A Pro-Life Ethic for Today PDF Print E-mail

by The Rev. Dr. Ronald W. Scates

January 21, 1990
Central Presbyterian Church,
Baltimore, Maryland

Texts: Matthew 5:21-24 and Exodus 20:13

    You have heard that it was said to the men of old, 'You shall not kill; and whoever kills shall be liable to judgment.' But I say to you that every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother shall be liable to the council, and whoever says, 'You fool!' shall be liable to the hell of fire. So if you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.

    You shall not kill.

Well, we've just finished a decade and begun a new one. It's a time of expectation and excitement, but also a time for concern and dismay, a time for caution. As we enter the 1990s, we do so in a state which Alexander Solzhenitsyn has described as "moral exhaustion." Over the past 25 years we've witnessed the disintegration of any kind of a moral consensus. We've watched family structures crumble. We've watched the drug epidemic rise. We view movies and TV shows that desensitize you and me to the beauty and the sacredness of sex, and the joy of integrity and honesty, and the preciousness of human life. As a culture, we have cheapened life, both its quality and its inherent sacredness. And today is Sanctity of Human Life Sunday. On this day I would like us to think seriously about how you and I view human life, and to encourage you and me to wrestle with what it really means to be pro-life amidst a culture that increasingly promotes a death ethic.

This sermon may be very controversial to many of you. That's OK. A lot of agony has gone into this sermon. Hopefully, a lot of compassion, and I trust, also, the grace of God. I know that any time we get a gathering of this many people, there are folks who have experienced the pain, the agony, of making a decision about human life, the taking of it. So hear now, the sixth commandment as it comes to us in the book of Exodus, the 20th chapter, verse 13: "You shall not murder." (NIV) or, if you have the RSV it says, "Thou shall not kill." I stand here this morning as a preacher of the gospel of Jesus Christ, but also as a man who is fallible and also as a sinner. And so the necessity that we pray. Join me.

    Father, as my words are true to your Word, may they be taken to heart. But as my words should stray from your Word, may they be quickly forgotten. Through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.

The Sixth Commandment. Two short words in Hebrew and yet possibly the most problematic and controversial of all of the commandments in terms of how we live it out in today's world as followers of Jesus Christ. The problem lodges in the interpretation of the Hebrew word "to kill" (ratzak). In the Old Testament this verb is used always in the context of an act of premeditated taking of human life, in other words, murder. So the NIV reflects that in its translation.

For some Christians this sets forth an open and shut case of pacifism, (for example, our Mennonite brothers and sisters). For other Christians, this is a prohibition of abortion. Other Christians say that they look at this commandment and find in it a warrant against the death penalty. And then there are Christians that I know who have said to me that this commandment provides a catalyst for their efforts to work against poverty and social injustice and the proliferation of nuclear weapons. How does the sixth commandment bear upon all of these issues, all of these dilemmas? For each of us, as responsible followers of Jesus Christ, do have to make decisions at various times in our lives concerning these kinds of problems and others that are involved with the taking of human life.

Some of you know where I come down on many of these issues, and I would be glad to talk to you one on one about these at a later time. What I would chiefly like to do this morning is to look beneath these immediate issues and see if there isn't a God-given foundation upon which you and I can stand and make the most responsible, informed, intelligent, compassionate, and hopefully, faithful decision possible concerning issues of human life and death. It is my sincere belief that Jesus offers you and me that foundation. It's there in the New Testament lesson that was read earlier.

So I'd like you to reopen your Bibles to Matthew 5:21-24 and check out what I am going to say against that text and also against the sixth commandment, Exodus 20:13. Remember, Jesus is the Lord of Scripture. It is He who is the giver of the law, and here, as part of the Sermon on the Mount, we have His interpretation of the Sixth Commandment, the foundation upon which it sits and from which it derives all of its authority for you and me today. Jesus takes us beyond the mere act of killing. He takes us beyond the letter of the law and reveals to us the very heart and spirit of the command.

What we have here is Jesus giving you and me the grand positive in relation to the negative prohibition of the command. The grand positive is that human life is so precious and so valuable that you and I as Christians are called to support and affirm and protect and improve life whenever we can, and this begins with our basic attitude toward all of human life. "Sticks and stones may break my bones but names can never hurt me." "That's not true," says Jesus. He reveals that the sixth commandment is not confined to overt acts of cold-blooded murder, but includes verbal abuse that arises out of unrighteous anger or possessing an inner spirit that views some life as less valuable, more expendable than others.

Jesus here is clearly affirming a doctrine of the sanctity of human life and he does so in the context of the entire Word of God, which from Genesis to Revelation, sets forth and affirms that God alone is the author and giver of life; that every human being is made in His image, and that every life, no matter what its circumstances of conception, no matter what its quality from the world's point of view, is not cheap, but is a priceless gift; that every human being has ultimate value in God's sight regardless of their age, or their sex, or their IQ, or their race, or their ability, or their psychological condition; that life is not a result of random events but is a miracle that God has brought into being. It is, therefore, sacred and inviolable.

When I was a pastor in Texas, our presbytery had a campground down in Port Aransas on the beach, and I'll never forget the poster in the dining hall of a little black boy. The poster said, "God don't make no junk." And that's true. The grand positive to the sixth commandment is that life is to be treasured and nurtured, respected and cared for, beyond what the laws of society deem appropriate or even what our gut feelings are toward life or toward death in any given situation. You see, for the Christian, Scripture must be that which primarily shapes your and my attitude and view toward human life and its value. And before a Christian can make the most faithful decision in matters of life and death, that Christian has to take Scripture seriously, and know the whole of Scripture and begin with Scripture as the starting point and then go to the mat with those texts that clearly set forth the doctrine of the sanctity of human life. And that's what I'd like us to do this morning. Let's go to the mat with these texts that we have before us.

Jesus takes the sixth commandment and says, basically, "Hey, just because you haven't gone out and committed some overt, heinous, cold-blooded act of murder, don't think you are innocent." He boils down the sixth commandment to being a prohibition of any attitude that cheapens or devalues human life. He says that if you say "raca" (Aramaic for "fool") to anyone, if you call someone a "fool," if you harbor unrighteous anger in your heart toward your brother or sister, then you are guilty of breaking the sixth commandment.

Now I want us to take a look at that strange Aramaic word "raca" because I believe here is the key to understanding the spirit and the essence of what God is telling you and me through the sixth commandment. That word literally means "empty headed" or "worthless." In other words, Jesus is saying that a person who views another human life at whatever stage or age, or whatever color or sex, or whatever quality or potential, if a person views another life as worthless or expendable, that's having the view of "raca." They've traded in the sanctity of life for a mess of potage.

And yet there is a clear trend in our culture today and the infection has crept into the church as well: an attitude that evaluates human life as to what it can produce rather than for what it inherently is. Much of today's media glorifies death and violence while cheapening essential components of healthy life like sex and marriage and worship and commitment and love and integrity. Did you know that the average child or teenager sitting here this morning, by the time they graduate from high school, will have witnessed over eighteen thousand murders on television? And every time they witness one of those murders, they (and you and I) become just a little bit more desensitized to the value of human life. Did you know that of acts of sex on television, 90% of them take place outside of the arena of faithful monogamous marriage? And every time you and I are exposed to that we become just a little bit more desensitized to the value of human life.

Soren Kirkegaard was a Danish theologian back in the last century. He once told a story of a bunch of thieves who broke into a jewelry store. They didn't steal anything, they merely rearranged all of the price tags. Racism, sexism, abortion, lack of empathy for the hungry and the homeless, "Rambo-mania" that has gone wild in our culture--things that emphasize a cavalier attitude toward life and death--all of these are evidence that the price tags have been rearranged. I recently saw some flags in an Army/Navy surplus store. One flag said, "Kill 'em all, let God sort 'em out". The other said, "Kill a Commie for Mommy." More evidence that the price tags have been rearranged, friends, in the America of 1990.

Does it bother you? Does it bother you that the number of abortions that took place in 1989 equals the population of Baltimore city and Baltimore county put together? Does it bother you that while our nation's defense budget continues to escalate, we, at the same time, are losing the war, not to communists, but to moral relativism--especially as concerns the sanctity and preciousness of human life. It's an enigma to me how someone who claims to be "pro-life" and against abortion can at the same time be callous toward the needs of the poor. It's an enigma to me how our government will quickly fine you and me five hundred dollars for destroying an eagle's egg but provide no Constitutional protection for unborn humans. It's an enigma to me how some Christians rant and rave about the violence on our street but then can turn around and flippantly say, "Nuke the Russians" "Raca!" Worthless.

You see, Scripture reveals to us that God is biased toward life. Death is never a solution to anything. In fact, Scripture calls death our enemy, not a solution. Death is the antithesis of God's good gift of created life. Death is a henchman of sin and evil, not of God. And if we're serious about Scripture, then what is set before us in Scripture is a pro-life ethic where you and I are called to work for the preservation and protection and welfare and respect of all human life.

This does not mean with a callousness or condemnatory attitude toward those people who find themselves, for whatever reasons, in heart-breaking situations where they are having to choose abortion or make other anti-life decisions in the midst of that gray bio-medical/ethical wasteland that our increasing technology is developing at a faster rate than we can keep up with morally. No. Instead, to be pro-life means that we agonize with those people, that we love them, that we weep with them, that we point them to the truth of Jesus Christ, but then whether they accept that truth or not, we still love them.

A pro-life person is one who stands in the breach for the lives of the unborn, the poor, the infirm, the abused, the dying; stands with passion and with compassion even toward those who militantly disagree with us. To be pro-life is--oh, did Jesus really mean it?--to love our enemies. To be pro-life involves something far larger than any one issue, than our stance on abortion, or any one of the other critical life and death issues that hang over our heads. Above all it means that one's attitude is shaped primarily by the Word of God, not by what seems to be most humanitarian or expedient, or economically or emotionally least painful. It's trusting that this God who gives us this Word is much more loving and humanitarian and compassionate and understanding and forgiving than any of us could ever hope to be.

Pro-life ethic for today begins with the belief that every person has been created in God's image and is of immeasurable worth. That all stages of life, from womb to tomb, are a part of God's good gift of life. And that Jesus came to bring life, abundant life, and to be the death of death. And you and I, as followers of Jesus, must stand and work for justice to assure people not only of the right to life but also of those other rights and necessities that they need to attempt to make life joyful and loving and responsible and faithful. In a word, livable.

To be pro-life today as Christians means that you and I begin and continue to ask ourselves some very hard questions. "Ron Scates, how do you really view the lives of the poor, the mentally retarded, the hungry, homosexuals, prisoners, drug addicts, victims of AIDS, those people for whom our welfare system and shelters are a way of life?" " Raca" is the verdict of many people toward these folks. What are they? Worthless or sacred? They are all people whom Jesus loves and people for whom Jesus died. And what about our attitude toward war and nuclear proliferation, the death penalty? Have our opinions been shaped primarily by a knee-jerk reaction, by peer pressure? Or do they emerge out of a wrestling with God's Word? As Central Presbyterian Church, what does it mean for us as a congregation to be pro-life? Does it have anything to do with how we view the inner city and the tragedies that are happening in the lives of those around us? Does it have anything to do with reaching out toward that pain? Does being pro-life fuel our passion for world missions? I believe it should.

As your pastor, my chief task is not to say, "believe as I believe," but to point to Jesus Christ and encourage the Body of Christ to go to the mat and wrestle with these issues in light of God's Word. And then to encourage you to act faithfully. To be pro-life is to begin to look at all of human life in the light of that Word that we believe is God's Word, and then be doers of that Word.

And wherever we stand, wherever we come out on these issues, Jesus makes clear to us, here and throughout Scripture, that there is no room in our lives ever for arrogance or self-righteousness. You see, we all stand guilty of breaking and being broken upon the sixth commandment, of how we have viewed other people's lives and how we have treated them. It's interesting that Jesus closes the passage in Matthew by talking about the fact that before we really, truly worship him, we need to make reconciliation of any brokenness in our lives. Whether we have broken someone else's life or they have violated ours, nevertheless, He points out the initiative is upon us to go and make reconciliation before we can truly worship.

You know, the wonderful thing about Jesus is that he never asks you and me to do anything that he doesn't do Himself. You see, Jesus is the violated person, the wronged person, and yet, He came to us and brought us back to God, made the atonement. To be pro-life means that you and I are reconcilers.

In all of God's commands, there is always an element of law and then an element of grace and we need to hear both. We need to hear the law, "Do not kill," "Do not commit murder." And then all of us who have looked at someone and devalued their life, who have made racial jokes, who have found ourselves delighting in the deaths of Libyans as they were bombed a few years ago, or delighting in the execution of prisoners on death row; all of us who stand guilty of saying "Raca" at sometime in our lives, need to hear God's word of grace or we begin to wonder, "Is there any hope for us?"

Becky Pippert is a friend of Anne's and mine. She used to be the evangelism specialist for InterVarsity. One time she told me a story that helped me really understand God's grace in the light of the Sixth Commandment. She led a girl to Christ. After this girl became a Christian, she began to agonize, feel tremendous guilt about the fact that she had had an abortion a number of years previous.

    She went to Becky and laid that out to her and said, "I really don't think God could love me. I realize that I have done wrong. I have broken God's command. I don't believe He could possibly forgive me for taking the life of my child."

    Becky said the Lord gave her a word for that girl that ultimately enabled God's grace to break into that girl's heart. She said, "Sally," (not her real name), "you may think of yourself as a murderer, and you think of yourself rightly. But you were a murderer long before you ever had that abortion, and so am I. You see, both of us nailed Jesus Christ to the cross and killed him. Do you think, Sally, that God has forgiven you for that?"

    And Sally said, "Well, yes, I believe God has forgiven me for that, but I just can't believe hes forgiven me for the abortion."

    Becky then said, "Sally, God has forgiven you and me for killing His own very son. How much more can we find His forgiveness in something like an abortion?"

So all of us stand condemned here. In one way or another, we're all in the same boat. But God offers you and He offers me, in whatever way we have broken that command, He offers us his complete forgiveness. On this Sanctity of Human Life Sunday, I would challenge all of us to take a stand for life, to go against the grain of our culture, and to work for the protection and the preservation and the welfare of all human life on this planet. Anything else is less than faithful.
The Rev. Dr. Ronald W. Scates is senior pastor at Central Presbyterian Church in Baltimore, Maryland.



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