(This is a sermon I preached in 2008 in England. It seems sadly appropriate at this time.)
This is a no-brainer isn’t it? A bit like ‘You shall not steal’. It is obvious that society cannot function if people are killing each other whenever they feel like it – ‘That bleep driver is going too bleep slow, I’m going to give him a what for!!’ Can you imagine what would happen if every mother who said, ‘I brought you into this world, I will take you out’ actually did it? We wouldn’t last as a species for very long, would we?
I want you to think of this commandment as if it were a suitcase – obvious on the outside, but what is in it? Let’s unpack that suitcase:
The Hebrew word used here in Exodus is Rasah. It is used very rarely in the Old Testament. There is no real English equivalent, but ‘murder’ comes closest. Rasah does not cover all forms of killing – it does not include killing in warfare, or capital punishment or even, suicide. Rasah is the intentional or unintentional killing of an individual by another individual for private reasons. The main function of this command is to prevent a cycle of vengeance developing between families. In other words, to stop Shakespeare’s Capulet / Montague scenario which inevitably consumes the innocent Romeos and Juliets of this world.
In America there is an infamous family feud that has passed into folklore. When two individuals argue a lot, we now say ‘Why they fight like the Hatfields and McCoys!’ The Hatfield / McCoy feud lasted 11 years in the late 19th century. It started as a land dispute when the 2 families argued over who owned a pig by virtue of whose land the pig was standing on. The kidnapping and killing that followed claimed a dozen members of the two families along with many more law officers who were sent to calm the situation. The area where they lived became such a black hole of viciousness that the governors of Kentucky and West Virginia called out the state militias to put a stop to it. The resulting court battles were so complicated, some issues had to be resolved in the Supreme Court. And that is what ‘you shall not murder’ is intended to prevent.
As with all of the commandments, we mustn’t forget the context in which they were given. The Hebrew people were newly-freed slaves. They were de-mob happy and tending to exploit their new-found freedom. The ten commandments were given as a framework upon which other, more detailed laws were attached. God, through Moses, was attempting to create a civilized, dignified behaviour for these people based entirely on the love and fear of the God who saved them from dehumanizing slavery. They were rules for within the community.
So that’s the suitcase unpacked. What does Jesus do with the contents? Well, he takes the commandments and places them on a trajectory of behaviour. There is a sliding scale called ‘murder’. On one end is the extreme of physical murder, but the other extreme is anger. It’s all related. Jesus truly believed that ‘It’s the thought that counts!’ because that is where it starts, but his scale includes also looks (ie the evil eye) and words, and we are told to control not only our thought life, but our body language and our speech.
One of the most regrettable childhood rhymes in the English-speaking culture is ‘sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me’. Oh yes they will. That rhyme is as untrue as it can be – and unchristian as well. Because words are powerful. Words can create, they can also destroy. They kill the spirit long before an actual knife is plunged into the ribs – just ask the grieving mother of a child who has committed suicide after years of bullying. One of the best examples of the power of words is the death of Karen Carpenter. Remember the Carpenters – ‘We’ve only just begun’? Karen with the ‘velvet voice’? She died of Anorexia, but her closest friends said that the eating disorder was set off when one journalist in one newspaper said this, ‘She is looking chubby’. I am certain that journalist had no intention of killing Karen, but those words had a devastating affect on her.
Okay, so how do we keep from getting angry? I’m a great believer in prevention. There is a lot we can do to prevent getting angry. Perhaps the most important step, is take care of your physical body appropriately. We live in a vessel of clay that is prone to illness, to hormonal fluctuations, to reacting badly to sleep deprivation and alcohol or medications or drugs. I don’t seem to hear much from Christians about this very basic form of care. Perhaps I think about it a lot because I am female. Most women I know have a ‘witch’ day once a month when they are so irritated by hormones that even the slightest external provocation can cause a volcanic eruption of temper. And you men aren’t immune from that kind of hormonal fluctuation either – the over-production of testosterone is one of the leading causes of dangerous driving and other forms of unprovoked aggression. In fact, medical researchers say they have found a biological reason for the Hatfield McCoy feud – one of the families has an inherited genetic tumour that causes the overproduction of adrenalin, which would have fuelled the fire.
By taking care of our bodies, we can greatly reduce our instances of anger. So get enough sleep, stay fit, eat healthily, stay away from alcohol (it does cause depression and / or aggression), stay alert to your body’s messages – be especially on your guard if you are feeling ill or hormonal. If you can stay away from stressful situations during those times, do.
But sometimes prevention doesn’t work, you’re now angry, what do you do? Stop – don’t do anything. If you can, retreat. Take yourself out of the situation in order to cool down before you say or do something that will hurt someone else. Think about what is causing your anger – is it really the person you want to yell at or are you unwell; or was it really something that happened at work earlier in the day? This is not the same thing as ‘letting the sun go down on your anger’. That is more like nourishing the anger. Anger can be insidious – like a rolling snowball that picks up minor transgressions along the way, it can grow enormous. What I am talking about is analysing the anger, breaking the snowball into its parts before it is huge. Identify the source. That’s important. Pray. Praying can both align the event within God’s overall plan as well as ask for God’s help in resolving the issue. Then when you are calm, talk with the person who made you angry if possible and explain what was upsetting you.
So the order: Stop, Retreat, Identify the Source, Pray, and then Talk. Jesus sets the bar of morality very high. He put its way up there and says, reach for it – don’t be complacent with minimum standards. You won’t always make it, but the striving to reach it will cause you to grow. Martin Luther once said that he joined a monastery to learn patience, but it wasn’t until he left the monastery and lived with children that he learned what patience really was! You won’t always reach the bar, but if you’re never tested, you don’t grow.
We all get angry sometimes. Do not feel guilty about your anger when it happens. God loves you just as much as that other person. He created both of you; he knows your weaknesses and limits; He loves you in spite of them; and He redeems us with the blood of His own son. Be merciful to yourself and others at all times and you won’t murder even in your heart.