislike or disrespect, we fall under the condemnation of the sixth commandment.

To Jesus, every human being is a brother and sister. And because we are members of the same family, the human race, we have a responsibility to each other. In Genesis, with the memory of his brother’s blood still fresh in his mind, God confronted Cain. “Where is your brother?”

“Am I my brother’s keeper?” Cain asked. God said to him, “The blood of your brother cries out to me from the ground.”

 

Yes, Cain, you are your brother’s keeper. And so are all of us. The challenge of the sixth commandment is not simply to avoid the taking of human life, but to value the life that God gave … to treat it with dignity and the deepest respect.



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