21 “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ 22 But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.
It is a commandment; “you shall not…” We are right in hearing it as an imperative: “Don’t kill,” or even a jussive, “You may not kill.” But, technically the grammatical form of the verb is a simple future tense: “You will not kill.”
What if we heard it as simply descriptive rather than proscriptive? What if the voice at Sinai were simply describing what is to come – that we would not kill?
We shouldn’t kill. But we also shouldn’t eat so much. We shouldn’t go without exercise. We shouldn’t gossip. If we hear the commandments in that realm of what should be – we all too easily compromise those values. We rationalize. We excuse. We kill because it is necessary in war. We kill because certain crimes require capital punishment. We kill bad guys bent on doing us harm. We kill because our home was invaded or we felt threatened. I can understand and even join many of these rationalizations – and in the broken world in which we live such things may sometimes be necessary. But it isn’t the world God intended. And it isn’t the world to come.
Rationalizations and exceptions rob us of the sense of horror killing should evoke – not just the killing of another person, but the fearful awareness that all killing is a dangerous trespass upon God’s territory, an arrogant and idolatrous presumption to decide life and death that belongs to God alone.
The fact that God gives permission to kill in certain circumstances doesn’t make it our right, only that we are acting with divine permission or command. We do not even have the right to slaughter an animal for food, except that God gave permission – with instructions on how it must be done so that we remember the giving and taking of life is God’s turf.
Perhaps reflecting on the fact that the commandment is written in the future tense – you will not kill – can help us reclaim some of this lost ground. Perhaps we can regain the notion that killing is not ours to do. It is unthinkable.
Oh that it were unthinkable. Such violence surrounds us. We are inured to the death of inner city youth and Syrian civilians. We have witnessed remarkable slaughters in this last hundred years – which makes the commandment also a promise. In the future to come, in the day of the LORD, in the reign of God, in the governance of God’s spirit, it will again become unthinkable. The future that awaits us, the future that has come among us in Jesus, the future in which we walk now, is free from death. Forever.
And then, maybe, we can appreciate the word of Jesus that more is at stake here than just killing. Those who live the reign of God will not even insult another. We will not even start down the path that in the ancient world so easily escalated to murder – and in every part of the world wounds rather than heals, divides rather than unites, incites rather than reconciles. We will not walk that path. We walk trusting the promise that of a world reborn.