Protecting lives

God says, “You shall not murder” (Exodus 20:13).

Luther explains, “What does this mean? We should fear and love God so that we do not hurt or harm our neighbor in his body, but help and support him in every physical need.”

Salvageable adds: This commandment prompts discussions in many controversial areas: abortion, euthanasia, the death penalty, and just and unjust wars, to name a few. Christians should seek God’s will in these extreme cases, but too often Christians become absorbed with these cases and overlook the everyday ways in which we are tempted to sin against this commandment.

This is the first of four brief commandments which protect, in order, lives, marriages, property, and reputations. (They are so brief that three of them are tied for shortest verse in the Bible, if we count letters in the original languages rather than in English translations.) Luther indicates that we not only are forbidden to kill our neighbors, but we are not to hurt or harm them in any way. Jesus goes even further, indicating that rage and insults against a neighbor also trespass this commandment.

Obedience to this commandment involves attitudes as well as actions. All human life is to be respected and even treasured. We should not even want to harm a neighbor. This includes deliberate acts of violence, and also carelessness. When we carelessly risk harming a person’s life or health, we break this commandment. That applies to our own lives as well. We are to be good stewards of our bodies—neither obsessing over our health and fitness to the point of idolatry, nor engaging in unhealthy habits that can shorten our lives or reduce our ability to serve God by helping our neighbors.

Even neglect is sinful. Not only are we to avoid hurting and harming others, but we are to help and support others. Both Old and New Testaments call God’s people to care for widows and orphans and all that are poor and vulnerable. Deuteronomy 15:4-5 says, “But there will be no poor among you; for the Lord will bless you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance to possess—if only you will strictly obey the voice of the Lord your God, being careful to do all this commandment that I command you today.” But Deuteronomy 15:11 says, “There will never cease to be poor in the land.” God knew that his people would sin, failing to honor and protect the lives of their neighbors, allowing selfishness and greed and cold-heartedness to keep them from caring about the lives of their neighbors. Those sins continue today. Enough food is produced in the world each year to feed every person alive, preventing starvation and diseases caused by malnutrition. The food is not distributed evenly, though, so that those who have more than enough can share with those in need. Politics, waste, and greed all play a part in the inequities of the world. We could be doing better.

Special circumstances call for a lifting of this commandment. Soldiers on a battlefield behave in ways that would be inappropriate anywhere else. Medical and religious professionals help families make difficult decisions about care given to the terminally ill. Many Christians believe that it shows respect for human life to deprive a murderer of his or her life. Even Jesus laid down his life as a sacrifice, dying so his people can live, purchasing forgiveness for all of our sins, including sins against the lives of our neighbors. J.

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