Genesis 4:1-17; Psalm 85:8-13; Ephesians 1:3-14; Mark 6:14-29
It certainly seems appropriate with our Gospel reading for this morning that the Commandment we are on today is the Fifth Commandment, You shall not murder. What Herod did, what Cain in our Genesis reading did, was bad. Don’t kill other people. And, since we’re not kings and therefore not tempted by unlimited power with no consequences, this is a pretty easy commandment for us to follow. Probably the easiest of the Ten.
Except that, in the Small Catechism, Luther explains that this Commandment means, “We are to fear and love God, so that we neither endanger nor harm the lives of our neighbours, but instead help and support them in all of life’s needs.” Well, that’s quite a leap, don’t you think? From not killing to not endangering or harming the lives of our neighbours? Just in the first half of that sentence, Luther goes from something pretty straightforward and easy, “You shall not murder your neighbour,” which is something I can safely say I have never done, to “you shall not endanger or harm the lives of your neighbours.” And I want to protest, like Cain, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” In fact, this past week, my kids and I have had a running debate about our inflatable swimming pool, and whether or not it should be set up in the garage, where it’s cold, but where we can close the door at night, or whether it should be on the lawn, where it warms up in the sun, but where there is no fence and a neighbourhood child might be tempted to swim in it and accidentally drown. On the one hand, we have Cain’s question of to what extent are we our brother’s, or sister’s, keeper. On the other hand, we have Luther and “We shall not endanger the lives of our neighbours.” I thought I was having an easy week with not killing people, but it turns out I have more to think about than I thought.
And then there’s the second half of Luther’s explanation, the “but instead” that is starting to trip us up. “But instead [we are to] help and support them in all life’s needs.” Well, now, come on, that’s going a bit far, don’t you think? In other words, if I don’t help and support my neighbour in all of life’s need––if I fail to ensure that they have food and water and shelter and medical care––whether I do this deliberately or out of simple ignorance, then I am breaking the Fifth Commandment? Isn’t that a bit much? Especially when you consider that our community of neighbours has expanded from a couple of thousand to a global community of almost eight billion. Essentially, Luther is saying that if we don’t, for whatever reason, help and support these eight billion other humans in all their life’s needs, then we are breaking the Fifth Commandment. It’s quite a stretch, wouldn’t you say?
Except that I think Luther is trying to stretch us. Luther is trying to get us to see our neighbours as God does, he’s trying to get us to love God, the foundation of all the Commandments, by seeing our neighbours as one with us in Creation. He’s trying to get us to see, through the “but instead” of each of his explanations to the Ten Commandments, that God has placed us all in relationship with one another. That we are a community––of individuals, to be sure, but a community nevertheless––that lives and thrives together.
And so this Commandment not to murder is actually a commandment not to kill what God has already put into place. Not to kill the community that God has established to give us life, not to kill the relationships that God has given us with our brothers and sisters for the well-being of the world. And so when Cain, or we, ask, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The answer is a resounding Yes! We are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. And they are ours. We are to hold their lives as precious as our own. We are to hold their well-being as precious as our own.
Which, let’s be honest, we don’t. The heart of the world’s problems is that we don’t see and hold the lives and well-being of others in the world as precious as we do our own. From something as small as tailgating the person in front of us to get them to get out of our lane so we can go faster, to letting hateful things be said about others (or thinking them ourselves), to defending stand-your-ground laws or somebody taking another person’s life in order to protect their own property––all of these, like it or not, do them or not, kill our relationships with others in the world. They are violations of the Commandment, You shall not murder.
I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling pretty convicted right now, to borrow a word from our evangelical sisters and brothers. I’m feeling convicted and crushed, that as much as I try to be a good person, I am breaking this Commandment. We don’t orient our lives around the well-being of those billions of people in the world whose lives are worse than ours. We just don’t. Our day-to-day lives, even for the poorest among us, are still far better than the living conditions of billions of our sisters and brothers. The richness of our own lives lulls us into a complacency that, to be honest, we enjoy. We don’t really want to give up the comfort of our own lives. Like King Herod, with his lavish feasts for his guests, we rather prefer things the way they are. We don’t want to risk losing them by standing up for the lives of others. And so, either literally like Herod or figuratively as Luther points out, we murder. We kill the lives and well-being of others in order to protect our own.
Except that it doesn’t work. Because we’re all in this together. God created us to be in community, to be in relationship with one another. When my neighbour––my brother or sister––is doing well, I am doing well. When their well-being is in jeopardy, mine is in jeopardy. We do not live our lives in isolation, we are all connected through webs of life, whether that’s the web of the global economy, the web of our shared environment, or even the web of our shared commitment to life. What affects one person in the world affects all of us. What affects us, affects those around the world. And what brings death to one, brings death to all. And this is the heart of this Commandment––that when we murder another, whether directly or through neglect, we murder ourselves. The death of Abel meant the death of Cain. The death of John the Baptist meant, eventually, the death of Herod. We are our brothers’ and sister’s keepers, and they are ours. When they suffer, we suffer. When they die, we die.
And so here we are, dead, one way or another, because our brothers and sisters are dead.
Right after our Gospel reading for today, in the reading for next week, we have the story of Jesus feeding the thousands. In contrast to today’s Gospel, with King Herod holding a lavish birthday banquet at his very fancy palace and inviting all of the political elite, we have this nobody from Nazareth, in a deserted place, with thousands of unimportant village folk and nobody has anything to eat. And following the king’s feast that descends into chaos and ends with the death of John the Baptist, we have the King of king’s feast where everyone sits down in an orderly manner and “all ate and were filled,” and new life is bestowed on everyone there. Jesus follows chaos with peace. Jesus follows death with new life.
*This* is our hope in the midst of death. That God follows our acts of murder with acts of new life. In Genesis, the death of Abel and the figurative death of Cain, as the farmer is banned from the land, is followed by life for Cain and the establishment of God’s people. In the Gospel of Mark, the death of John the Baptist is followed by the life of thousands. And at the heart of our Christian story, the death of Jesus is followed by new life for him and for all of humankind. God is the “but instead” of the Commandment, “helping and supporting us in all life’s needs.” God follows death with new life. God restores what we kill, and brings healing to those we injure.
Most importantly, most graciously, new life is for those who die and for those who cause death and end up contributing to their own. If murder is the killing of our relationships with one another and ourselves, God’s new life in Christ is the restoration of those relationships. God’s new life is the restoration of the entire community to well-being, a work this Commandment calls us to participate in. We are called to join God in the work of helping and supporting new life, for our neighbours and for us. Resurrection is not for one, it is for all. Resurrection of the individual means resurrection of the community––this is what we see in Jesus. New life after death is for me and for you. For all of us together.
The Fifth Commandment: You shall not murder. You shall not murder the lives and well-being of your brothers and sisters and by extension of yourself. You shall not murder the relationships that constitute the lives of the communities to which you belong.
And the Fifth grace, as it were: God follows our breaking of this Commandment with new life through Christ. Through Christ, God bestows new life on those of us who are killed, and new life on those of us who kill, because it’s impossible to have new life for one without new life for all. The resurrection of Christ is for all, for you. Thanks be to God. Amen.