The Grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the Love of God, and the Fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all. Amen.
Matthew 5:21 “You have heard that the ancients were told, ‘YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT MURDER’ and ‘Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court.’ 22 But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever shall say to his brother, ‘Raca,’ shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever shall say, ‘You fool,’ shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell. 23 If therefore you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24 leave your offering there before the altar, and go your way; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering. 25 Make friends quickly with your opponent at law while you are with him on the way, in order that your opponent may not deliver you to the judge, and the judge to the officer, and you be thrown into prison. 26 Truly I say to you, you shall not come out of there, until you have paid up the last cent. 27 You have heard that it was said, ‘YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT ADULTERY’; 28 but I say to you, that everyone who looks on a woman to lust for her has committed adultery with her already in his heart. 29 ‘And if your right eye makes you stumble, tear it out, and throw it from you; for it is better for you that one of the parts of your body perish, than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand makes you stumble, cut it off, and throw it from you; for it is better for you that one of the parts of your body perish, than for your whole body to go into hell. 31 It was said, ‘Whoever sends his wife away, let him give her a certificate of divorce’; 32 but I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except for the reason of unchastity, makes her commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery. 33 Again, you have heard that the ancients were told, ‘You shall not make false vows, but shall fulfill your vows to the Lord.’ 34 But I say to you, make no oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35 or by the earth, for it is the footstool of His feet, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36 Nor shall you make an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37 But let your statement be, ‘Yes, yes’ or ‘No, no’; anything beyond these is of evil.” (NASB)
So how did we get from the “Blessed are you’s” and “you are the salt and light of the world,” to we are all guilty of murder, adultery, barred from the altar, guilty before the supreme court on all counts, cutting off body parts, and hellfire damnation? In the first two parts of the Sermon on the Mount Jesus described we, the faithful few in the most righteous ways. In Christ, we are blessed, that is favored by God regardless of our temporal circumstances. We are salt, the preserving agent in the world. We are light, reflecting the Light of Christ in the world. In the first part of the Sermon on the Mount, we are the victors.
Now all the sudden we find ourselves on the very precipitous of hellfire damnation. “Guilty before the supreme court.” “If your right hand makes you stumble, cut it off, and throw it from you; for it is better for you that one of the parts of your body perish, than for your whole body to go into hell.”
This section of the Sermon on the Mount is uncomfortable to hear. No one on this planet should feel comfortable with this morning’s assigned Gospel reading. If meet someone who seems un-phased, you’re likely dealing with a self-righteously blind individual or a sociopath.
In just a matter of a couple of minutes Jesus takes us from the best of the Christian faith to the worst parts of our human nature. Hate becomes murder. Lust becomes adultery. Don’t present yourself at the altar of the Lord until you reconcile with anyone with whom you have a grievance. Divorce under any circumstance leads to the sin of adultery. Vows and oaths of any kind, except those made to God are evil and forbidden. We are deemed guilty of a terrible sin if we say “Raca” or call someone a “fool.” “Raca” is an idiom that means “empty headed” or “stupid.” All and any kind of sin is so bad we need to start cutting off body parts to avoid it.
In the language of modern psychology, the Sermon on the Mount has just became a full blown bi-polar express. We’ve gone from a glorious description of what it means to be a Christian, to the deepest depths of despair over what it means to be a sinner. Invincible to hopelessness.
So why did Jesus bring us to this precipitous after lifting us up so high? The answer to that question is found in a couple of verses from last week’s reading. In Matthew 5:17 Jesus said, “17 “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill.” Then there’s the verse that immediately precedes the first verse of this week’s reading. Verse 20, “For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven,” followed immediately by verse 21 “You have heard that the ancients were told . . .”
Most of the Pharisees who show up in the Gospel records were men who were filled with self-righteousness. The self-righteousness manifested itself in a “holier than thou” attitude and an intense hostility toward Jesus and His doctrine. As Jesus’s ministry went on, that hostility turned into hate and hate manifested itself ultimately in actual murder.
Now back in the day, Pharisees were thought of by most people are pretty good people. They were obviously very religious. They were radically and rigidly moral men who did their best to be an example of decency to common people. They were the most diligent of all the Jews in minding the Law and keeping their religion’s rules and regulations. They didn’t have to go around bragging about how decent they were, they were just the kind of people that made others feel unworthy by comparison. They were the best of the best in regard to the outward observance of the moral and ceremonial laws.
In comparison to ordinary people and Gentiles, Pharisees were the good people. The problem here is that the point of comparison is not suppose to be between one kind of sinner and another kind of sinner. That’s not the point of comparison used in the Bible. The point of comparison is the Law of God rightly understood and the person of Jesus Christ. The point of comparison is what we read in Leviticus 19:2 “Speak to all the congregation of the sons of Israel and say to them, ‘You shall be holy [perfect], for I the Lord your God am holy [perfect].’”
The point of comparison is between God and man. Jesus makes that point in Mark 10:18, “No one is good except God alone.” In Matthew 15:9 He summarized human nature this way. “Out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander.” Romans 13:12 “All have turned aside, together they have become useless; There is none who does good, There is not even one.”
Jesus didn’t condemn the Pharisees and the like for keeping the laws, but for their absence of faith in the Gospel, their false doctrine, and self-righteousness. They didn’t possess the perfect holiness that the Father gives away through the Promised Messiah. Thus, all their work to keep the laws were nothing by dirty rags. Isaiah 64:4 “all our righteous acts are like filthy rags.”
Thus Jesus said, “Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven.” If you intend to get into heaven under your own steam, you need to be better than the best of the best. The original hearers understood what Jesus was teaching. The requirement for entering the kingdom of heaven was simply out of their reach
Jesus wasn’t establishing a new interpretation or doctrine. He was teaching the original meaning and intent of the Law. It is not just enough to refrain from killing our neighbor, we must also refrain from thinking or speaking ill of him or her.
Unrighteous anger is a sin and in regard to its effect on our status before God in heaven, it has the same result as murder. Romans 3:23 “For there is no distinction; 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” The demands of the Law are so exacting no human being, with the exception of Jesus Christ can keep even one of the Law’s requirements.
Therein lies the reason for the giving of the Law in the first place. It accuses every single one of us. Lutherans like to use the Latin phrase for this spiritual axiom. “Lex semper accusat.” The law always accuses. In all three of its uses (fence, mirror, and guide) we stand accused of breaking the law.
If you hear the Law preached and come away from it feeling pretty good about yourself, and think that you’re not so bad after all, either I haven’t done my job right or you haven’t been paying attention.
Over the last 60 years the people of the West have grown entirely too comfortable with sin, even the most public displays of it. But here we see that Jesus’s isn’t going to let anyone, Pharisees or prostitutes or you and me off the hook.
In the centuries leading up to Christ, the Pharisees, Priests, Rabbis, and the like had created their own loopholes in and interpretations of the laws. They interpreted the laws in such a way as to make it keep-able. They even used the law as a way to show that they were morally superior to other people.
In their system of thought divorcing one’s wife in certain circumstance was not only not wrong, it was the right and morally superior thing to do. Staying separated from the common people who could be unclean was the right thing to do.
By the way the Pharisees didn’t call themselves “Pharisees.” The word means the “separated ones.” The Pharisees called themselves “Haberim,” meaning “The Associates” or “The Brothers.” Pharisees was the nickname given to the “The Brothers” because they thought of themselves and conducted themselves as a cut above and separate from the common people.
The Pharisees lived by a “Letter of the Law” kind of understanding. “YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT MURDER’ and ‘Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court.” The Pharisees thought that as long a person didn’t actually murder anyone, they weren’t sinning. Jesus teaches that “everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court.” Jesus is applying the Law in the way it was suppose to be applied from the moment it was given.
In this part of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus did two things. He restored the proper meaning and application of the Law to the Church and He showed that sin is a deadly serious matter. Evil thoughts are as much sin as evil actions, thus hyperbole part about cutting off body parts.
Cain murdered Abel. Listen to how God describes what happened. Genesis 4:4-7 “Abel, on his part also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and for his offering; but for Cain and for his offering He had no regard. So Cain became very angry and his countenance fell. Then the Lord said to Cain, ‘Why are you angry? And why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will not your countenance be lifted up? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door; and its desire is for you, but you must master it.’”
In the time of the Reformation a debate arose over what is rightly called a sin. A dispute arose of what Lutheran’s called the “Doctrine of Concupiscence.” Roman Catholics argued that the desire to sin isn’t really sin. When the desire is turned into action, that’s the point at which a person became guilty of committing a sin. The Lutherans on the other side argued, rightly so, that the desire to sin is sin as well. God’s description of what Cain did shows that the desire to sin, that is Cain’s anger is seeking to take control of Cain and cause him to murder his brother. The anger was the sinful motivation to commit the act itself. Sinful thoughts and desires lead to sinful conduct.
In the Large Catechism in his explanation to the 5th Commandment, Thou shall not murder, Luther wrote, “For where murder is forbidden, all desire is also forbidden from whence murder may originate. . . God wishes to remove the root and source by which the heart is embittered against our neighbor . . . Thus we shall suffer our enemies to rage and be angry, but we are to learn to calm our wrath, and to have a patient, gentle heart, especially toward those who give us cause to be angry.”
The principle applies to all the Commandments. There is no loophole in the law. There is no path to salvation through the law. There is no escape from the Law. That’s why Jesus said, “I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
We do not have the capacity for perfect righteousness. So what to do? We do what we have been created to do in the Word and the waters of Holy Baptism. We continue to cling to the One who was and is as holy and perfect as the Lord God. Jesus Christ Himself for He is the Holy One of God. Therefore we cling to His holiness and perfection.
In this part of the Sermon on the Mount Jesus preached the Law in all its terrifying severity. Our hate, lust, greed, our divorces and remarriages, broken oaths, promises, and vows, our unbelief and self-righteousness, and all the rest are brought to light and laid bare in the law.
So where is the Gospel in this morning’s reading? It was at the beginning of the sermon in the “blesseds.”
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for your’s is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you who mourn, for you shall be comforted.
Blessed are you the gentle, for you shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are you who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for you shall be satisfied.
Blessed are you merciful, for you shall receive mercy.
You are the salt of the earth and you are the light of the world.
Do not think, Jesus said, that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill the Law in your stead.
“Lex semper accusat.” The Law always accuses, but the Gospel acquits. you. Your sins are forgiven. You have been found not guilty.
May the peace that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.