When teaching the Ten Commandments in Catechesis, I always enjoy arriving at the Fifth Commandment. Right from the start, the First Commandment drops like a hammer: “You shall have no other gods.” Then we reflect on Luther’s explanation in the Small Catechism: “We should fear, love and trust in God above all things.” We learn that at god is anything in which you put your trust; anything you value most; anything that gives you a sense of security and well-being.
The list of things that take on this role is nearly endless: money, popularity, possessions, sex, hobbies, sports … and you can go on and on. Each person knows that this is true about him or herself – that we put all kinds of things before God and so break the First Commandment.
Certainly, when teaching youth, they recognize that they break the Second and Third Commandments. But when you get to the Fourth Commandment, you have another one that hits them in the face. Of course they recognized that they don’t obey their parents all the time. They don’t obey their parents as they should. Luther’s explanation drives home the point that is already painfully obvious: “We should fear and love God so that we do not despise our parents and other authorities, but honor them, serve and obey them, love and cherish them.”
Then finally, we get to the Fifth Commandment, “You shall not murder.” I always like to ask: “So has anyone here killed a person?” And of course, the answer is always no. No one there has killed another human being. And then, on cue, I like to say: “Great! Finally, a commandment that we can keep.”
In our Gospel lesson this morning, Jesus takes that thought away as he teaches us about the truth depths of the Fifth Commandment. He teaches us that God’s will includes the physical, but extends far beyond that. It extends inside us to our heart – to our thoughts, attitudes and emotions. In doing so Jesus shows us our sin. There’s no doubt about it. But is he only doing that? Now that is something that we will have to consider as we go.
Our text this morning is part of the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus begins our text by saying, “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’” In this section of the sermon, six times Jesus states, “You have heard that it was said … but I say to you.” In each case our Lord is taking up an understanding of Scripture that was present among Jews in his own day, and then explaining how it is either insufficient or just wrong.
This way of speaking was very striking in the first century Jewish world. There authority was based on quoting what previous authorities had said. “Rabbi X, said that Rabbi Y said that Rabbi Z said this” was the kind of thing people were use to hearing. Authority was to be found in the chain of authority that went back into the past. The Pharisees spoke about the “tradition of the elders” when describing their interpretation of the Torah that directed people about how they were to live.
But Jesus didn’t do that. In fact he did the exact opposite. Six times Jesus declares, “You have heard that it was said … but I say to you.” Jesus was not playing the same game as everyone else. And people noticed, “Matthew tells us at the end of the sermon, “And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes.” Jesus had authority because he was the Son of God who had come into this world. He was God with us, telling us how things really are.
But what he tells us is hard to hear. Jesus says, “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.”
Our Lord says that to be angry with a person is to break the Fifth Commandment and be subject to judgment. To treat another person with contempt is be subject to judgment. And our text leaves no doubt that when Jesus speaks about judgment, he means hell – the hell of fire.
Now I am confident that no one here has murdered another person. But I am also absolutely confident that every single person here has felt anger, spoken in anger, and acted in anger. We have nourished and fed anger, cherished it and held onto it. As fallen people, this is what we do. Jesus said to the Pharisees later in this Gospel, “But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person.
For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander.”
There is no getting around it. This is Law in its most penetrating and killing form. As we stand before the just and holy God we deserve nothing but hell. It can only lead us to confess the anger in our life, and the way it causes us to treat other people.
Yet as we confess our sin, we need to listen to how Jesus began this sermon. In what we often call the Beatitudes he said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus began the sermon by declaring that those who are poor in spirit – those who are in need of spiritual deliverance – are blessed for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. You are poor in spirit. You struggle with anger in your life, and all of the things anger causes you to say and do. But Jesus says that you are blessed because the kingdom of heaven is yours now. When our Lord speaks of the kingdom of heaven, he describes the saving reign of God that he brought into the world. Jesus began his ministry by declaring, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” He told the Pharisees, “But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.”
Jesus brought the reign of heaven – the reign of God – into this world as he was sent by the Father. He came to defeat sin, death and the devil. He came to do that by dying on the cross. Jesus came to give his life as a ransom for you. His suffering and death for your sin was the cost of forgiveness for you. That is what had to happen for you to be just and holy before God. But on the third day God raised Jesus from the dead, as he defeated death itself. And so now through faith and baptism you are holy in God’s eyes.
You have received the gift of eternal life with God. Sin and death cannot take this away. And death itself which looks so threatening is already whipped. It cannot separate you from Christ. It has no power to hold your body. Because Jesus Christ the risen and exalted Lord has announced that he will return in glory with all the angels. And on that day he will raise your body and transform it to be like his resurrected body that can never die again.
Yet the words of our text this morning do more than just show us our sin when we fail. They also show us what God has now made us to be through the work of Jesus Christ. We have seen that Jesus begins the sermon by addressing us as people who have already now received the kingdom of heaven – the reign of God. To have received the reign of God is to receive Christ’s saving work through the Spirit. The apostle Paul says in Titus that God “saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior.”
Those who have received the reign of God – those who have received regeneration through the Spirit in baptism – are different. You are different. And that is why just a little before our text Jesus says, “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”
Jesus says that because you have received his saving reign – you are the light of the world. He tells us to live and act in ways that let our light shine before others – ways that cause out good works to be seen by others for this give glory to God. Our Lord says that those who have received his reign, live in ways that show his reign. Why? Because that is what his reign through the work of the Spirit does.
This means that while we never cease to be fallen people –old Adam - who stumble and fall, we are also a new creation in Christ who through the work of the Spirit can live in ways that are true to God’s will. We are people who want to live in those ways. And we are people who know what those ways look like.
In our text Jesus says, “So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” Our Lord describes the setting that existed in his time when the temple was still standing and in operation. He says that if a person is bringing an offering to God, and remembers that there is someone with whom there is a dispute – someone with whom anger had been created and exists – he is to leave the gift at the altar. He is stop right there and first go and be reconciled. Only then should he follow through making his offering.
So what does it mean to live as those who have received the reign of God, as those who are a new creation in Christ? It means that we seek to be reconciled with others. It means that we ask for forgiveness for Jesus sake. It means that we forgive others for Jesus’ sake.
Now this is not something we can do on our own. It is only Christ’s reign that can make it possible. It is only Christ’s Spirit who can make this possible. Christ’s reign through his Spirit now is present for us in the Means of Grace. He read God’s Word and hear it proclaimed to us. We received Holy Absolution. We come to the Sacrament to receive Jesus Christ’s true body and blood for forgiveness of sins and strengthening of the new man. Here we find forgiveness for those times we fail. Here we also receive strength to live as what Christ has made us to be