THE FIFTH COMMANDMENT.
Thou shalt not kill.
We have now treated both of spiritual and civil government, that is, divine and parental authority and obedience. We accordingly take leave of our own residence, and proceed to our neighbors, for the purpose of learning how we should live among each other,– each individually towards his neighbor. Wherefore, God and the magistracy are not comprehended in this commandment; nor does it divest them of their authority which they have for inflicting capital punishment. For God has committed his right in punishing criminals, to magistrates in the room of parents, who in former times (as we read in Genesis) were under obligation to bring their children to judgment, and to sentence them to death. For this reason, that which is forbidden here, is forbidden particularly to private persons, and not to the magistracy.
Now this commandment is easy to be understood, and it is frequently inculcated, since we annually hear it in the Gospel, Matt. 5, 21, where Christ himself explains it, and comprises it in a summary, namely, that we should not commit murder, either with our hands, or by the devices of our hearts, or by our lips, or by our testimony or treachery, or assitance and counsel. Every one is, therefore, here forbidden to be angry, excepting, as remarked, those who occupy God's place on earth, that is, parents and magistrates. For it behooves God and persons who are God's representatives, to be indignant, to rebuke and to punish, even on account of those who transgress this and other commandments.
The reason and necessity, however, for this commandment are, that God truly knows how wicked the world is, and the numerous misfortunes attending this life, on account of which he has instituted this commandment and others, to protect the pious against the ungodly. Now, as there are various oppositions against every commandment, so there are here; because we must live among many persons who injure us, and give us occasion to be at enmity with them: as when your neighbor sees that you have better residence and lands, more blessings and prosperity from God than he has, he becomes offended, envies you, and speaks nothing good of you.
Thus, through instigation of the devil, you get many enemies who accord you no blessings, either temporal or spiritual. Therefore, when we see these men, our hearts become inflamed with anger, and begin to burn with a desire of revenge. Thence arise contentions and conflicts, from which calamity and murder finally result. Here God, like a kind and indulgent father, interposes as arbitrator, and desires those contentions to be allayed, so that no misfortune may result, nor one person injure another. And, in a word, by this commandment he wishes each one to be protected, defended, and guarded against the violence and injuries of every one, and that it should be placed as a rampart, a fortress, and a safeguard for our neighbors, in order that they may not be molested, or receive any personal injury.
The import of this commandment is, that no one should injure his neighbor on account of any malicious act whatever, even if he richly deserves punishment. For where murder is forbidden, there every cause is also forbidden from which murder might arise; for many a one, if he does not commit murder, utters imprecations and harbors malicious designs, which, if executed, would soon destroy our lives. Inasmuch, then, as this principle is implanted in all of us by nature, and since it is the universal custom that one will not suffer any injury from another, God intends to eradicate the root and the cause through which our hearts become embittered against our neighbor; and he intends to accustom us to have this commandment continually before our eyes, viewing ourselves in it as in a mirror, beholding the will of God, and submitting unto him with sincere confidence and adoration of his name, the injustice which we suffer, and thus permitting those to indulge their fury and rage, to do whatever they can; so that we may learn to assuage our wrath, and to keep an enduring, patient heart, especially towards those who give us occasion to be angry, that is, towards our enemies.
Therefore, the whole sum and substance of these words, not to kill, should be expounded to the inexperienced in the most explicit manner:– In the first place, that no one should commit an injury, first, with his hands or by his deeds; second, he should not use his tongue for the purpose of doing injuries. Moreover, he should not employ or justify any kind of means or ways by which another might be injured. And, finally, his heart should not be at enmity with any one, or imprecate evil upon him, through anger and hatred. So that both body and soul should be innocent with respect to every one, but especially in respect to him who wishes or causes us evil; for, to do evil to him who wishes us well and does us favors, is not human but diabolical.
In the second place, not only he who perpetrates evil, violates this commandment; but he who is able to favor, assist, restrain, control, and protect his neighbor, so as to prevent him from being molested or from receiving injuries in his body, and does not do it, also violates this commandment. For if you permit a naked person to depart when you are able to clothe him, you have suffered him to perish with cold; if you see some one suffering with hunger, and you do not administer to him, you let him starve; so, if you see an innocent man sentenced to death, or in similar distress, and do not rescue him, if you know of ways and means for this purpose, you have put him to death; and it will not benefit you if you do allege that you did not give your consent, advice, or assistance, to this act; for you have withheld from him that love, and deprived him of that kindness, by which his life might have been saved.
For this reason God also justly calls all those murderers, who do not advise and assist in the exigencies and dangers of body and life; and he will pass a most terrible sentence upon them on the day of judgment, as Christ himself, Matt. 25, 42, 43, announces, saying: "I was a hungered, and ye gave me no meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me not in: naked, and ye clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not." That is, you would have permitted me and my followers to perish with hunger, thirst, and cold; to be torn by wild beasts; to linger in prison, and to be destroyed by want. What else is this but reprimanding you as murderers and blood-hounds? For, even if you have not perpetrated this in deed, you have, however, so far as it pertains to yourself, permitted your neighbor to remain and perish in misfortune.
This is as much as if I were to see some one laboring to extricate himself from deep water, or some one who had fallen into fire; and if I could extend my hand to rescue either of them from danger, and still would not, should I not appear before the world a murderer and a wicked wretch? Therefore, the whole design of God is, that we should not permit injury to befall any person, but that we should manifest all kindness and love to him; and this has, as already said, especial reference to our enemies; for to do good to our friends, is but a heathen virtue, as Christ, Matt. 5, 46, says.
But here we have the Word of God again, by which he wishes to incite and urge us to true, to noble, and excellent works: as meekness, patience, and in short, love and kindness towards our enemies. And he would remind us continually to remember the first commandment, from which we learn that he is our God, that he desires to assist, defend, and protect us, and to subdue our inclination for revenge.
These things should be urged and impressed upon the minds of the multitude; then we would all find abundant occasion to do good works. But this would not be preaching for the monks; it would more probably retrench their religious orders, and bring in a remarkable depression of Carthusian sanctity; it would perhaps be called even a prohibition of good works, and a destruction of monasteries. For by this means the condition of common Christians would avail equally as much as these orders, yes, much more; and all persons could see how they impose upon, and deceive the world with their false, hypocritical affectation of holiness, since they scatter to the winds this and other commandments, and regard them as unnecessary; as if they were not commandments, but counsels; and, moreover, since they have impudently boasted and proclaimed their fictitious orders and works as the most perfect course of life, so that they might lead an easy life, without opposition and endurance. For this reason they have also entered into monasteries, in order that they might not be molested by any one, or have necessity to do a favor for any one. But know, then, that those are the right, the holy, and divine works, in which God and the angels rejoice; and in contrast with which, all human sanctity is filth and pollution, which deserves nothing but wrath and condemnation.