Trinity 6 – July 7th and 8th, 2018 – Matthew 5:17-26
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit +
As Christians, as those who pay attention to our Lord’s Words, we ought to pay attention to that which He commands. That’s not an earth shattering statement – all of us here know that we ought to try to behave, to strive to show love to our neighbor. And yet, what is the reality? So often, we just don’t even bother. And more than that, we justify our bad behavior – we start playing fast and loose with the Word of God – we ignore it, we twist it to serve our ends, rather than learning to love and serve God and neighbor. Jesus will not let that stand. And our Lord Jesus today teaches and demonstrates the two major errors, the two major ways in which a Christian can ignore, can twist God’s Word of Law in a harmful way.
First, our Lord says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” God in His Word has told us many things about how we are to live, what we are to do, how we are to behave. He has given us the 10 Commandments, and there’s a very good reason why even 3500 years after Moses we still sit down with our children and teach them the Commandments to this day. God’s desire that we lead decent lives has not changed. However – that doesn’t mean that Christians aren’t tempted to. . . pretend that the Law doesn’t really matter any more. Note what Christ warns against – Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven. There is a temptation amongst Christians to. . . relax God’s Law. To shrug off what He has commanded, to just. . . ignore the Word of God where it becomes uncomfortable. This is often thought of as the classic “liberal” error when it comes to God’s Word – to just ignore what you don’t like. A place where this is obvious today comes up with the 6th Commandment. A lot of discussions in a lot of places on Homosexuality relax, to use Christ’s Word, what God has said about Homosexuality. A lot of places are relaxing on the issue of premarital sex. There is a whole facet, a whole wing of the Christian Church that is systematically chipping away at Scriptural ideas of morality.
However, this is not just a time for me to lambaste all those liberal Churches out there. They might do this openly and publicly, but consider in your own life the times where you yourself are tempted to. . . relax God’s Law. God says, “Love your enemy” – but we can… not apply that to this particular enemy who has us really upset right now. Or how often do we ignore or forget that we are to be patient and kind and instead justify and defend our anger because *they* were just messing things up. The temptation remains for us to cut ourselves some slack when it comes to right and wrong – and that is dangerous, because when we do that, it’s not just a small thing, it’s going directly against the wishes and will of God. Thus, as Christians, we are to be on our guard against ignoring the parts of God’s Word that say things about us and our behavior that we don’t like.
But there is another error that Christ warns us against – and this is the opposite error of what we just discussed. Our Lord says, “You have heard it said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.’” Our Lord here is attacking the stereotypical Conservative error, the error of legalism. The Pharisees were by in large rather conservative folks – and the big danger that they had was while they took Scripture seriously, they didn’t see its fullness, they didn’t understand and apply it to themselves, and so they became smug. They would hear the 5th Commandment and say, “Well, I haven’t murdered anyone, therefore I’m doing all right.” And they became legalists, they became focused on how they DID the Law so well. The thing was – they really hadn’t. In their arrogance they assumed that they were righteous, when in reality their righteousness was lacking. Note what Christ does here – He ties murder to anger. Anger leads to murder, and so if God tells us not to murder, clearly He would want us to avoid the anger which could lead us to murder. And this is clear from the Scriptures. Consider the first murder – Cain slaying Abel. Before Cain murders Abel, God says to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen?” Be wary of anger and where it leads. Jesus isn’t teaching anything new – He’s teaching what had been taught from the beginning – but the problem was that when too many folks looked at God’s commandments, instead seeing God’s Law as showing them their sin, showing them what they needed to struggle against – too many folks simply viewed God’s instructions as a mere checklist. And pride and arrogance crept in. In fact, they would add extra things to their checklists that weren’t in Scripture, like a good Jew would wash his hands a certain way. Does this not happen today? Don't we today too have our own traditions, in our families or town or church, that we think just have to be done, where we just know that we are better because we do it the “right” way? Rather than focusing on what the Scriptures say, people can go off on their own smug self-righteous ego trips, pointing out how good they are.
Again, this is a danger for us today. We here strive to take God’s Word and His Law seriously. And the danger is that we can assume that we know what we need to know – we hear the commandment and we think we’ve got it down – but we forget to think about the implications of the commandment. This is one of the beauties of the Catechism. Luther would keep us from falling into this trap – because in the explanation he states not only what we are to avoid, but what the commandment implies what we are to do. Take the 5th Commandment. “We should fear and love God so that we do not hurt or harm our neighbor in his body, but help and support him in every physical need.” If we aren’t to kill, then we aren’t to harm, and if we aren’t to harm, then that implies that we are to help. In every physical need.
When it all boils down, the danger is that we misuse God’s Word, especially when it comes to the Law. We can act as though God’s Law doesn’t matter on a certain issue and flat out ignore what God says; or we can become prideful in how we are good Christians and stop thinking, stop mediating on God’s Word, becoming unrepentant and arrogant. But the truth is this – God’s Law is deep, it is profound, and whenever we hear a commandment from God, we should search ourselves to find out how we fall short of that commandment – for each of us has sinned and fallen short of the Glory of God, and there is not one who is righteous, no, not one. Whenever you hear a command of God, it should be obvious to you that you haven’t done it like you ought - and if you don’t think that, then you aren’t hearing God’s Word rightly, you aren’t listening. Our Lord says, “Be ye perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect.” That’s the standard, that’s always the standard of God’s Law. We dare not relax it, we dare not ignore it.
And we, dear friends, are by no means perfect. That should be obvious to all of us. And the consequences of the Law still hold – the wages of sin is death. What Christ says here is true – Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. In and of ourselves, our righteousness is never that high. Whenever we hear God’s Law, we see our lack and our need to repent – every time. However, we also hear something else in God’s Word – our Lord speaks and says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” There is One who is truly righteous, whose righteousness has exceeded that of any of us, who lived the perfect life, doing all that was pleasing in His Father’s eyes, and that is Christ Jesus our Lord. And what Jesus does is that when He goes to the Cross, He is making a trade. There at the Cross, Christ Jesus takes up all of your sin, all of your lack of righteousness, and there He receives its wages in full and dies – but He does this so that in exchange for your sin, He can give to you all of His Righteousness. Consider this – you are Baptized, you are joined to Christ. Your sins have been washed away from you, and Christ has given you His righteousness. When God sees you, He sees Christ. Every good, every wonder that Christ has done, that’s what God beholds when He sees you. When God looks at you, He sees the life of Christ Jesus – and it shouldn’t be a surprise that it is this way. What happens when we commune – we receive Christ, we receive His Body and Blood, His very life, so that our sins are forgiven, removed from us, and so that we are filled with all that He is. We see and understand the depths and the wonders of Christ’s forgiveness for us, His great love for us – that He has indeed made us to be righteous with His Righteousness – a righteousness that we will finally see in full on the last day. May we see this ever more fully as well!
And so dear friends, I warn you not to ignore God’s Law, but rather I encourage you to examine yourself in light of God’s Law – knowing full well that the light of God’s Law will always shine on many-a-nasty spot. But when you see these flaws and errors, in humility and faith repent of them, for God is faithful and just to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. When we see our sins, we learn to not trust in ourselves (which can only lead to disaster), but rather to cling to Christ Jesus, who in great joy and gladness freely gives to us His righteousness. In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit +