“But I say to you...”
Our Lord Jesus Christ speaks with an authority of his own. Ancient teachers would often appeal to the authority of those who have gone before them. Even today, we pastors are taught that there really is nothing new when it comes to theology, but to lean heavily on the wisdom of those who have gone before. We appeal to Walther, to Luther, to the early Church Fathers. But Jesus Christ needed no such wisdom and guidance, for he was and is the very Word of God made flesh. He precedes all of these other authorities, who really devolve their authority from him.
And it is so often the case that in our human wisdom we want to make the law of God something less that it really is. We focus on one aspect of it, we over-emphasize one of its prohibitions. We rationalize and minimize, we come up with clever ways to avoid the full brunt of it. The Old Adam is like a legal Houdini when it comes to the accusations of the law, well at least he fancies himself that way. “Oh, that doesn't apply to me.” “Oh, I'm not that bad.” “Gee, at least I tried.”
But inasmuch as we would diminish the law and its seriousness, Jesus raises the bar. Where we would look for a way out, he leaves us no escape from the full fury of the law. We are, all of us, trapped in our own guilt.
“You've heard it said, do not murder... But I say to you anyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment.” Yes, actual murder will get you in hot water with the justice systems of this world, but the kingdom of God concerns also the things of the heart. And so the anger inside of us, welling up from the black heart of sin, is just as damnable. Jesus leaves no out. For even a harsh word, “you fool!” makes one worthy of Gehenna, the smoldering trash heap outside of Jerusalem that Jesus uses as a picture of eternal damnation.
I don't know about you, but I've had my share of angry moments and more, and I've called a brother far worse than a fool. Jesus would have us see these sins, this law-breaking which we think is such a small thing, is really not. We are no less than murderers in our hearts and words, destroying our neighbor in our daydreams and with our insults. The same sinful self-righteousness drives all of it. The same corruption of sin that spoils all good things.
But Jesus has a remedy for this – reconciliation. If your brother has something against you, drop what you're doing, even if it's bringing an offering to God, and go be reconciled with your brother. In other words, don't think that God is pleased with your sham holiness when you can't come to terms with your brother. Repent – not only before God, but before man. For God, who reconciles you to himself in Christ Jesus, would have his own people be reconciled to one another in Christ. Put away the anger, the grudges, the outraged sense that you've been mistreated and the victim of so much injustice. Take a look in the mirror at your own heart of stone. And then turn from it all, turn to Christ in faith. Be at peace with both God and your brother by the humility that confesses, “I have sinned” and by the gracious offer of forgiveness. For so have we been forgiven in Christ. So God's anger against us is put away in Jesus.
You have heard it said not to commit adultery. Oh, yes. You've heard it said that it's ok as long as you really love the person. You've heard it said that you should be getting all the love you need. You have heard it said that you can be friends with benefits. You have heard it said that living together is a nice way to test run a marriage and see if it's a good fit. You have heard it said that this marriage just isn't working out, we've grown apart, and it's better for everyone if we go our separate ways. You've heard it said, “it doesn't hurt to look”. You've heard a lot of things said about love and sex and marriage and adultery in our culture. So much of what was said in Jesus' time was said for convenience and as a cover for lust. And so it is today.
But again he leaves no out. Thoughts and actions are the same. Lust in the heart is like unto adultery in the bed.
And divorce – an all too common occurrence in this modern world – so it was even then. Man made rules have twisted marriage in all sorts of knots, and provide for its easy dissolution. But Jesus knows God's intention- that what God has joined together, let man not put asunder.
Adultery comes in many forms, and marriage is dragged through the mud every which way. But even when society winks at all this, God's law does not.
And finally this business of oath-taking. Apparently it was in vogue to swear oaths, not only on God's name, but on heaven, or to swear by earth, or by your own head. Oaths were sworn in all manner of foolish things, and often with false purposes. And while it is permissible to swear a solemn oath to the glory of God and the good of your neighbor, such as a marriage vow or ordination vow, or in a court of law.... In everyday life Jesus calls us to simple honesty – let your yes be yes and your no be no. Avoid all of this other evil foolishness.
Here we see that sin is often tied up not only in what we think and do, but also in what we say. Our words can be duplicitous and self-serving. We like to play around the edges of the truth, coloring reality by our words for our own benefit. We besmirch our neighbor and hurt his reputation, so as to make ourselves look better. We utter curses with the same lips that sing God's praises and call upon his holy name. And we seem to think that since the words evaporate as quickly as they are spoken, we bear little to no accountability for them.
Thanks be to God for the Word made flesh who speaks the word of the Gospel to us. Thanks be to God that the oaths God swore of old, to Abraham, Issac and Jacob, to the people of Israel through the prophets, the promises of the Messiah – that he keeps his solemn oaths and sacred vows. Our God speaks – and creation comes to be. Our God speaks – and the Law is set before us. He speaks and condemns sin and sinner alike, but also speaks a word of mercy. And Jesus, whose blessed words bring life and salvation. Whose words of forgiveness are spoken even as he is crucified, yes also because he is crucified and because, as he promises and declares, “it is finished”.
Jesus whose anger was just but whose mercy out-shined it. Jesus who is always faithful to his bride, his holy church. Jesus, who fulfills God's ancient oath by taking upon himself the word of God's just sentence – the wages of sin is death. Jesus, who does all things well that we do so poorly, so sinfully.
It is, then, only in the light of this faith, and of his Gospel, that we begin to live up to this Sermon on the Mount, or to any of his holy laws. Only by faith, and with the aid of his Holy Spirit, can we begin to walk in peace and not anger, faithfulness and not adultery, and to speak clear and true words and not duplicitous and empty promises. Only by the Gospel, and in Christ, does the child of God find the power to please him and do what is right.
You have heard it said.... ah, but don't listen to the words you hear from mere man. Jesus says, “but I say to you...” And his words are always worth the listen. For in them you find him, and in him is truth, light, and life. Now live according to this faith, and his words. In Jesus Christ, Amen.