[A17] Indirect Murder (The Small Catechism)

“In thinking and speaking of murder, the average person usually has in mind only the actual and direct taking of human life, — as, for instance, with poison, a revolver, a dirk or some similarly deadly instrument. This probably accounts for the complacency so many exhibit when it comes to considering the command which says: ‘Thou shalt do no murder.’ Most people, on hearing these words, will at once say — that does not condemn me.”

Table of Contents

17. Indirect Murder

“Thou shalt not kill.” — Exod. 20:13.

“If an ox gore a man or a woman, that they die: then the ox shall be surely stoned, and his flesh shall not be eaten; but the owner of the ox shall be quit. But if the ox were wont to push with his horn in time past, and it hath been testified to his owner, and he hath not kept him in, but that he hath killed a man or a woman; the ox shall be stoned, and his owner also shall be put to death.” — Exod. 21:28:29.

In thinking and speaking of murder, the average person usually has in mind only the actual and direct taking of human life, — as, for instance, with poison, a revolver, a dirk or some similarly deadly instrument. This probably accounts for the complacency so many exhibit when it comes to considering the command which says: “Thou shalt do no murder.” Most people, on hearing these words, will at once say — that does not condemn me. That is at least one command of the Decalogue which I have not broken. My hands are not stained with blood. Those who speak thus have only a superficial understanding of the requirements of God’s Law. And if I succeed in giving a proper presentation to some of the thoughts I have gathered, as direct statements or unmistakable inferences, from the Word of God, our complacency will, probably, be pretty well shaken; for we shall learn that murder, in God’s sight, is not only the actual taking of human life contrary to the will of God, but anything which injures or may shorten life — our own or that of someone else. And not only so, but that the malevolent emotions, hidden down deep in our own hearts and known only to ourselves and God, such as anger and hatred, are murder in God’s sight; for they are the germinating seeds of murder in act.

In distinction to the forms of murder of which we spoke in our last lesson; the deeds which resulted in the more or less speedy extinction of life, we will confine ourselves, today, to a consideration of what we may appropriately call Indirect and Prolonged Murder.

Murder by Indirect Complicity

The laws of both God and man take cognizance of certain forms of complicity in crime. For instance, the man who plans a murder and then, by bribery, or other method, incites someone else to commit the deed, is considered as guilty, in some cases more guilty, than the actual perpetrator. David, who thus contrived the death of Uriah, was more a murderer than the soldier in the line of battle who executed the king’s orders. And the men in high places, at the head of labor unions, political and other organizations, who, to gain a point or get revenge, plot against the lives of others, often deserve much more execration and greater punishment, than the minions they employ to carry out their bloody work. The latter are often men of but low mental and moral type, to whom a few dollars appear larger than a human life; while the men higher up are the ones who prostitute noble gifts and great opportunity to ignoble ends.

There are, however, other forms of complicity in taking human life which are not so apparent and of which the law of today takes little or no notice. For instance, there are forms of carelessness which make those guilty of it responsible for the consequences resulting from it. The Law of God, of old, required that a vicious ox, which killed a human being, should be put to death (Exod. 21:29). Human life was held above all property considerations. But if the animal was known to be vicious and the owner had been warned of this, but failed to keep it properly guarded, then, if the ox killed a man, not only was the ox put to death, but the owner also was considered guilty of murder and could be put to death. He was regarded as guilty because of criminal negligence.

If this law were in force today a great many respectable people would get into serious trouble. I, of course, do not mean that law literally interpreted and applied only to the ox and his master; but the application of the principle therein contained to present day conditions. If the man who had a vicious ox, but did not confine it, was guilty of shedding blood when it killed an innocent bystander, what shall we say of the railway and other magnates who, to boost dividends, keep their employees at work till they drop from exhaustion? When these men, overcome by the infirmities of nature, make mistakes which cost their own lives and, may be, the lives of scores of others, where lies the blame? Whose hands are red with blood? They are the hands of those who, for selfish and greedy gain, would push humanity beyond the point of endurance. The same principle applies in every sphere where similar conditions prevail. Laws have, in some in stances, been enacted looking to the betterment of these conditions; but there is still room for much improvement.

The pure carelessness of employees, who have not a shadow of excuse for it, not infrequently makes them guilty of complicity in the death of others. If the failure to keep an unruly ox securely tied made the owner guilty of murder when a human life was crushed out by the enraged animal, how about the workman who recognizes a serious flaw in some piece of important work he is turning out, a piece of work on the strength and dependableness of which the safety of human lives are to depend; but who, because he does not wish to lose a little time or money, fills the flaw with a little putty and covers it over with paint? When that piece of machinery or whatever it may be gives way under the strain, and precious human lives are left mangled and bleeding as a result, who is the guilty person? Who is the red-handed murderer? None other than that careless, inconsiderate, selfish workman, whose own life, by right, ought to pay the forfeit for his criminal carelessness.

If the owner of a vicious ox became a murderer through the acts of that animal, when he did not use proper precautions in confining it, what name shall we give to those who, for the sake of a little added profit, adulterate food products; not only with a cheaper grade of material, but not infrequently with matter which is decidedly injurious to health? Are they not murderers, also? Yes, and murderers of a very coarse and brutal type. And yet this thing was so frequent in this enlightened, cultured land of ours that the federal government had to take strong measures to prevent it.

The sweatshop owners of the Northland North-east; the cotton mill owners of the South and South-west; and all those everywhere who exploit women and children or men either, for that matter, for the smallest possible pittance, for less than it takes adequately to support life in the plainest, most self-denying manner; and do this in order to pay big dividends on watered stock, that the favored few may roll in luxury on an unearned increment — all these are guilty of an indirect, prolonged form of murder. Hood’s poem on the seamstress has a real application today. The poet was not narrating fiction for his day, and it is nothing if not realistic today:

“O, men, with sisters dear!
 O, men, with mothers and wives!
It is not linen you’re wearing out,
 But human creatures’ lives!
 In poverty, hunger, and dirt,
Sewing at once, with a double thread,
 A shroud as well as a shirt.”

The tenement owners who build dark, damp, ill-ventilated, unsanitary dwellings for the use of the poorer classes, because they cost less and will return larger profits; those who own and control places where men’s bodies as well as their souls are destroyed; all those, indeed, who, from a spirit of greedy selfishness, produce or maintain conditions whereby the lives of their fellowmen are unnecessarily endangered and finally destroyed, all these are, in a degree and often in no inconsiderable degree, guilty of murder. And those who do not do all they can to correct these evils become guilty of contributing to the wrongs perpetrated.

There are still many other ways in which men become involved in indirect murder. I cannot begin to enumerate all of them and will mention but a few of the more common ones. How frequently children, by inconsiderate, ill-advised conduct, not only blight their own lives; but break their parents’ hearts and hasten their end. Parents sometimes do the same thing for their children, and married people for one another. This is one of the most cruel kinds of injury. It is often worse than the thrust of a sword. Recall the heart-broken lament of Jacob when his unfilial sons brought back Joseph’s bloody coat. “And Jacob rent his clothes, and put sackcloth on his loins, and mourned for his son many days… And he said, I will go down into the grave unto my son mourning” (Gen. 38). Jacob lived to learn the truth and to be comforted, but I very much doubt whether he ever fully recovered from this blow. And it is certain that multitudes of parents and other people go down to their graves with broken, bleeding hearts, and that their going is much hastened by the unnatural conduct of those who ought to be the staff and comfort of their lives.

If men become guilty of murder by contributory negligence or when they only abet those who take life, what shall we say of the governmental officials who allow certain citizens of our country to help perpetuate the bloodiest war of all history? And what shall we say of the men themselves who, having lost all feeling of humanity, having steeled themselves against the groans of dying thousands, and the wails of other thousands of widows and orphans, robbed of their providers and defenders, prolong the carnage only for the one purpose of enriching themselves? For one thing, it proves that our country’s affairs are not really in the hands of the men elected to represent the people and work for their interests, not only in a financial way, but socially and morally; but in the hands of the money barons who, by threats of panic and all other kinds of dire disaster, coerce our officials, of all parties, into accepting or at least enduring their schemes of frenzied and, as in this instance, bloody finance.

Never before has the world seen such an example of the triumph of conscienceless commercialism, at least not in a so-called Christian country. That the whole procedure is in direct contrast to what our government has done before is well known. That it has the right, as well as the power, to put an end to it now is not disputed. That the whole bloody business is outraging the moral consciousness of hundreds of thousands of our best citizens is becoming better known. And no American whose conscience rebels against this iniquitous traffic should cease his efforts till this bloody, unneutral business is stopped, and stopped for all time. No good will ever come to our country from the treasuries swollen with the money that bears the smell of the blood of our brothers beyond the sea, which blood cries out to high heaven. As for those who are directly responsible for this dark, bloody blotch on the pages of our national history, we may well leave them to the judgment of God, whose sentence they will not be able to escape, though they do succeed in subverting human governments. What real enjoyment can they get from this staggering wealth of blood-money? And even before they leave this world they shall have to reckon with this decree of Almighty God: “As I live, saith the Lord God, I will prepare thee unto blood, and blood shall pursue thee; since thou hast not hated blood, even blood shall pursue thee” (Ezek. 35:6).

We must not forget, in this discussion, that the results of evil actions cannot be confined, wholly, to the actors. It inevitably reaches out and draws others into the stream. In this indirect way many a one has been killed toward whom no violent hands were ever raised. Murder is not only actual blood-shedding. There is a murder that begins with the hearts of men, a man-slaughter not recognized as such by the legal statutes. God knows, this old world has been thoroughly drenched by actual blood, but this is by no means all of the dark, gruesome story. Whoever breaks a heart or blights a life or destroys a soul’s vision of hope is a murderer. Let us not boast too quickly that we have never broken the Fifth Commandment. Let us hold up our hands to the searching white light of God’s holy Word and we shall very probably find them spotted with the crimson hue which spells murder.

Murder by Neglect

It is no doubt a new thought for many people to be told that they become guilty of murder by contributing, even in an indirect way, to the causes which bring about human hurt, or shorten human life. But this is the interpretation that God’s Word puts on the Fifth Commandment. Our next thought takes us still a step farther, on to higher ground. The Scriptures show us that we may become guilty of a person’s death where we have had nothing at all to do with producing the conditions which brought to the person suffering his mishap. This is the case when we fail to help him, according to our ability, when he is in need of assistance.

If we were in company with a person who happened to fall into the water and could not swim, could we help having a guilty conscience if that person drowned because we did not attempt his rescue? If we could have saved his life, but did not do so, we are assuredly guilty of that person’s blood. The same principle applies to all cases of need. And not only to cases of accident; but in sickness, poverty, and every kind of need.

Luther, in explaining this commandment, in the Larger Catechism, says: “When you allow to go naked one whom you could have clothed, then you permit him to perish from cold. When you see one suffering from hunger and you feed him not, you let him starve to death.” He then further quotes the words of Christ in St. Matthew 25: “I was hungry, and ye did not give me to eat; 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;” and says: “That is, you would have left me and my followers to die from hunger, thirst and cold; to be torn by wild beasts; to decay in prison; and to perish from want. What is this but an accusation that they were murderers and bloodhounds?”

According to this interpretation of murder, wealthy Dives, who enjoyed his perfumed baths, lolled around in the raiment of royalty and feasted sumptuously every day, while unfortunate Lazarus, full of sores and covered only with rags, lay starving just beyond his gate, was a murderer. His hands were red with blood. And he went where all those who die as murderers go — he lifted up his eyes in hell.

According to this interpretation, the priest and the Levite, though they were ministrants at God’s altar and were just on their way from this holy service, were not free from the guilt of murder when they passed by the sorely wounded fellow-country man whom they found on the public highway. True, they had not wielded the instruments by which he had been brought low; but they had found him weltering in his blood. They knew he badly needed their help; that if he were allowed to remain as he was during the night he would, in all probability, die before morning. As the event proved, though it came from other hands, a little care would save his life. But the priest and Levite did not give the help for which the man’s need called. They went on their way, concerned only about their own safety; and their hands were covered with blood. They were just as guilty of murder as if the man had died as the result of their indifference.

What a terrible reckoning some people will evidently be eventually called on to make. They have never been called before any earthly tribunal, they are regarded, probably by most of their fellows, as people of clean hands, as exemplary citizens; but what revelations will be made when they stand in the presence of the Judge who is the discerner of hearts. To many of these the Judge will say: I gave you an abundance of the good things of life; you lacked nothing which could minister to creature wants. How about the widows and orphans you allowed to go hungry? How about the aged and infirm you refused to succor? How about the forsaken, the lonely, the broken-hearted you would not condescend to help raise and cheer? And they will be speechless. And though they may have held themselves far above ever actively raising a hand against a fellow mortal, yet their hands will be suffused with crimson, and the word murder will be written all over their narrow, self-centered souls.

Anger as Murder

If we have begun to lose our complacency as a result of the advancing revelations God’s Word makes as to the nature of murder, shall we not tremble to learn that there are still other ways of becoming guilty of this crime, and ways which involve still more people? A person may become a murderer in God’s sight, by a word, a look, a movement of the heart.

The Saviour tells us, St. Matthew 5, that by unrighteous anger men subject themselves to the same condemnation which is visited upon the man-slayer. And St. John clarifies the matter when he says: “Whoso hateth his brother is a murderer; and ye know that no murderer hath eternal life abiding in him” (I John 3:15).

There is potential murder in anger, in hatred. It is the germinating seed which bears murder as its ripened fruit. If the inward passion were always repressed the outward crime would always be prevented. Even the heathen moralist understood this, for he declared that men become murder ers before ever their hands become stained with blood.

The tongue is the first and handiest weapon of an enraged mind and a burning heart. And many are the bloodless wounds it makes. And many are the more serious physically conflicts for which it prepares the way. No wonder the inspired writers called the tongue a sharp sword and a piercing arrow.

How many people have been murdered by eyes which looked daggers; by tongues which cut and slashed; by hearts which, burning with consuming hatred, wished all manner of evil to the people disliked. And are we altogether guiltless of this indictment? Have our hearts never been filled with the venom of hatred? Have our tongues never hissed with the sound of the serpent? Have our eyes never glowered, showing through these windows of the soul the dark passion burning within?

Prolonged Self-Murder

Indirect, slow murder may be of oneself as well as of another. By excessive and uncontrolled anger, by overwork, worry, intemperance in eating and drinking; by the excessive use of intoxicants and of tobacco, especially on the part of immature lads; by secret excesses, many people are reducing their mental and physical efficiency and shortening their lives. This is nothing less than slow suicide. It may all be done in ignorance, but ignorance does not excuse. We have no right to abuse our bodies in any way. They do not belong to us in the sense that we can do with them as we please. They belong to God, who gave them. Speaking in a special sense of the sin of personal impurity, the Apostle says: “What? know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own? For ye are bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God’s” (1 Cor. 6:19,20).

The strenuous character of our modern American life is telling on the physical condition of our people. This kind of life often begins with our children. The youth of today is often as old as his father, as old in experience, as old in the tenseness of his living, as old in his knowledge of the ways of the world and, if given to much dissipation, as old in the stiffness of his joints. We are crowding weeks into days in the feverish chase after dollars and pleasure. In a way perhaps not meant by the prophet, the children of today may die at the age of a hundred years (Isa. 65:20). When the pace, however laudable the object of pursuit, wears out the body faster than it can recuperate, thus weakening the body and exposing it unnecessarily to the ravages of disease, it is a sin against the body and God who gave it.

This strenuous life is affecting rapid improvement in many directions. But is the game worth the candle? We are paying a big price for the gain. The number of sudden deaths is rapidly increasing. We are fast becoming a race of neurotics. And the accompanying evils of suicidal mania and in sanity are making rapid increase. A machine, capable of standing a certain degree of pressure, if taxed beyond that limit is soon strained, weakened and made less efficient. The same is true of this most wonderful piece of mechanism — the human body. This weakened condition affects the body in many ways, predisposing it to many ills. One of the worst is when the mind gives way. And statistics show that the rate of increase in mental ailments has more than doubled in our country in the past twenty years. And much of it is the result of not taking proper care of our God-given bodies; the result of haste and worry and vice. And we will have to give an account to God for all this.

Soul Murder

Soul murder, as the murder of the body, may be direct and gross as well as subtle and indirect. The person who seduces another from the path of virtue often becomes guilty of destroying both the seduced person’s body and soul. This is especially true where the violation is not only that of a moral principle, but at the same time of the laws of personal purity and health. A soul, however, may be murdered where the body is left temporarily to flourish. Whenever one person tempts another to commit an act or to a course of life contrary to God’s holy will, the tempter becomes guilty of one of the greatest of sins. If God says of the murderer of physical life, “no murderer hath eternal life abiding in him,” what think you shall be the punishment He will mete out to those who maim and kill the souls of men?

Many there are who are doing the work of destroying souls under the guise of feeding them with the Bread of Life. They are those who tear the word of God to pieces, deny its most fundamental teachings — the Divinity of Christ, His atoning work, the doctrine of the Sacraments and whatever does not happen to meet with their approval. There were such people in the Old Testament time and God had a word to say about them. “Behold, I am against the prophets, saith the Lord, that steal my Words everyone from his neighbor. Behold, I am against the prophets, saith the Lord, that use their tongues, and say, He saith. Behold, I am against them that prophesy false dreams, saith the Lord, and do tell them, and cause my people to err by their lies, and by their lightness; yet I sent them not, nor commanded them” (Jer. 23:30-32).

God wants us to be personally clean and believing, and what we have He wants us to pass on to others. To act otherwise is sin. Whether it be in the form of false teaching, or wicked example, or direct enticement for another to join us in the commission of evil, God’s command is, “let us not therefore judge one another any more; but judge this rather, that no man put a stumbling block or an occasion to fall in his brother’s way” (Rom. 14:13).

There is still another way in which we may have to bear the guilt for the loss of another man’s soul, and that is when we have failed to do what we could to save it. Jesus Christ has made it obligatory upon His Church to carry His Gospel to the ends of the earth and to keep it constantly before the children of men. “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even to the end of the world” (St. Matt. 28:19:20). This means that part of the responsibility for doing this work rests on each one of us individually. Have we discharged this duty according to the measure of our ability? Have we fulfilled Christ’s command: “Pray ye the Lord of the harvest, that He would send forth laborers into His harvest?” (St. Matt. 9:38). Have we carefully considered the question as to whether one of our boys or girls ought not to be given as a missionary? Have we given what we should have given for the spread of the Gospel? Have we spoken to the unchurched and unsaved around us about their souls’ salvation? If not, we are not guiltless.

Finally, let us not forget that we can destroy our own souls as well as our own bodies. If we do not feed our souls by reading and meditating on God’s Word, if we neglect to attend the preaching of the Gospel, if we do not live a life of prayer, if we do not put into practice what we hear from God’s Word, we are robbing our souls of needed nurture and exercise. And if they die it is our own fault; we have murdered them.

Is there one here, Christian though he be, who has never been guilty of any of these things? God pity us all! The meshes of the Law, the wide ramifications of this Fifth Commandment, have caught all of us in its folds. We all stand convicted of complicity in murder — of men’s bodies and souls. And there is but one way in which we can be cleansed.

“There is a fountain filled with blood,
 Drawn from Immanuel’s veins,
And sinners plunged beneath that flood
 Lose all their guilty stains.”

By God's grace, each week LutheranLibrary.org will present a new message on the basics of the Evangelical Christian Faith. Our guide is the Small Catechism, as expounded by Traditional Pastor Robert Golladay. May this series bless and inspire you.

Luther’s Small Catechism: Series A – The Ten Commandments

Publication Information

  • Author: “Golladay, Robert Emory”
  • Title: “The Ten Commandments”
  • Originally Published: 1915 by Lutheran Book Concern, Columbus, Ohio.
  • Lutheran Library Edition: 2019
  • Copyright: CC BY 4.0