The Fifth Commandment

You shall not murder.


What does this mean?

We are to fear and love God, so that we neither endanger nor harm the lives of our neighbors, but instead help and support them in all of life’s needs.


I am not very good at bowling. Well, that’s an understatement, but we’ll let it stand for the sake of my dignity. Sure, I could probably improve if I ever bothered practicing, but I have a better strategy. 

One word: bumpers.

Bumpers are great. With bumpers, I literally cannot get a gutterball. It is impossible. Bumpers might never make me bowl a perfect game, but they keep me from truly embarrassing myself. Bumpers keep the ball going in the right direction, so at least one or two pins fall every time. 

Martin Luther taught that the law has two functions. The first, which everyone needs, is to hold a firm boundary between what’s right and wrong. The law is like the bumper that keeps a bowling ball out of the gutter. When we have good laws, like the ones found in the Ten Commandments, everyone benefits. As far as I know, every society, Christian or not, has had some kind of prohibition against murder. It’s a basic bumper to keep communities from falling into the gutter. Good law keeps everybody rolling in the right direction.

As always, Martin Luther takes the law of the Commandments a step further. It’s not enough not to murder, but a Christian must also keep the law by seeking the welfare of their neighbor. To take an example from the Bible, one of the laws is this: “Whenever you build a new house, you must build a railing for the roof so that you don’t end up with innocent blood on your hands because someone fell off of it.” (Deut. 22:8) Homes built by the Israelites had flat roofs, so they were used as additional living space. To prevent injury or death, a guard rail or wall needed to be built around the roof. The parallels for us might be requiring a fence around a pool or fire exits and sprinklers in a public building. Martin Luther wrote that “do not murder” even commands us to feed the hungry, lest by our inaction they starve and die.

As I read Martin Luther’s comments about the fifth commandment to write this devotion, I began to realize that I am no better at keeping this commandment than I am at bowling. I’ve never murdered anyone, but do I help and support my neighbors in all of life’s needs? Every single one? I do not. None of us does.

This brings me to the second function of the law: to show us our sin, and our need for a savior. Lutherans believe that no one can keep all of God’s commandments, and that the law’s mere presence is enough to reveal our failure. Hearing that we should “help and support them in all of life’s needs” is inevitably followed by the swift realization that we have not helped and supported as we are commanded.

Blessedly, the God whom we are to fear and love is the very God who forgives and loves us. To the law that shows our sin comes the gospel that removes it. Should we still seek to neither endanger nor harm, but help and support our neighbors? Yes! Does God forgive us when we don’t? Yes! We are both restrained by the law and freed by the gospel.

God, nurture in me the fear and love of you that holds me bound within your good laws so that I never harm nor endanger my neighbors, but help and support them in all of life’s needs. Let them do the same for me, so that our community may flourish. When we fail, forgive us and set us back in your path. Amen.