It's About Huntsville
Do you want to know what the 5th commandment is really about? Huntsville. It's about the penitentiary at Huntsville. Tonight's Passion Reading is all about Huntsville too. Huntsville is the place executions are carried out by the State of Texas. If you watch the news when one is scheduled, you will see people protesting the death penalty. Look at the signs they carry. Several will say, "Thou Shalt Not Kill" quoting the King James translation of the 5th commandment. Could you carry such a sign?
Not if you know your Bible. The 5th commandment doesn't forbid all types of killing. The correct translation of it is "Thou shall not murder." It's against taking human life for personal reasons; it's not against government ending human life using the death penalty or by just police and military actions. Romans 13 says, "The government has the right to carry out the death sentence. It is God's servant, an avenger to execute God's anger on anyone who does what is wrong." God has given government the authority to hurt, to harm, to make bitter a person's life through the use of prison, punishment, and physical pain even to the extent of taking their life. In Genesis 9:6 God says that a murderers life is to be taken: "Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man."
So, far from marching in protest of the death penalty at Huntsville, Christians could be marching in support of it. We could be carrying signs saying, "Government doesn't have the death penalty for nothing." A Christian really could march outside Huntsville in support of the death penalty. But the 5th commandment isn't about us marching outside the penitentiary; it's about us marching inside. Yes, this commandment should cause you and I to see ourselves in orange jump suits being marched around the exercise yard and then back into our cells on death row.
This 5th commandment is pivotal. It's the first one that deals with our neighbor. In the 5th the Lord protects our neighbor's life; the 6th protects his wife, the 7th his property, and the 8th his reputation. But the most important is the 5th. It's so important that God established human government to support it. That's why our government's toleration of abortion - the taking of innocent human life - is so serious. It shows a complete breakdown of the function of government. What will God do with a government that refuses to do it's most basic function of protecting human life?
God will judge governments which fail to protect human life and God will judge individuals as well. When Jesus describes the final judgement, He does so in terms of the 5th commandment. Our Large Catechism says: "Therefore God rightly calls all persons murderers who do not offer counsel and aid to men in need and in peril of body and life. He will pass a most terrible sentence upon them in the day of judgement, as Christ Himself declares. He will say, 'I was hungry and thirsty and you gave me no food or drink, I was a stranger, and you did not welcome me, I was naked and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not visit me.'..What else is this but to reproach such persons as murderers and bloodhounds?"
Our reason says the only ones who belong at Huntsville on death row are those who have killed with guns and knives. But the 5th commandment sentences all of us who've turned away from anyone in need. Although we haven't put a gun to anybody's head, we've pulled a trigger just the same if we've failed to feed, clothe, or help someone. Although we may never have strangled anyone with our hands, if we've stuck our hands in our pockets rather than reach out to a person in need, we're guilty of murder.
But it's even worse than this. Even if we've been Mother Teresas our whole life, always helping the needy, if we've ever hated secretly in our hearts, we belong on death row. I John 3:15 plainly says, "Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer." And, "No murderer has eternal life in him." And don't try to weasel out of this by thinking of all the people you're able to like. No, you must face those you're not able to like, those who hate you and wish to do you evil. The Large Catechism says the 5th commandment especially applies to those who to wish or actually do us evil. Yes, you should be marching on death row in Huntsville because you're not kind to the wicked and you have hostility toward those who think or do evil to you.
Ah you're protesting, aren't you? Welcome to death row. How many protest their innocence at Huntsville! You fit right in; you claim you're not guilty just because you've never pulled out a gun and shot someone in anger. You claim you have a right to hate those who hate you and to mistreat those who mistreat you. You claim it isn't murder because you didn't have a gun or knife in your hand when you withheld your hand from feeding, clothing, or caring for your neighbor in need. Do you see how completely we belong on death row? We're just like them. We think we have a right to hurt or harm our neighbor in certain circumstances. We don't think we have any more duty to look out for the welfare of our enemy than those on death row do. We don't think our murderous heart should be sentenced to death anymore than they think their murderous hands should be.
But don't you see by protesting our innocence like death row inmates we are actually worse than Judas? Even Judas, who never lifted an actual finger to hurt Jesus, even Judas whose last contact with Jesus was a kiss, even Judas knew he was a murderer and should be sentenced to death! But we're so hardened in our sins of anger, malice and hatred that we keep shouting our innocence into the concrete hallway outside our cell on death row.
We keep shouting until we're hoarse. But it doesn't matter what we shout. It matters what God says, and He declares us guilty of the sin of murder. All our protesting isn't going to prevent them from opening our cell, dragging us out and strapping us to a gurney. All of our shouting, "I'm innocent" isn't going to stop that needle from being poked into our arms. All our pleas on Judgement Day of "I'm sorry" aren't going to stop us from being handed over to hell's hangman anymore than Judas' repeated lament "I'm sorry, I'm sorry" prevented him from hanging himself.
Protests, shouts, and pleas can't save us from death row . Our only escape is in Jesus who was on death row and executed in place of us murderers. The Passion reading next week shows this plainly. Barabbas, a real murderer, is released instead of Jesus. Yes, friends you can't gain release from the cell that the 5th commandment has you locked up in by protests of innocence and shouts of not guilty. And there's no release in trying to pare down the 5th commandment to a size you can keep. We sinners can keep from breaking the 5th commandment as little as fire can keep from burning.
Release from the 5th commandment is only in what Jesus did and didn't do. The Bible goes to great length to show us Jesus did nothing worthy of the death penalty. In our text when all the Sanhedrin condemn Jesus as worthy of death, it is only because He told the truth about being the Son of God. Even the Sanhedrin couldn't find Him guilty of any actual wrong-doing! Several others in the Passion history also say that Jesus shouldn't be on death row. Judas is the first to declare Jesus innocent. Pilate and Herod find no charges worthy of death. Pilate's wife calls Jesus an "innocent man." On the cross, one of the thieves declares that Jesus has done nothing wrong, so does the Centurion who sees Him die.
Not only didn't Jesus do the things we've done to deserve being locked up on death row, He did the things we don't do to keep the 5th commandment. Jesus fed the hungry, clothed the naked, visited the sick and those in prison. And Jesus had no malice or hatred in His heart for those who plotted against Him so wickedly or beat Him so mercilessly. As hard as it is for sinners to imagine, no fire of hatefulness burned in the heart of Christ at anytime. When He was accused falsely, Jesus didn't want revenge. When He was struck for no reason, Jesus didn't want to strike back. When He was mocked and ridiculed, Jesus didn't think, "Just wait; you're going to get yours!"
But do understand, Jesus didn't want revenge just to spare the Sanhedrin who falsely accused Him, or the guards who wrongly beat Him, or those who mockingly blasphemed Him. He wanted to spare us. By not retaliating or even wanting to, Jesus not only spared them physical pain, but us eternal pain. Jesus willingly bore the punishment that murderers like us deserve.
Let's put this in pictures. You're on death row at Huntsville, but don't picture yourself as being locked up and sentenced to death because you have a hateful heart. Yes, that's all that it takes to be on the 5th commandment's death row, but see your sin for how heinous it is to the holy God. Our quiet sins of hatred and malice towards our enemies offend God like senseless murders in the news offend us.
So there you are waiting for the warden to come and execute you. The door to your cell block opens with heavy metal sounds. The warden and the execution team walk your way; you hear their solemn footfalls. They're getting closer and closer to your cell. You're holding your breath as they approach. What? They pass by your cell! They walk out the other end of the death row cell block. They're heading for the warden's residence. They enter; they go up the stairs to the room of the warden's only son. They lead him out of the house to the execution chamber.
The warden's son is innocent of anything worthy of death. But you hear no protests from the warden or his son. This Warden wants His Son to die in your place and the Son is willing to do it. Since all this is going on for your sake, you're brought into the witness room. You watch as the Son of the warden is strapped to the gurney and the needle jabbed roughly into His arm. As He is executed in your place, He turns and looks at you through the soundproof glass and mouths the words, "I love you."
Once the Son of the Warden dies in your place, the Father turns to you and says, "Go in peace; you are free. You're no longer in jail let alone on death row." But dear friends, you really don't see what grace and love I'm trying to illustrate with this story until I add this: You were sentenced to death, not just for any old murder but for killing the warden's wife, the mother of the son who died for you. To make sure you don't add anything on your part to being set free, let me add something from Romans. Paul says, "Christ died for the ungodly; while we were yet sinners." In terms of my story: while the warden's son is dying for you, you laugh in his face saying, "I'm glad I killed your mother." That illustrates what it means to be an ungodly sinner and Christ dying for you and setting your free anyway.
Such forgiving, undeserved love quenches hearts on fire with hate. It did for St. Paul; he murdered Christians until the bloody love of Christ crucified washed over His heart. And this forgiving blood would've done the same for Judas but he turned away from it. He believed it was innocent blood; He just didn't believe it was willingly shed by the Father and the Son to cleanse and forgive his murderous sins. Do you? Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris, Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Midweek 3 (3-22-00) 5th Commandment