February 13, 2011 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church – Mechanicsburg, PA
[Jesus said:] “You have heard that it was said to those of old. . . . But I tell you. . . .”
In days of old, Moses spoke the Lord’s Covenant to the people of Israel, as you heard in the Old Testament Reading. Before the Israelites took possession of the Land of Canaan, Moses repeats the Covenant to them. They are to remember it, to keep it, as they receive the promise that the Lord had made to them. The Covenant spells out the Lord’s good and gracious will for His people. He desires them to have life in His presence—both now and for eternity.
Moses’ statement summarized this for the people: “See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil.” The life and good will be found in the Lord’s words spoken to His people: “If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I command you today, by loving the Lord your God, by walking in His ways, and by keeping His commandments and His statutes and His just decrees, then you shall live and multiply, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to take possession of it.” Obedience to the Lord will be seen in loving Him, walking in His ways, and keeping what He says. These are more than matters of action and deed; they are matters of faith and the heart.
Likewise, the way of death is also a matter of faith and the heart: “But if your heart turns away, and you will not hear, but are drawn away to worship other gods and serve them, I declare to you today, that you shall surely perish. You shall not live long in the land that you are going over the Jordan to enter and possess.” As faith moves away from the Lord and His ways to other gods and other desires, the Israelites will suffer death. They will experience the Lord’s curse. They will be cut off from the life that the Lord has to give. So Moses says: “Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying His voice and holding fast to Him, for He is your life and length of days, that you may dwell in the land that the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them.”
This key point that life in the Lord is a matter of faith and the heart, not just a matter of action and deed, leads to Jesus’ statements in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus presents various commands, statutes, and just decrees that the Lord had spoken: “You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment. . . . You shall not commit adultery. . . . Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce. . . . You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.” These are all words that had been spoken to the Israelites of old. They set good and evil before the people. Adherence to what the Lord says will lead to life; variance from these commands will lead to death.
But what does that adherence require? What is the full extent of these commandments? That is what Jesus puts before the people. His teaching does not simply repeat the letter of the Law. No, it shows what the Lord desires to find in the hearts of His people, what “keeping His commandments and His statutes and His just decrees” really means.
Take the first of Jesus’ statements: “You have heard that it was 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.” Obedience of the Fifth Commandment is more than not taking someone’s life. Jesus shows that it includes what you think about your brother: hatred is murder; insults drawn from that hatred is murder; words spoken against him is murder. So much for keeping the commandment by not taking a neighbor’s life! The evil that comes from your heart and soul, yet never gets put into action, makes you liable.
So it is with the next commandment: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. . . . It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery. And whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” The Law is more stringent than the actual act of adultery. No, lust—a matter of the heart—leads to transgressing this commandment. Breaking the marital arrangement is a sin that causes others to sin. Jesus makes this point clear: “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.” Surely, something that brings the potential of hellfire is sinful, evil, and deserving of curse!
Jesus’ teaching about oaths continues this thought: “I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is His footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.” The issue is not simply the matter of swearing falsely or lying. No, the sin is compounded by taking an oath against what is not yours, arrogating to yourself heaven, earth, Jerusalem, or the ability to change your body. These are the province of the Lord Himself; thinking that you have power or control over them is to make yourself out to be God—a prideful transgression of the First Commandment: “You shall have no other gods before Me.”
Jesus’ teaching points out the full meaning of what Moses set forth as the way of life: “If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I command you today, by loving the Lord your God, by walking in His ways, and by keeping His commandments and His statutes and His just decrees, then you shall live and multiply, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to take possession of it.” His words show that it is not found in you. For you are violate of these commandments. Consider what Jesus declared. Anger, hatred, lust, pride: these all come out of your hearts. Even your thoughts are capable of sin. It is why you confess: “We have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed.”
But the One who spoke about the fullness of the Lord’s Law also fulfills it. The Psalmist declared: “Blessed are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the Lord! Blessed are those who keep His testimonies, who seek Him with their whole heart, who also do no wrong, but walk in His ways!” This speaks of Jesus’ character. He is the One who said: “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. . . . Whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” But not only does Jesus fulfill the Law by “loving the Lord your God, by walking in His ways, and by keeping His commandments and His statutes and His just decrees,” He offers Himself for you. Jesus fulfills for you what the Prophet says: “They made His grave with the wicked and with a rich man in His death, although He had done no violence, and there was no deceit in His mouth.” By doing so, Jesus becomes the source of life for you.
That is the key point of Jesus’ statements. He doesn’t simply give you a moral teaching for you to follow. Certainly, you should follow them. The Psalmist’s words should be your desire: “You have commanded Your precepts to be kept diligently. Oh that my ways may be steadfast in keeping Your statutes! Then I shall not be put to shame, having my eyes fixed on all Your commandments.” But before this be your desire, you must have Jesus as your Lord and source of life. You must receive what He gives to you through His pure thoughts, words, and deeds. That is what brings you into the kingdom of heaven. It is also what transforms your hearts, minds, and souls from loving of evil to desirous of good.
Moses’ words show that salvation is not found in you, but is found in the Lord: “Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying His voice and holding fast to Him, for He is your life and length of days. . . .” Obeying His voice and holding fast to Him will include truly believing what Jesus says about Himself and His acts of salvation to you. Jesus brings you the righteousness that exceeds the Pharisees and scribes, even the righteousness demanded by the Lord’s Law. Obeying His voice and holding fast to Him includes trusting that He connects you to His death and resurrection through Holy Baptism, that He brings you the merits of His sacrifice in the Lord’s Supper, that He forgives you through the words of absolution. Through these divine acts done for you, you receive the benefits of Him who is your life. So the prayer offered this morning is answered: “O Lord, graciously hear the prayers of Your people that we who justly suffer the consequence of our sin may be mercifully delivered by Your goodness to the glory of Your name.”
Restored by Jesus’ actions, you go out from here striving to do what is required of you. The Psalmist’s prayer becomes yours: “You have commanded Your precepts to be kept diligently. Oh that my ways may be steadfast in keeping Your statutes!” Your deeds will not be perfect. Your words will not be innocent. Your thoughts will not be chaste. But you do have the desire to fulfill what the Lord demands. Your imperfect efforts will be considered to be righteous because of what He has done for you. Choose life, not in what you have done, but in what Jesus has done for you, who are “God’s field, God’s building.” Then, what the Psalmist says will be true for you: “Then I shall not be put to shame, having my eyes fixed on all Your commandments.”
T In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.