Sunday, February 13, 2011
Sermon for the Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany (February 13, 2011)
"You Have Heard it Said ... But I Say to You" (Matthew 5:21-37)
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Over the last few Sundays, the Gospel lessons have been from our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount. You heard how Jesus described the “blessed” life of his followers and the gracious reward that awaits them in heaven. You heard last week what it means to be the “salt of the earth” and the “light of the world” … and how by grace Jesus makes you to be salt and light. Last week’s reading concluded by saying that “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
The scribes were the expert interpreters of God’s Law. The Pharisees were a significant religious group which held to a strict keeping of the Law in order to be righteous in God’s sight. Both were admired greatly in the community. They were the good, church-going folks who everyone held up as the standard of what it means to be holy and righteous.
But in our Gospel lesson today, Jesus blows that idea out of the water. We hear this refrain from him: “You have heard that it was said … but I say to you.” In other words, Jesus is saying, “This is what you have heard from the teachers of the Law. Here is what the Law really means. Here is the true, divine meaning of the Law.” It’s not just a matter of keeping the Law in such a way that you appear holy and righteous to everyone else. There is “a whole ‘nother” world inside you that reveals you as unholy and unrighteous. This one is not so easy for people to see. But God sees it as plain as day. You and I need to remember that life is lived not just before men. More importantly, it is lived before God. (Scaer, The Sermon on the Mount, p. 114) You may have heard it said, “What happens when no one is looking is what really matters.” But I say to you, “There’s always Someone looking ... and He looks far beyond the surface.”
And so Jesus really “throws down the gauntlet” before those who think that they are doing pretty good at keeping the Commandments. He begins by making it clear that murder is not just intentionally taking someone’s life. If you are angry with someone, insult them, and call them a “fool,” then you, too, are guilty of murder. This is especially heinous when this happens among “brothers,” that is, people who are supposedly united to each other within the household of faith. How can you come to the altar of the Lord with a clear conscience when you still have unrepentant animosity in your heart towards your brother or sister in Christ?
Next, Jesus deals with adultery. Adultery is not just doing things outside of the marriage bond that are reserved for husbands and wives. If you look at someone ... whether in person or on a computer screen ... and your imagination runs wild, you have committed adultery. You may have heard it said (in fact, I think I have said it on more than one occasion), “It’s not the first look that counts … it’s that second look when you turn your head and crane your neck to get another peek.” But upon further reflection, I’ve come to realize that, more often than not, it really is the first look, because it doesn’t take long for your sinful mind to get into gear. And even if you took Jesus’ words literally and cut off parts of your body, you can’t reach in and cut out your heart and your mind. That’s still going to be with you to scandalize you, to cause you sin, perhaps even to fall away if you continue lusting unrepentantly.
Jesus deals with the topic of divorce next. Divorce was easy for Jesus’ hearers. The experts in the Law allowed a husband to divorce his wife for any reason, as long as you did it “properly” and “civilly” … with an official piece of paper to secure the rights of the wife who was being put away (Gibbs, Matthew 1:1-11:1, p. 294). Divorce is easy in our day, too. But Jesus teaches, to the contrary, that divorce is neither proper nor civil. It is painful. It, too, is like cutting off a body part, since husband and wife become one flesh in marriage. It is the tearing apart of a union that God meant to last “till death us do part.” There may be hateful anger associated with it, and that leads us back to Jesus’ discussion about murder. Divorce is never God’s will, although permitted when there is infidelity (the Apostle Paul adds desertion as another situation where divorce is permitted, see 1 Cor. 7:15).
We need to be careful here. We don’t want to diminish the strength of our Lord’s admonition here. We also need to acknowledge the messy situations in which we live in a fallen world, and realize that the Bible may not address every single scenario. But that does not give us the right to treat marriage in a cavalier fashion and seek to end our marriages at the drop of a hat. We should never take it lightly as the rest of our world seems to do. Divorce is sin, this is true. But it is not unforgivable. There is forgiveness and healing in Christ for you, too, who have undergone this painful experience.
The last section of our text deals with careless words and promises. In first century Judaism, if you took an oath, you would swear by something associated with God so you wouldn’t have to use God’s name itself … heaven, earth, Jerusalem, and so forth. The greater the thing you swore by, the more binding your promise … and vice versa. If you didn’t swear by God’s name, then that gave you an excuse not to keep your promise. Jesus destroys this idea. Make a promise. Keep it.
Jesus isn’t forbidding all oath taking. There comes a time when “swearing” is necessary, like in a court of law. Even then, when we swear to tell “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth” it certainly ought to be just that, and not words twisted around to worm our way out of something. Total honesty is hard to come by these days. You have heard it said that “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” But I say to you, “Lies, broken promises, and hurtful words do hurt.” Say what you mean. Mean what you say. Let your “yes” be “yes” and your “no” be “no.” Anything else is of the devil, who is the father of lies and deceit.
Jesus makes it absolutely clear that we dare not think that there is an ounce of righteousness within us that makes us acceptable to God. We each deserve to be handed over to the eternal Judge and be put in prison. And this is no purgatory, where after thousands of years of atoning for our own sins, we will finally get out after the last penny has been paid. Jesus is not holding out the possibility that we can somehow work our way into heaven. You and I can never pay enough to escape the hell we deserve. But thanks be to God that, with every drop of blood he shed on the cross, Jesus paid the entire debt we owe to God, down to the last penny.
Jesus surely was angry at those who got in the way of worshipping God and he drove them out of the temple. But he never sinned in the process. Not once did Jesus have any murderous thoughts. He came to die for those who killed him. He came to die for you and me. It was our sins that sent him to the cross.
Jesus never had any sinful desires in his heart. His utmost desire was to give his life for the sins of all people and to give us salvation and eternal life. He was never in any danger of having any eyes plucked out or hands cut off. But his holy hands were nailed to the cross for you. During those three hours he hung on the cross on Good Friday, God the Son was “cut off” from God the Father so that you and I will never have to be “cut off” from God and his love and mercy.
Jesus came to make us, his Church, to be his Bride. Although we are often unfaithful to him, he will never divorce us. He is totally, unconditionally committed to us. He sought us out. He chose us to be his own. He has “cleansed [us] by the washing of water with the Word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Eph. 5:26).
And Jesus has made numerous promises to us in the Bible, including his testament where he says, “Take, eat; this is my body … Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matt. 26:26-28) This is Christ’s oath to us. He doesn’t need to swear by heaven or earth or Jerusalem or anything else, because he is God. He can swear by nothing greater than himself. His yes is yes … “For all the promises of God find their Yes in [Christ Jesus]” (2 Cor. 1:20)
The righteousness of Christ exceeds that of the scribes, the Pharisees, the whole world. And he gives his righteousness to us as a gift. He bestows it upon us in Baptism. He declares that we are justified in his Word of absolution.
And now we live as blessed people, people who are salt and light in the world. In the strength that Christ gives us through his Spirit, we can live honestly, speaking the truth in love, keeping our promises to each other. We can live a pure and decent life in what we say and do … and in what we look at, too. We can replace anger with reconciliation. The words in our text about leaving your gift at the altar have to do with the sacrifices that were offered in the temple. You and I offer the sacrifices of prayer, praise, and thanksgiving at this altar. And so, if we know a brother or sister in Christ has something against us, if we know we have sinned against someone, we can seek to reconcile with our brothers and sisters in Christ before we come to receive the body and blood of Jesus that unites us as one. We can do this, because Jesus first offered the gift of his life on the altar of the cross. In so doing, he reconciled us to the Father, even though he had so much against us. But now, through faith in Jesus, our sins are no longer held against us. His sacrifice on the altar of the cross earned our forgiveness, and makes it possible for us to forgive one another.