By William M. Cwirla
You shall not murder. 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. (Small Catechism, The Fifth Commandment)
Happy Birthday to you! Happy Birthday to you! Happy Birthday, dear Reader. Happy Birthday to you! Don’t you love birthdays… especially your birthday? Balloons, gifts, a party with your friends. People singing to you. What’s not to like? You were born, and we’re happy for you. You are fearfully and wonderfully made, a creature of God, and we thank God for you. Happy Birthday!
Life Is Precious
Human life is sacred, set apart, holy, from the womb to the tomb. While we share a common biology with the animals–most of the same DNA, same cells, same stuff–we are different from the animals. We are made in God’s image. We are spiritual creatures. The Son of God honored our humanity by becoming one of us, conceived in a mother’s womb and born just like us in order to save us.
Taking human life away is murder. It’s trying to be god in place of God. Only God kills and makes alive. We can’t make anyone alive, and we are not given to take their life away, whether the baby in the womb, the old person in the nursing home, or the neighbor who irritates us.
Murder is unauthorized killing. There is, however, such a thing as authorized killing. The government has the authority to kill when necessary, as in times of war to defend the country, or to punish those who murder, or when the lives of others are in danger. But no person individually has the authority to take another’s life. That would be playing God. But there’s more.
The Heart of the Fifth Commandment
The Small Catechism speaks about hurting and harming, not just killing. That’s where we get into trouble. You can kill someone by doing nothing, for example, when you see a hungry person and give him no food, or a thirsty person and give him no water, or a person lying in a ditch and offer him no help. John says anyone who hates his brother is a murderer (1 John 3:15). Now that’s hitting close to our own hearts. We’re all murderers at heart, even if we’ve never killed anyone. “I wish you were dead!” Ever say that? Think it? Then you’re a murderer, too. Have you looked away from that homeless person begging on the street corner? Murderer! Have you stuffed your face with fast food while your neighbor goes hungry? Murderer! Have you looked the other way while someone was being beaten up, picked on, abused? Murderer!
Our bodies matter to God. They are God’s gift to us: our eyes, ears, and all our members, our reason and our senses. God gave these to us. The body of our neighbor is important to God, too. And He’s put us there to help and support our neighbor in every physical, bodily need. We’re supposed to be there for him, and he’s there for us. That’s what a community is. Jesus came to be our neighbor–to help and support in our time of need. He took our sin and death in His body, and He for our bodies gives us His Body and Blood as spiritual food and drink. He swapped His innocent life for a murderer named Barabbas. That’s us, too! He swapped His life for us. He exchanged our sin for His righteousness. Like Barabbas the murderer, we go free thanks to Jesus, and Jesus goes to His death thanks to us, in order to save us and to raise our bodies from death to life eternal.
Jesus is there in the body of your brother and sister for you to serve. “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40). When you help and support your neighbor in need, you have done it to Jesus. What a great way to thank Him for saving you! And what a great way to rejoice in the sacred gift of life!
Rev. William M. Cwirla is the pastor at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Hacienda Heights, CA. He is also a president emeritus of Higher Things.
This article was originally published in the spring 2016 issue of Higher Things Magazine.