In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
If you know your Bible trivia, you may know that the shortest verse of the Bible in English is John 11:35, which says, “Jesus wept.” But the shortest verse in the Bible in the original language is actually not that verse, because in Greek it’s three words. The shortest verse is actually—there’s three verses that are tied, and that would be the sixth, seventh, and eighth commandments, and I’d like to talk about the very first commandment, “Thou shalt not kill.”
In Hebrew, that commandment—I’ll try to pronounce it as best I can—it’s, “Lo tirṣaḥ.” And that word, the first word, means “don’t” or “no,” and the second part of it means “to kill” or, probably more properly it would be translated “murder,” because it’s not the same word that’s used, for example, in reference to killing in warfare or in killing when you’re executing someone, but it means to kill outside the law, because it’s used in reference to someone who kills someone intentionally. It’s also used in reference to someone who kills someone unintentionally. But in either case, it’s a murder or a killing that’s not sanctioned by the law.
There’s a lot packed into that very short commandment. When you’re preparing for confession, if you look at some of the books that talk about how to prepare for confession, one of the usual things that you encounter is they suggest that you go over the ten commandments and ponder not just the obvious meaning but all the implications of the commandments as well as the beatitudes. So as we ponder this commandment, there’s many different dimensions of this commandment that we should keep in mind when we’re preparing for confession.
St. John Chrysostom asked the question, “Why does it simply say, ‘Thou shalt not kill?’ and not expound on how evil killing is?” Because with other commandments there’s an expansion upon the basic commandment that explains why that commandment is necessary, but in this case, St. John Chrysostom said, our conscience already confirms this. We know within ourselves that killing another human being is wrong. As we heard in the first epistle reading this morning:
For when the Gentiles which have not the law do by nature the things contained in the law, these having not the law are a law unto themselves, which show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness and their thoughts the meanwhile accusing or else excusing one another.
As a matter of fact, we have to be trained to kill people. The military goes to great lengths to train someone to the point where they’re able to point a gun at another human being and pull the trigger with the intent to kill, because over time they discover that people very often did not do that. As I’ve mentioned before in the Civil War, the Battle of Gettysburg, a very large number of the guns that were found on the dead were not only loaded and not fired but were loaded multiple times—because these soldiers would just keep loading, point the gun, not fire, reload, point the gun, not fire… because they couldn’t bring themselves to kill another human being.
Unfortunately, we train our children to kill other people by video games where they are constantly taught the stimulus-response point-click-shoot, these video games where they’re running around with a sniper gun and blowing people’s heads off. That trains someone to kill. As a matter of fact, there have been cases where someone who’s never fired a gun, a teenager, for example, robbed a convenience store, got scared by something the guy behind the counter did, and shot him right between the eyes.
And military experts say that that’s not something that’s easy to do the very first time you shoot a gun, even at close range. So how was he able to do that? He was able to do that because he was trained, so we should not desensitize ourselves by watching violent movies that encourage us to think lightly of killing other people but especially these video games where our children are graphically shooting other human beings constantly. We’re training them to kill. And when you’re training a soldier to kill, you’re also training him how to exercise proper discipline and to not just go around killing other people. Obviously we have people who have that responsibility to those kinds of things, but our young children should not be among them.
This commandment actually did not begin with Moses, of course. When God made his covenant with Noah after the flood, he said in Genesis 9:5-6:
And surely your blood of your lives will I require a reckoning. At the hand of every beast will I require it, and at the hand of man. At the hand of every man’s brother will I require the life of man. Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man’s shall his blood be shed, for in the image of God made he man.
The point of this commandment is we’re created in the image of God. God is the giver of life, and so we don’t have the right, unless authorized by God’s law, to take the life of another person. But what does this commandment actually encompass? Well, obviously it encompasses the actual act of killing someone intentionally outside the law, illegally: the act of murder. But it also, as I said, includes involuntary manslaughter. And what you’ll find [is that] different saints commenting on this will say that when you kill someone involuntarily, there probably is some degree of guilt, in other words, maybe some carelessness on your part.
But of course there are some cases where maybe you had absolutely no way of foreseeing that what you were about to do was going to kill another human being and you’re totally innocent of any intent. It’s still one of those sins that we talk about that’s an involuntary sin. If you accidentally killed someone else’s child, you wouldn’t say, “Well, it wasn’t my fault.” You would profusely apologize because you would have a sense of guilt, because you took another person’s life, even though it was unintentional. And there would be a reason for you to ask the pardon of that person’s family and ask for God’s forgiveness, but obviously the guilt of such an act is a great deal less than to do so intentionally.
Also this commandment includes those that plot to do the act. It also includes those that inspire other people to do the act. In English history you might recall that Thomas Becket was murdered brutally, and Henry II was known to have gone around saying, “Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?” Well, when he was saying that as king to all of his nobles and knights, he knew that the chances were pretty good that someone was going to take it into their hand to eventually rid them of that turbulent priest, and so he wasn’t guiltless even though he didn’t actually give the command and he didn’t actually slay Thomas Becket himself.
It also includes to judge someone guilty that you know to be innocent. That would include both the judge and the jury. So if you’re ever sitting on the jury and you have a reason to doubt the guilt of someone, even if you have 11 other people who are looking at you with angry faces and telling you that you need to find him guilty, it would be a sin against this commandment to say, “Guilty,” when you in your heart don’t believe that to be true.
It of course includes anyone who aids the murderer in his attempt to avoid justice, because you’re enabling that murderer to not only get away with one murder but potentially to commit other murders. It includes killing oneself intentionally, and also people who engage in reckless behavior in them either killing themselves or killing other people. Maybe they don’t intentionally want to kill someone, but if you engage in reckless behavior, there’s certainly that potential. Of course, if someone is insane, killing oneself is not a sin that they’re guilty of, but to take one’s life intentionally is to commit the sin of murder, of self-murder.
It also includes abortion. In the very oldest document [of the Church] outside the New Testament, the Teaching of the Twelve Apostles 2:2, it says, “You shall not abort a child or commit infanticide.” And I could quote a number of canons of the Church, approved by the ecumenical councils, in which abortion is equated with murder, both on the part of the woman who asks for the abortion and has it performed on her as well as anyone who performs it on her or those that assist her in acquiring that abortion.
It also includes when you have it in your power to save someone else, save their life, and you refuse to do it. Now, of course, you could say, “Well, we always could do something to save someone on the other side of the planet from death, and yet we don’t do everything we absolutely possibly can do,” and that’s true, but we should weigh in the balance what we can do—because we can’t do everything, but we can do some things, and we should try to do what we can. As a husband or a mother, our first responsibility is to our immediate family and to those in our extended family and our church family to those that are around us, so we have to take care of those first. St. Paul says that if you don’t take care of your own, especially those of your own household, you’ve denied the faith and you’re worse than an infidel. But maybe you don’t need to live as extravagantly as you do. Maybe you’re living a very reasonable life, but that’s something that you and your conscience need to weigh, and then with the money that you’re able to save, perhaps, you might be able to do some other things for those around the world.
There’s also spiritual aspects to murder. To kill someone spiritually would include heretics or false teachers, who lead people astray and teach them false things that lead them away from the Church. It also would include those that scandalize other people by their bad example. It includes those that lead someone else spiritually astray, perhaps inducing some innocent person into some sort of sin, and leading that person down a road that they are unable to return from. It includes anger, when it goes beyond a certain point. Anger itself is not a sin, if we just have the emotional reaction of anger. When we see some injustice, anger is actually a proper reaction, but when we’re angry with our brother, as Christ says, “without a cause,” then we’re violating this commandment. Christ said in Matthew 5:21-22:
You have heard that it was said of them of old time, ‘Thou shalt not kill, and whosoever shall kill shall be inn danger of the judgment,’ but I say to you that whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment and whosoever shall say to his brother, ‘Raka!’ shall be in danger of the council, but whosoever shall say, ‘Thou fool!’ shall be in danger of hellfire.
And what Christ is saying there [is that] there’s certain things that you might do or you might have to answer to an earthly court, but in any case you’re ultimately going to have to answer to God’s court and his justice. So if you’re angry with your brother, if you’re holding bitterness in your heart towards your brother, if you’re not forgiving your brother, you’re in danger of hell. That’s what Christ says.
It also includes slander. When you slander someone else, to destroy their reputation, or when you gossip in such a way as to destroy someone else’s reputation, that’s a type of spiritual murder. Now, it’s often difficult to know where to draw the line, because there are times when we need to speak up to warn other people about people who have bad character. For example, if there was someone whom you knew to be a pedophile, it wouldn’t be gossip or slander for you to warn other people that came into contact with that person that they needed watch their children around them. It wouldn’t be slander, in a malicious sense, or gossip, if you were to warn other people about someone who was a charlatan, someone who was leading other people astray. These are things that we have to do, but the point is we have to take great care, because there’s a fine line, and we often excuse ourselves and say, “Well, I’m just sharing information,” when we don’t really need to share that information; we’re just sharing a titillating story that we enjoy telling, and it makes us look like we’re in the know. So we have to pray and ask God to give us wisdom: Does this person really need to know? Do I really need to tell this story? And to think twice, because we will have to give an account.
Hating your brother is a form of spiritual murder. St. John, in his first epistle, 3:15, says, “Whosoever hateth his brother is a murderer, and ye know that no murderer hath eternal life abiding in him.” But what can we do positively to abide by this commandment? It’s a negative commandment, but there are things we can do. We can actively try to preserve the lives and wellbeings of those that are around us and those that we have some opportunity to be of help to. We can minister to the sick. We can comfort the poor. We can alleviate the distressed and help those that are unfortunate. We can also try to reconcile those that are at odds with one another.
And of course we ourselves need to forgive the wrongs, the harms, that other people have done to us, and rather to do good to our enemies. The key here is to recognize in other people the image of God. As I said, it’s not always easy, because there are people who are unlikeable people. There are people who will do bad things to you and there are people in our lives who have done bad things to us, and it’s hard for us to see in those people the image of God. But nevertheless, however marred it might be, however damaged it might be in their particular case, that image is still there and we have to be aware of that and handle them accordingly and in as loving a way as possible, because we will have to give an account.
Of course, as with any of the sins that I’ve mentioned, I should always point out that there is forgiveness. There is no reason why we should say, “I am a miserable person. God can’t possibly forgive me,” when we know from the Gospel that Christ is more than willing to forgive us of any sin that we have committed, no matter how dark it may have been. So there’s always the hope of salvation and forgiveness as long as we breathe.
I’ll close with the words of St. Isaac the Syrian:
Do not hate the sinner, for we are all culpable. And if you are stirred up against him by zeal for God, weep for the sinner and do not hate him, but hate his sins. Pray for him, so that you may emulate Christ who is not angry with sinners but prayed for them and wept over Jerusalem. We are mocked in many instances by the devil. Why, then, should we hate and abhor him who has been mocked by our common enemy? If you hate the sinner because he is not righteous in your estimation, you show thereby that you, too, are a sinner, because you do not have love. He who is deprived of love is also deprived of God, for God is love.
Do not hate or persecute the sinner, but become by your sympathy toward him a herald of the goodness of God, who, although you are undeserving, rules over you and does not reject or abhor you, does not punish you for your many and great sins. Emulate his compassion and goodness, then, to the best of your ability, and be merciful to your fellow servant, so that, by your small act of sympathy, you may in return receive from God his very great sympathy.