“You and the Life of Your Neighbor”
Ten Commandments Series, No. 7
June 10, 2018
The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Rayburn
Once again, I chose not to read the 6th commandment from the formal lists of the Ten Commandments found twice in the Bible, but rather from the Lord’s citation of it in his Sermon on the Mount. In his exposition of the Law in this sermon the Lord Jesus was at pains to refute a superficial understanding of what the commandments required and to illustrate the true reach of the commandment. We must have a greater righteousness than that of the scribes and Pharisees, because their understanding of righteousness was shallow and superficial and profoundly inaccurate.
v.22 It would take too long to demonstrate this in detail, but it is very important to realize that the Lord Jesus was not contrasting the 6th commandment given at Sinai with his own teaching. He had just said that not an iota, not a dot will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. He is not changing the law. What he is doing is clearing away the fatal misunderstanding of the Law that was commonplace in the Judaism of the first century, a view of the law that was altogether too superficial. Lest we think this unimportant, this is the view of the Law that most people have today. It is what sinners always do to the Law of God: define its obligations in such a way as to make them easy to meet them. This becomes increasingly clear as each of the six paragraphs follows upon the previous one. Each begins with the same formula, “You have heard that it was said…” “It was said,” by the way, is not the way the Lord Jesus cites the Law of God. When he cites God’s law he says it is or it stands written, not it was said. What Jesus was here contradicting is not the written Word or Law of God, but the oral tradition of the rabbis, the explanations of it that the rabbis had developed and which the people heard week by week as the teachers of the law presented their interpretations in the synagogue services. So, what the Lord was doing, in this and in the succeeding paragraphs, was to clear away distortions, misunderstandings of the commandments. The rabbis were allowing people to think that they had kept the 6th commandment so long as they hadn’t actually murdered someone. Not so, said Jesus.
This understanding of the six contrasts, of which our text is the first, agrees with what we know to have been the Lord’s view of the ancient Scriptures and the Law of Moses. He was a lover of God’s Law and an upholder of it at every turn, both in his living and in his teaching. But, he was not shy about correcting misunderstandings of the Scripture that then prevailed in the church. He did that regularly.
Now what we find here in summary form is what we find everywhere else in the Bible, OT and NT alike. Murder is simply the most obvious violation, the signature violation of the life of your neighbor. As such, it stands for that whole class of obligations that we owe to the life of our neighbor. And, again as is characteristic of the Lord’s teaching about the Law, it reaches down into the thoughts, motives, and attitudes of the heart. Anger toward another person, as the Lord says here, breaks the 6th commandment. And so do all the words and the deeds that arise from our feelings of anger toward or contempt for other people. No one can keep the 6th commandment who doesn’t keep it in his or her heart! Ouch!
Let’s not fail to reckon with the obvious. Murder itself is a fact of life in this world. It always has been and always will be until the end. Untold multitudes of human beings have had their life taken away by crime or war, and the difference between the two is often paper thin, if a difference exists at all. A few decades before the birth of Jesus, Julius Caesar spent ten years in Gaul, making a great name for himself, becoming fabulously wealthy, and enlarging the Roman Empire. Estimates of those he killed in his conquests – people against whom the Empire had no specific grievance and from whom it faced no particular danger – run as high as a million. He killed them because by killing them he gained power and wealth. People don’t think of Julius Caesar as a mass-murderer, but that is what he was. Murder is always heartless selfishness in action!
And so it has been throughout history. There has never been a time when there were not wars being waged, people being killed in large numbers, families being bereaved of loved ones, husbands, fathers, mothers, children. And, of course, crime has always been rampant as well. If you want to be reminded how violent life was in medieval Europe, how vicious people were to one another in what was a so-called “Christian” society, read Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror: the Calamitous 14th Century. Here is a nobleman spending the lives of his soldiers and those of other rulers in some, usually futile, attempt to gain territorial advantages. Such wars cost money and so draconian taxes were exacted from the population and when the people rose in protest, the nobleman didn’t hesitate to kill many of his own people in a mixture of rage and fear. Here is a pope seeking to break some political alliance that poses a threat to his power and so he hires mercenaries to attack his enemies, knowing full well that such mercenaries would support themselves by murder and pillage and amuse themselves by rape and torture. Tuchman entitled her history A Distant Mirror because she wanted us to notice how like that ugly, violent world was the world in which we live today.
Here we are in the so-called modern world, the world shaped by the so-called “enlightenment.” The 20th century saw mass-murder on a scale unprecedented in human history. In the First World War on several fronts and on several occasions, they managed to kill scores of thousands in a single hour of combat and hundreds of thousands in a single battle. That had never happened before. The Second World War alone accounted for something in the neighborhood of 50 million deaths. The communist revolutions and their aftermath many millions more. And then Korea and Vietnam and the wars in the Middle East, insurgencies in South America, Africa, and Asia, and now terrorism as social policy have all added to the horrific toll. All of these conflicts involved murder, usually mass-murder. Someone started a war that should never have been fought and was responsible for multitudes of violent deaths and, of course as we know, war breeds its own violence, hatreds that had not existed before, and so its own murder, committed so often even by those who are fighting on the right side of the conflict.
Violent crime in some places in the world today leaves virtually no one untouched. Chances of a citizen of some countries not being touched by violent crime at some point in his or her life has been reduced to virtually zero. Ask the citizens of Brazil, or Venezuela, or South Africa. In the United States, a relatively safe place as places in this world go, between 16,000 and 17,000 murders are committed each year, some 44 to 50 every day. And there are places in the US that are so violent that no one thinks them safe. Think of inner-city Chicago or Baltimore.
We must not forget how violent, how bloody human life has always been and remains today even if we have somehow managed to escape the violence. My late sister was five years of age when she spent the night with a childhood friend, the very night the father of the home murdered his wife and three children, after moving my sister to a screened-in porch. A few years ago, a murder was committed on the campus of our Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis almost certainly by one of the seminarians himself. So “Do not murder” is hardly something that needn’t be said; an obligation too obvious to mention. And all of it arises from the selfish passions of the human heart.
But if that anger in our hearts toward other people also violates the 6th commandment, well who is there, who has there ever been, and who among us is not violating this commandment all day long every day? If as Jesus taught, the 6th commandment reached, and had always reached, into every corner of our lives, into our attitudes toward one another, into all of our behavior toward our fellow men; if he taught that it was possible to kill someone in one’s heart without that person ever knowing that you even disliked him, if anger toward others is a breaking of the law of God against murder because anger is murderous in its character; Uh oh! You and I are getting away with murder all the time, almost every day! For if murder is a fact of human life, so much more is anger and the thoughts, words, and deeds that anger provokes in human life.
And all of that is only the negative side of the 6th commandment. Every “Thou shalt not” is matched with a “Thou shalt.” It is not enough, it is not nearly enough, simply not to hate or be angry at another person, as if complete indifference toward another human being would meet the demands of God’s law. No, remember, the entire law is summed up in two commandments: that we love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind and that we love our neighbor as much as we love ourselves! That is what the 6th commandment requires of you: to love your neighbor and to do good to your neighbor and to make the life of your neighbor your care, your concern, your commitment. You care for yourself; you serve yourself. You are to do the same for your neighbor.
And so it is throughout the Bible. Everywhere we encounter this radical ethic. In the case law of the Old Testament Israel was taught that if you found your neighbor’s lost animal, you were to return it to him. No “finders keepers, losers weepers.” If you had a dangerous animal of your own – an ox that had a habit of goring anyone who came to close – you were responsible to make sure that your neighbor was kept safe, however much inconvenience that might require of you. If you were a farmer, you were allowed to pass through your field and reap the crop but once. You would certainly have left some grain in the field. But you were not permitted to return to pick it up. It had to be left for your poorer neighbor for whom a good meal was not a sure thing. If you gained a slave because a man had debts that he could not repay, in a number of specific ways you had to look out for the interests of that man and make sure that when he gained his freedom he was in better financial shape than he had been when he came to you. You had to be generous, not just fair!
And when we come to the NT it is the same. Certainly, we are not to murder anyone. Certainly, we are not to nurse grudges or give way to anger. How hard it is for people to live with anger: hard on themselves, still harder on those around them! But far, far beyond that, our lives are to be lived with the welfare and happiness of our neighbors always in view. We are forbidden to live for ourselves. We are required to carry the interests of others upon our hearts. The 6th commandment – its requirement that we care for our neighbor – makes us the servant of every human being on the face of this earth. That is how radical the biblical ethic of love actually is! How many times do we hear such statements as these?
“We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up.” [Rom. 15:2]
“Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor.” [1 Cor. 10:24]
“Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.” [Phil. 2:4]
“…show perfect courtesy toward all people.” [Titus 3:2]
And then Jesus makes the obligation still more universal and absolute. “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” There is no one in the world to whom you do not owe the obligations of love!
Most people would certainly agree that we ought to treat people nicely. But most people – even our Christian selves too much of the time – think that of people who are nice to us. If people are thoughtless toward us, or worse, if they are positively unkind or cruel, surely it is right that we should retaliate in some way, if only in the thoughts of our heart. Cicero, the Roman man of letters, spoke for the world of men when he wrote that it was wrong to harm another person “unless one is provoked by wrong.” That is, unless that person has done you harm. But the 6th commandment does not parse our obligations toward our neighbor in that way, natural as it is for people to think that way. No, if he slaps you on the one cheek, turn the other also. If he demands your tunic, give him your cloak as well.
“Why on earth would I do that?” the world asks. But the Christian knows. He or she knows how many reasons there are to turn the other cheek, to love an enemy, to do good to others, to care for their welfare first in our hearts and then with our words and deeds. No one should have so high a view of the life of any other human being than a Christian because no one else understands why that life is so sacred.
Christians know that God loved them and Christ died for them in defiance of their bad behavior, their stupidity, their selfishness, their cruelty. To love one’s enemy is to imitate God and if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, to love an enemy – even a person who is only momentarily our enemy, or, better, a person whom momentarily we find reason to despise or be angry at – is to worship God. Your neighbor is also made in the image of God and respect and regard for that image requires you to revere his or her life. He or she has been made for fellowship with God. They are God’s highest creation, his masterpiece. You can see God himself in him or her and to care for them is to revere him. God himself made that man or that woman. How can you love God and not care for and want the best for those whom your heavenly Father has made?
Further, Christians know that their anger toward others, their indifference toward others is actually deeply selfish, ugly. It is not the way we would like to be treated so it is also deeply hypocritical. Christians also know that anger and indifference are destructive, are harmful, and we, as the children of God, are not to be part of the problem, but the solution to the misery of human life. We are to be salt and light in this world – and Christians have been that wonderfully throughout history – but you cannot be salt or light if you live as the world does and fail to show it a better way.
And, finally, Christians know that all human life will be subject to God’s judgment and in that judgment the standard will be the Law of God and the example of Jesus Christ. Like it or not, he does not approve of anger or indifference toward other people. He will not acquit you of your unconcern for the welfare and happiness of the people round about you. He has told you how he wants you to live. He has published his will in his Law and then devoted page after page of his holy Word explaining in great detail precisely what that Law requires and how it is to be kept. And, more than that, he showed you in the life of his Son, Jesus Christ, how a person should love his neighbor, even his enemy. He will not listen when you offer your excuses, when you complain that your neighbor was unkind to you, or ignored you, or refused to help you, or failed to treat you with proper respect. The judge who went to the cross for his enemies is not going to be impressed with your petty excuses. This is what a Christian knows!
Do you remember the impressive words of the Apostle Paul in his farewell to the Ephesian elders, recorded in Acts 20? In speaking of the ministry he had conducted in Ephesus, he said,
“I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all of you…”
That is, he had kept the 6th commandment – the commandment that forbids the shedding of another person’s blood – because he had so faithfully served the interests, temporal and eternal, of the people of that city. What Paul’s words obviously mean is that we can be guilty of the blood of others, we can, in a way, shed their blood, not by murdering them but by not extending ourselves for them, by not caring for them, by not committing ourselves to their welfare. That is the burden of the 6th commandment and an immense burden it is. Only with God’s help could we ever keep such a commandment. Only out of desire to honor him and to love him would we ever want to keep such a demanding commandment. And only out of the knowledge that God has forgiven our repeated violations of the 6th commandment do we find the freedom to continue to strive to keep that commandment.
So, it is that Christians ought to stand out in such a world as ours. They ought to be conspicuous. And I am proud to say that vast multitudes of Christians have stood out in this violent and angry and hateful world as those who instead love and care for their neighbors. The 4th century church father, Basil, said that nothing had rendered the Christian faith more famous in those early times and made for more followers of Christ than the bounty and the charity of Christians. And so, it continued. I remember reading that Charles Darwin had observed the inhabitants of Tierra del Fuego on the far southern Pacific coast of South America. They were a degraded people, violent and miserable. But some years later, after missionary work had been done among them – work that cost some excellent men their lives – Darwin stopped on one of his expeditions and saw a people now very different than they had been before. He wrote to the mission agency that had sponsored the work,
“The success of the Tierra del Fuego Mission is most wonderful, and charms me, as I always prophesied utter failure. It is a grand success. I shall feel proud if your committee think fit to elect me an honorary member of your society.” [S. Neill, A History of Christian Missions, 321]
For a man like Charles Darwin – no friend of the Christian faith – to say such a thing – to acknowledge how much better off a people were because Christians had come among them to love and care for them – is proof enough of the obvious and happy difference it makes when Christians keep the 6th commandment and find important ways to love their neighbors and care for their lives, both for this life and that which is to come.
It is a happy providence of God that we should have come to the 6th commandment on the Sunday in which we are inaugurating a ministry to be called “Isaiah 58.” This endeavor aspires to involve us all, more than now we are, in ministries of care and concern for our neighbors, the very care and concern demanded of us in the 6th commandment. Do you wish to keep the commandment? I think most of you do. You want to be obedient to God. You know you should be. You know that it is right and that it is the way to the most happy and fruitful life. You want your life to count for Christ and his kingdom; I know you do. You want to honor God’s forgiveness of your sins against his Law by keeping that Law!
Well, then, what will you do? The 6th commandment is your marching orders. With many biblical scholars I think the 6th commandment comes first because it is the most general statement, the highest expression of neighbor love in the second half of the Ten Commandments. The commandments against adultery, theft, and lying simply illustrate the ways in which you can love your neighbor, the obligation that has been summarily stated in the 6th commandment. Your neighbor’s life is your concern.
But if that is your business in life, your neighbor’s welfare, what are you going to do about it? Are you going to do what far too many Christians do too much of the time and simply wait for some opportunity to appear, someone who needs your help in some way? Or, will you do what the wise and committed have always done and go looking for such opportunities? Well that is what Isaiah 58 will help you do: find opportunities to involve yourself directly in the care of others. There are people all around you who need your care. They need you, not just Christians in general, because there are a lot more of them than there are of us. People whose lives have been harmed, made punishingly difficult, people who are afraid, people who despair of better things, people who simply do not know what to do about the problems they face. The British philosopher Bertrand Russell, nearing the end of his life, still committed to his atheism, wrote:
“Over man and all his works, night falls pitiless and dark. I could think of nothing but suicide…”
There are so many folk despairing in that way in our community. They need someone to care about them and to help them and bring light into their hearts and lives. And because you bear Jesus Christ in your heart you are able to do that for them. There are others who need help just as badly but don’t seem to realize it. Theirs is an even more desperate case. Who is going to help them? Well we are! You and I. Is it not so? Are you not willing? I know very well how many of you are wonderfully at work loving others in Christ’s name. I salute you! But I also know that you are the ones who aspire to do more. You are the ones who know that you can and should do more!
Isaiah 58 will point you in the right direction and help you to find ways of making a difference in the lives of your neighbors. And isn’t that what we are all to be doing all the time? Didn’t Paul tell us, “So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone…?” Isaiah 58, if you make use of the opportunities it affords, will enable you to be confident that on the great day, when the Lord Christ separates the sheep from the goats, he will say to you:
“Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you… For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was naked and you clothed me. I was sick and you visited me. I was in prison and you came to me.”
“Truly, I say to you, as you did it to [others], you did it to me.”
Such will God say to all who have kept the 6th commandment!