THE VALUE OF A HUMAN LIFE
I brought a piece of artwork with me today. You are very fortunate because this is the first time this drawing has ever been put on public display. Here it is. I drew it a few days ago. Isn’t it nice? See, here is a house and a tree, some green grass, etc. Okay, so it’s not so nice. In fact, any first-grader could draw this. So you would not be surprised to learn that during the past few days while this drawing was at the manse, I was not afraid that someone might break-in and steal it. Nor did I ask the Board of Managers to hire an extra security guard who would watch over and protect my drawing, for it has no value; no one would ever steal this.
On the other hand, if you were to visit one of the fine art museums of the world, you might see some paintings by Rembrandt, Monet or Van Gogh. Those paintings would be heavily guarded. There would be cameras and other surveillance equipment as well as armed guards in the museum. Why the difference. Of course, it’s because their paintings are of great value, and the reason they are of great value has to do with the quality of their paintings. Only a master artist can produce artwork of such outstanding quality, and that is why their paintings are of great value. Thus, their painting are closely guarded and protected. We protect things of great value.
What’s the value of a human life? What is your life worth? Is it possible to place a monetary value on a human life? We would probably say no.
In 1992 James Patterson and Peter Kim published a book entitled The Day America Told the Truth. The book was based on extensive surveys conducted with thousands of people living in the Unites States. One of the questions they asked was “What would you be willing to do for money?” For $10 million, 25% of the respondents said they would abandon all their friends and almost as many said they would turn to prostitution for a week. And for $10 million, 7% said they would commit murder. Whether they would actually be willing or able to pull the trigger is another matter, but 7% of the population indicated they thought they could and would do it; they would take another person's life for $10 million. Rather frightening, isn’t it?
Ten million dollars. Is that what you are worth? Of course, 7% of the population cannot ultimately determine the value of a human life. For that matter, 100% of the people cannot determine the true worth of a human being. That can be determined only by God, the One who created us.
We get a sense of how much we are worth to God from the sixth of the Ten Commandments. In this commandment, found in Exodus 20:13, God declares, “You shall not murder.”
The reason for this command is rooted in the creation account. There we read how God created human beings in His own image. There is a quality to our nature as human beings that the rest of the created order lacks. Every human being bears the image of God and so is God’s masterpiece, and thus is of great value to God, and should be of great value to everyone else as well. Because we are of great value we are to be protected.
Scripture never says precisely what the image of God in human beings consists of. Theologians have concluded that it relates to our ability to think conceptually – that is, we can think about concepts such as love, beauty, courage, justice and mercy and then try to incorporate them into our lives. We can even transform our communities so they reflect these concepts and principles, which is not true of the animal world.
It probably also has to do with our moral capabilities; we don’t just live on the basis of instincts but we have a sense of right and wrong, fair and unfair. It would also include our will; we have the ability to choose how we will live. We not only have the ability to choose right over wrong; we also have the capacity to willingly cooperate with God in bringing about His purposes for our lives and for creation. Certainly it also involves our ability to live in relationship with God. We can know God, communicate with God and respond to God.
Regardless of all that is involved with being created in God’s image, the reason it is impossible to assign a monetary value to a human life is because our value is found in a whole different realm of reality. Our value is based upon the fact that God has created us in His image. We bear something of the likeness of God. That’s why God forbids murder – because each human life is of so much value.
It is precisely this matter that is at the root of so much tension in society today. Many issues that dominate the news, that cause divisions between people have to do with the value of a human life. What abortion, euthanasia, the death penalty, nuclear arms, our response to the AIDS crisis, withdrawing life support from the terminally ill, etc., all have in common is they force us to wrestle with the value of a human life.
It’s different when it comes to the animal world. Some of you have had to put a pet to sleep because of sickness or old age. If you really cared about your pet that may have been a difficult decision to make emotionally – you grieve the loss of your pet. But morally it does not challenge us. We don’t wrestle with whether or not it is right from a moral perspective to put a pet to sleep because of sickness or old age.
But when it comes to human beings it is different. Why? Because we bear God’s image and so are of infinite value. Even those who do not acknowledge God recognize something of the unique value of a human life. That is why God gave this command forbidding murder, for it is right to protect something of such great value.
Let’s look first at the command itself, and then we’ll consider how it applies to us. Now, one of the challenges with this command is simply knowing how to interpret it, or more precisely, how to translate it. Some Bible translations (mostly older ones) render it “You shall not kill.” Others translate it “You shall not murder.” It obviously makes a huge difference whether the key word there is kill or murder.
If this command prohibits killing, then it is much wider in scope, for the taking of any life under any circumstances is forbidden. Cold-blooded, premeditated murder, acting in self-defense, soldiers killing in wartime or a police officer defending either himself or others – it doesn’t matter. All are forms of killing and thus all violate this commandment.
On the other hand, if this command is better interpreted “You shall not murder,” then of course, it is referring only to the taking of innocent life – deliberately planning and then carrying out this supreme act of violence.
While both options have some things in their favor, “You shall not murder” has the most support. Not that other kinds of killing should be taken lightly, for they are still human beings created in the image of God, but this command seems to be addressing murder. The word in Hebrew, rasah, is used 46 times in the Old Testament, and the majority of times it has to do with the taking of life because of malice and hatred, which implies murder rather than something like self-defense.
That this command deals specifically with murder is also highlighted by the fact that the ancient Jewish law codes allowed for capital punishment, which of course, is a means of killing. In fact, there were nine different capital offenses, crimes for which the guilty person could be executed. So it would appear that this command was not forbidding all taking of human life but specifically murder.
But what is interesting is how rare capital punishment was actually carried out. As time went on, it was the Sanhedrin, the local ruling council of Pharisees, that had the authority to carry out the death sentence. Yet a Sanhedrin that executed more than one person every seven years was known as a murderous Sanhedrin. So while there were a number of crimes for which a person could be executed, capital punishment seems to have been carried out only rarely. The only explanation for this is the deep sense of reverence for life the Israelites felt.
And it’s not only the ancient Israelites who had this reverence for life. Of all Ten Commandments, this one certainly has the most universal acceptance. Even in cultures without any Judeo-Christian influence, there will be some kind of prohibition against murder. They may allow certain kinds of killing, but not the taking of life for any reason whatsoever. All peoples of all cultures have recognized that there is something special and unique about human beings, and thus killing them is not the same as killing an animal.
Two weeks ago we saw that the fourth commandment instructing us to remember the Sabbath and keep it holy is the one we probably most easily and most often break – and we may do so without really sensing we have done something wrong. This commandment forbidding murder is the one out of all ten that we probably feel we most easily keep. I mean, who here has actually murdered someone? (Please don’t raise your hand!) And yet, when we consider all that Scripture has to say on this matter, we discover that this commandment is not any easier to keep than the other nine, and in fact, all of us are guilty of breaking it. How so?
Obviously we are commanded not to literally murder someone, to bring their life to an end. But this command goes further than that. We must also refrain from derogatory comments and spiteful attitudes. When a parent mumbles to their child, “You’ll never amount to anything,” or when a group of teenagers ridicule another, saying, “You’re such a loser,” that kills the spirit of a person.
The Heidelberg Catechism, used by the Lutheran Church, states, “In forbidding murder God means to teach us that he abhors the root of murder, which is envy, hatred, anger, and the desire for revenge, and that he regards all these as hidden murder.”
Why did the writers of this catechism arrive at that conclusion? Why did they expand the command to include attitudes behind the act of murder and not just the act of murder itself? Well, it is based on the teaching of Jesus, who said in Mt. 5:21-22:
You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. And, anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca,’ (an Aramaic term of contempt) is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.
Jesus declares this command goes beyond the act of physical murder to include our attitudes of contempt, our words of spite, and our actions that stop short of murder but nevertheless are intended to bring harm. Anger, hatred, jealousy, and revenge are the seeds of murder, and we have all harbored those seeds in our hearts.
We know the expression, “If looks could kill…” Well, looks can kill. When we look at someone with disdain, anger, hatred, or resentment, we are communicating to them that we despise them, that maybe we wish they were dead and we kill their spirit. When we do that we dismiss them as a human being created in God’s image and thus someone deserving of love and good-will. We write them off, which is a kind of murder.
Jesus is concerned with the root of the problem – anger, hatred, and resentment and the damage those feelings and attitudes do to another, not just the final conclusion – the physical act of murder. And thus we are forced to recognize that we all are guilty, for our lack of love in itself is a form of murder. But this broader way of interpreting the command was not new with Jesus. It was also evident in the Old Testament.
For instance, Lev. 19:18 states: “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.” So even at the time when the Ten Commandments were given, God directed the Israelites to a higher, more positive way of relating with others. Even when someone harmed you, you were to refuse the natural inclination to seek revenge or bear a grudge and show love instead.
Besides refraining from doing harm, we are to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. It is not only the negative acts and attitudes – revenge, bitterness, anger, and so forth that we are to avoid. God would have us go beyond refraining from such negative things to the positive application of this command, which is intentionally showing love to our neighbors - even to those who have offended us.
This is why Martin Luther said, “This commandment is violated not only when a person actually does evil, but also when he fails to do good to his neighbor, or, though he has the opportunity, fails to prevent, protect, and save him from suffering bodily harm or injury.” If we really love our neighbor we will want to take positive steps to enrich their life. We take appropriate actions that will be for their benefit. We ought to cherish our neighbor’s life and well-being as much as we do our own. Jesus went so far as to say that we are even to love our enemies – those who somehow are against us. Even here we are to take the positive steps that demonstrate love and concern for their well-being. This is all a part of the command forbidding murder, for ultimately it means we see the value of each person and treat them accordingly.
And so there are two dangers we must avoid as it relates to this commandment. First, we must avoid the danger of assuming it doesn’t really apply to us because we have never taken someone’s life and we can’t even imagine doing so. Jesus made it clear that any time we bring harm to another, anytime we harbor attitudes of ill-will, resentment, anger, or revenge, anytime we attack another with our words or spread gossip about them we are violating the intent of this command. In fact, whenever we fail to actively show love we break this command, so our lack of involvement is a kind of murder.
The other danger is to realize the breadth of this command as underscored by Jesus and conclude we could never keep it. All our lies, gossip, insults, resentments, acts of revenge, and so on constitute murder. Whenever we fail to show love, to do what we can to provide for the well-being of another we have violated this command. So we just give up. It’s asking way too much of us.
But we must never forget that, in the first place, God forgives our sin through Jesus Christ, so when we have failed in this regard God cleanses us from our transgressions. And second, by His power He can transform us into people who respond to others with positive acts of love instead of destructive comments and uncaring attitudes.
Ultimately this command is a word of grace, for it upholds the supreme value of every human life – including yours! Through this command God is telling you how much you are worth to Him. It affirms that your value is found not in the size of your house or the nature of your career. Your value is not rooted in your physical appearance, your intellectual capabilities, the total of your bank account, or your popularity with others. You can be free from those endless and misguided pursuits. You don't have to surrender to the mindset that you have to prove your worth by doing this or becoming that. Your value is rooted in the fact that you bear the image of God within you, which means you are of infinite value. And because of that God has established this command to protect you from both literal murder and from all that would kill or damage your spirit.
It is also a word of grace because it defines what our society should look like. Every society should be marked by a commitment to preserve all human life. And not only is human life to be preserved and protected, it is also to be enhanced and enriched as everyone actively loves their neighbors and seeks the good of their neighbors. If we all really took this to heart, wouldn’t that make for a wonderful world to live in? When we embrace the fullness of this command and truly seek after the welfare of our fellow human beings who share God’s image with us, we become fountains of grace by which others are blessed and the whole community is enriched.
Finally, it is a word of grace because it forces us to recognize our need for grace. We all have had angry, malicious thoughts toward others. We have all at times attacked others with our words, or have belittled them to others. We have all ignored those in need or who are hurting. We have passed on the opportunity to demonstrate love in practical ways.
On the surface, it seems that this is the one command that most of us have kept, and yet no human being can proclaim their innocence regarding this command when we understand the fullness of its intent. Thus it drives us to the cross as we confess our sin, and there we find God’s lavish grace and forgiveness.
As long as we think we are innocent, we trust only in ourselves and our own goodness. And such an attitude keeps us from God. But when we acknowledge our sins and failures, it opens the door for us to experience the wonder of God’s grace, the assurance of His forgiveness, and the depth of His love. The more we experience the love of God in our hearts, the more that love will transform us and enable us to be more loving.
And then as we yield ourselves to the Holy Spirit, He enables us to begin living out this command in a deeper and more authentic way. The fruit of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control – the very opposite of the anger and hatred that lead to murder, begin to mature in our lives. By God’s grace we begin to live a new way. We can be agents of love, grace, and healing in this broken and often hostile world.
This command is not only about refraining from actually murdering. It is also about learning to see all those around us as our fellow human beings who bear within them the image of God, and so we treat them accordingly. And it’s about learning to love others even as God loves us. As we fully yield ourselves to God and His purposes, He enables us to do just that.