Too Few Are Noticing

A death with dignity and compassion it was not.

Those pieces still recognizable as a cricket lay bottom side up. The missing parts, presumedly, composed the linear slick of black goo scuffing the gray floor, on the shoulder of the steel-blue track at the Wellness Center.

Passers-by the deathly scene included countless walkers and runners, lifters and squatters, preeners and primpers – ears plugged by iTunes or Spotify, mind’s eyes laser-focused on the laps, reps, and sets that lie ahead, oblivious to the grisly remains that lay cast aside like a wet gym towel for the better part of a week.

Perhaps the cause of death was premeditated murder: Intentional squishing by a stinky sneaker or simply asphyxiation by the smell of teen spirit, or possibly accidental crushing under the black-metal foot of the nearby pickle ball net. Nevertheless, for poor, old Jiminy, it was a distinction without a difference.

Whatever the blunt force, trauma is trauma. Regardless of intent, murder is murder, because dead is dead.

And too few of us are noticing.

Now comes the Lord’s Sixth Word with something commanding to say about such indifference: Thou shall not murder.

Blessedly so, overt acts of capital murder are statistically rare among God’s people.

Thus it’s tempting to breeze past the Lord’s prohibition of homicide with a certain sense of smug spiritual accomplishment. You’ve certainly abused the other nine commandments quite thoroughly. Yet you’ve managed to honor No. 6 without breaking a sweat, and you never hesitate to point the finger of blame at those who don’t.

But instead of letting ourselves off the hook, or targeting obvious commission of murder by others, let’s cordon off a crime scene around ourselves, and thoroughly investigate so meticulously, such that we all feel the yellow-jacketed sting of guilt. And let us re-discover those precious qualities of daily living that constitute murder’s opposite, so as to remind that it’s never enough simply to avoid killing someone. You and I also have tons of work to do, actively and faithfully, to build up – not tear down – friend, neighbor, and stranger.

By explicitly forbidding their murder, the Lord implicitly reveals that he further hates the angry root causes of murder: Envy, spite, hatred. Lust and jealousy. Vindictiveness and revenge. Inhumanity and blasphemy. In God’s sight all such attitudes and behaviors are simply murder by other names. Stepping into their extremes with voracious premeditation – mode, means, and opportunity precisely plotted – always leads to the spilling of blood and the loss of life.

Which brings us to this morning’s Scripture lesson: The sad, sordid, and bloody story of Naboth’s vineyard – and what King Ahab and Queen Jezebel do to Naboth. Worry less so about who’s on first and what’s on second, and please focus more so on the foul, chocking atmosphere of lusty conspiracy that clouds the lead-up to the crimes.

Note also what so often happens, in all that ramps up to actual murder: We lose sight of the victim’s true humanity and reflection of divinity. Among other things, this cleverly written text in 1 Kings 21 lifts up Naboth’s true humanity by repeating his name nearly 20 times in a mere 16 verses.

The author is trying to tell us something here. So, by the Spirit, listen for that something, as I share with you the Word of the Lord.

Later the following events took place: Naboth the Jezreelite had a vineyard in Jezreel, beside the palace of King Ahab of Samaria.

And Ahab said to Naboth, “Give me your vineyard, so that I may have it for a vegetable garden, because it is near my house. I will give you a better vineyard for it. Or, if it seems good to you, I will give you its value in money.” But Naboth said to Ahab, “The LORD forbid that I should give you my ancestral inheritance.”

Ahab went home resentful and sullen because of what Naboth the Jezreelite had said to him; for he had said, “I will not give you my ancestral inheritance.” He lay down on his bed, turned away his face, and would not eat. His wife Jezebel came to him and said, “Why are you so depressed that you will not eat?” He said to her,

“Because I spoke to Naboth the Jezreelite and said to him, ‘Give me your vineyard for money; or else, if you prefer, I will give you another vineyard for it.’ But he answered, ‘I will not give you my vineyard.’” His wife Jezebel said to him, “Do you now govern Israel? Get up, eat some food, and be cheerful. I will give you the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite.”

So she wrote letters in Ahab’s name and sealed them with his seal. She sent the letters to the elders and the nobles who lived with Naboth in his city. She wrote in the letters,

“Proclaim a fast, and seat Naboth at the head of the assembly. Seat two scoundrels opposite him, and have them bring a charge against him, saying, ‘You have cursed God and the king.’ Then take him out, and stone him to death.” The men of his city, the elders and the nobles who lived in his city, did as Jezebel had sent word to them.

Just as it was written in the letters that she had sent to them, they proclaimed a fast and seated Naboth at the head of the assembly. The two scoundrels came in and sat opposite him. And the scoundrels brought a charge against Naboth, in the presence of the people, saying, “Naboth cursed God and the king.” So they took him outside the city and stoned him to death. Then they sent to Jezebel, saying, “Naboth has been stoned; he is dead.”

As soon as Jezebel heard that Naboth had been stoned and was dead, Jezebel said to Ahab, “Go, take possession of the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite, which he refused to give you for money; for Naboth is not alive, but dead.” As soon as Ahab heard that Naboth was dead, Ahab set out to go down to the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite, to take possession of it. (1 Kings 21:1-16)

One of the Reformation-era catechisms explains the Sixth Commandment in terms sufficient to make everyone squirm.

In addition to frowning upon self-harm and reckless endangerment, God just as soon prefers you not belittle, hate, insult, or kill your neighbors — not by your thoughts, not by your words, not by your looks or gestures, and certainly not by actual murder. The Lord further intends we not be parties to these spiritual felonies, which include high crimes like the desire for revenge and the de facto state of anger that rages every which way.

I’m not alone in sensing that sometimes the average person seems to be teetering constantly on the edge of exploding. It surely feels like everyone is angry these days. And no one is winning the argument! Assuming, of course, that victory is the elusive goal of our bickering.

But here’s the thing: Triumph and conquest over one another are not part and parcel of Creation’s playbook, and Jesus in his renowned Sermon on the Mount pulls not his punch:

“You have heard that our ancestors were told, ‘You must not murder. If you commit murder, you are subject to judgment.’ But I say, if you are even angry with someone, you are subject to judgment! If you call someone an idiot, you are in danger of being brought before the court. And if you curse someone, you are in danger of the fires of hell.” (Matthew 5:21-22)

Anger, envy, rude gestures, dirty looks: So much so the stock-in-trade lifestyle that encircles you and me like a ring of roaring fire. We do some of these things without thinking twice. Someone cuts us off in traffic, we sneer, and label them “idiots” and “jerks.” We do it all in front of our children and grandchildren, threadbare filters of inappropriate word and deed made sufficiently porous by the crude scripting of the latest podcast, political ad, or TikTok vid:

Fist-shaking, finger-flipping, f-bombing; red-faced, vein-popping fury – all because he cut you off, or she forgot to use her turn signal, or is just driving too slowly. And lost in your blind spot is the other’s true humanity and reflection of divinity.

So what is God’s will for you in the Sixth Commandment? That you stop it!

That you and I turn down the dials of rage and righteous indignation a notch or two!

That you clear the chamber, holster your pistol, and shoulder your rifle!

That you and I become instead peace-loving, friendly, merciful – builders of bridges and creators of healthy community!

Few challenges are greater for an intrepid disciple of Jesus Christ, because anger is a natural human emotion.

Anger always arises among near-rivals: siblings, friends, classmates, peers, co-workers, fellow members of a congregation, neighbors sharing a fence line. Anger oftentimes erupts involuntarily, and that we cannot change.

What we CAN change is where we go with our anger, and the Sixth Commandment steers us away from despising, seething over, diminishing, conspiring against, belittling, and spiritually or actually murdering not only those who are different than we are in whatever ways, but also those who are similar and close to our hearts., as well as the Lord’s.

And when such lethal anger triggers and trips us up, the Holy Spirit catches us mid-fall, puts us on our knees before the Sixth Commandment, and quietly whispers into our ears, “By the way: Anger and all its bitter fruits are forms of murder, too! So, watch your step! You’re on thin ice.”

The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

On a personal note, a little bit of me dies whenever I pass a sign like this that hangs on a porch mere blocks from my home.

A death with dignity and compassion it is not.

Whatever the blunt force, trauma is trauma. Regardless of intent, murder is murder, because dead is dead.

And too few of us are noticing.

Pastor Grant M. VanderVelden shared this message during worship on Sunday, September 10, 2023. It is the seventh in his current series on The Ten Commandments.

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