Sermon for 02-13-11: “The Ten Commandments, Part 6: Do Not Kill”

February 16, 2011

Sermon Texts: Genesis 4:1-10; Exodus 20:13; Matthew 5:21-26

[Please note: After pressing play, the video takes several seconds to buffer, during which time the screen is distressingly blank.]

The following is my original manuscript.

I told a few of you that I was devoting a sermon to the sixth commandment, “Thou shalt not kill,” and you all said, in one way or another, “That’s going to be a short sermon. Is there anything more obvious than that?”

But in a way it’s terribly difficult… It’s difficult in part because we can’t even agree on how to translate the Hebrew word that’s used in this commandment. The King James Version translates the verb as “kill,” which feels too broad, and more modern translations translate it as “murder,” which feels too narrow. The Hebrew word sort of falls in between those meanings: it does include killing in the sense of murder—premeditated killing. But the word is also used in the Old Testament to mean involuntary manslaughter. In the Old Testament, the word translated as kill or murder here always refers to voluntary or involuntary killing by individuals.

Well, that seems easy enough… I suspect none of us will do that in this room. I could be wrong—I hope I’m not! So… End of sermon? Hardly!

Because we have to weigh these ideas against Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount. As he so often does in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus intensifies the meaning of the commandment. He challenges us to examine and repent of the conditions in our hearts that incline us toward violence—things like anger, resentment, jealousy, fear, insecurity—even if we would never physically harm someone, much less take their lives. Spiritually speaking, Jesus tells us, these “lesser” sins are as deadly serious, even if we never lay a hand on another person.

Jesus isn’t changing the commandment. He’s really just getting to the heart of what it truly means. Protestant Reformer Martin Luther agrees, saying that these ten commandments are “baby talk,” written plainly in a way that everyone—young and old, intelligent and not-so-intelligent—can understand. As we grow in faith and wisdom, we understand the commandments’ deeper meanings and learn to apply them in new ways. When reflecting on this sixth commandment, fellow Reformer John Calvin said that it would be ridiculous to imagine that God, who looks upon the thoughts of our hearts, would “instruct only the body in true righteousness”—as if murder were simply something we do with our hands. No, he says. The law forbids “murder of the heart.”

Do any of us ever commit “murder of the heart”?

One of you told me that you were in a Sunday school classroom with your precocious adolescent daughter. On the wall was posted the Ten Commandments. And your daughter was going down the list, “Oh, yeah, I do that… and that.” She skipped down to number ten: “What does ‘covet’ mean?” “Well, it’s when you want something that your friend has.” “Oh, yeah, I definitely do that, too.” Then she went back to number six, “Thou shalt not kill.” “I don’t do that, but I want to sometimes when I’m angry at my friends.”

Even at a young age, this friend’s daughter understood what Jesus was talking about.

The very first murder in the Bible happens between the grown children of Adam and Eve when Cain slays his younger brother Abel. Before Cain commits the deed, God warns him to be careful: “Sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.”

Brothers and sisters, sin is constantly lurking at the door of hearts, and we must master it—and not let sin master us! We can’t play around with sin! Even if it doesn’t motivate us to kill someone, it can destroy our lives. Unless we deal with these sinful desires and feelings that incline us in the direction of violence and murder, we will be unhappy and unsatisfied. At the very least, it goes without saying that unless we deal with these sinful desires and feelings, they will prevent us from being fantastically wonderful.

In the story of the first murder, Cain is a wealthy landowner and farmer who enjoys all the privileges of being the favored firstborn son.1 Abel, by contrast, is not wealthy; he is a shepherd. We can infer from this that he did not own land. He was poor. Both Cain and Abel gave an offering to God. But Abel’s offering of the firstborn of his flock was more generous and costlier for a poor shepherd than was Cain’s offering of some produce from his abundant harvest. Remember that stewardship principle? Not equal gifts, but equal sacrifice? Abel’s was a far greater sacrifice. Scripture tells us that the Lord “had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard.”

And Cain is angry at his brother—angry enough to kill him. Why?

After all, how does Cain’s brother have anything at all to do with whether or not Cain’s offering was acceptable to God? The two of them weren’t competing. God didn’t say, “I can only take one offering, so may the best man win.” Why should there be any connection at all between Abel’s success and Cain’s success—or lack thereof? Abel didn’t prevent Cain from giving a more generous offering. Shouldn’t Cain have said, “Lord, I see now that I wasn’t being as generous as I should have been. I repent. I’ll do better next time”? But no…

It’s likely that for all his life, Cain had based his self-worth in part on where he stood in relation to his brother. He took pride in the fact that he was better than his brother, and his feeling of superiority made him feel better about himself. “I am Cain. I’m a successful person, and I know I’m successful because I’m not like my little brother—who’s a poor shepherd who barely has two pennies to scrape together.” In comparison with his brother, Cain felt like he came out on top, and he liked coming out on top. But now, all of a sudden, he was seeing his brother and seeing himself in a new and uncomfortable light. Is it possible that his inferior younger brother could actually be worthier than he was—could actually be a better person? He resented it. Cain measured his own value by comparing himself to his younger brother. If he killed his brother, well, he could go back to being number one again.

Of course there is a healthy kind of comparing. We can learn from other people’s examples, by all means. I am one of probably three Methodist ministers who confesses to liking Joel Osteen. He’s not my style, but I totally get why he’s popular. He’s a very appealing and effective communicator, and I can learn from him. But there’s this other kind of comparing—always measuring ourselves and our worth against other people. We need to keep our focus on God. Are we being faithful to Jesus? Are we doing what he wants us to do? That’s the only true measure of success.

Just a few weeks ago, my birth mother, Linda, who lives in North Carolina, told me that she was watching a preacher on TV, and this preacher was really great. One of the best sermons she’s ever heard! This was confusing to me, because I’m not on TV, and who else would she be talking about? Anyway, she said that it just so happens that his church is in our area. This preacher’s name was Andy Stanley. Have I heard of him? Fortunately, I was talking to her on the phone, so she didn’t get to see me roll my eyes; she didn’t get to see me make a gagging motion with my hand. Have I heard of him? Of course I’ve heard of him! Yes, of course I know Andy Stanley is a great preacher. Everyone knows that. Everybody loves Andy Stanley.

And you know what else? I don’t like it! I resent it.

But why? What on earth does Andy Stanley’s success have to do with me or with what I do? You see what I mean? It’s ridiculous that I even entertain such a sinful thought!

But here’s my point: When I compare myself to Andy Stanley, I am an utter and complete failure! What’s more, when I compare myself to Andy Stanley, I can only ever be an utter and complete failure. You want to know why? Because I’m not Andy Stanley! I don’t know how to be him. Even if I work hard to imitate him, at best I can only ever finish second. I will never be as good at being Andy Stanley as Andy Stanley is. But here’s the good news of which I need to remind myself from time to time: God has not called me to be Andy Stanley. Hallelujah! That takes the pressure off. What a relief! I don’t have to be him! Fortunately for me, God has called me to be someone else! God has called me to be this person named Brent White! And that’s good enough. But not only is it “good enough,” it’s what God calls very good!


God’s not calling me to be Garner Andrews! Amen? Hallelujah! The world only needs one Garner Andrews! Listen, the world only needs one because God got it right on the first try! Amen? God is calling Garner Andrews to be Garner Andrews. Is that good enough? But it’s not just good enough, is it? It’s very good. Turn to your neighbor and say this: “God is calling you to be you, and that’s very good.” Amen?

Can you believe that God made you—gave you your unique personality, your unique body, your unique voice, your unique set of gifts and abilities? God is giving you life at this very moment. You don’t have life apart from God. This is why your life is precious and sacred and worthy of protection. Your enemies may not think that your life is precious and sacred and worthy of protection, but you don’t belong to them. You are not their creation. You do not exist for them. You do not exist through them. There are times when you might not even think your life is precious and sacred and worthy of protection, but your life doesn’t belong to you, either. The sixth commandment exists because you and I are incredibly valuable to the one who made us. In fact, God became human and suffered and died on a cross for you and me—to save you and me. In order that you and I would be with God for all eternity.

How dare we mess with something so sacred! How dare we mess with something that doesn’t belong to us in the first place! How dare we mess with something that is so valuable to God! Of course there may be tough cases in which we the people, as a nation, decide to take life in order to defend or protect other people’s lives—but because life is sacred, and because we follow the example of our Lord, who on the cross refused to return violence for violence and evil for evil—we should do all we can to make sure that even these circumstances are rare.

Do not kill… And do not do anything that harms or abuses or puts down in any way this sacred, beautiful, and valuable life that God has made and called very good.

And do good… Love people with everything you’ve got, and by doing so, let them know that they are a sacred, beautiful, and valuable life that God has made and called very good.

And, Holy Spirit, please heal us of whatever sin in our lives prevents us from doing so. Amen.

1. Much of this interpretation of the Cain and Abel story comes by way of Miroslav Volf, Exclusion & Embrace (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), 92-98.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: