Sunday, July 11, 2021

Sermon for the Sixth Sunday after Trinity - Mt 5:20-26


        Trinity 6

                                                                                    Mt 5:20-26



            “You have heard that it was said .... But I say you to you….” We hear Jesus make this statement in our Gospel lesson. And actually this is only the first, of six times in a row, when our Lord speaks in this way.  Now in our world, people assert their own opinion all the time, and openly contradict commonly held beliefs or those in positions of authority. They may do so based on facts and expertise. They may do so on the basis of emotion.  But we are not surprised when people do it.

            Things were quite different in the Judaism of the first century world.  There, statements from authorities in the past were handed down in chains of tradition that delivered them to the present day.  This way of tradition is what had authority.  It was especially true among the Pharisees who spoke about “the tradition of the elders.”  Later in the Gospel of Matthew they ask Jesus, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat.”

            In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus hammers home the fact that he doesn’t do things in this way.  He speaks with his own authority as he reveals what the will of God really entails.  And unlike our modern versions of self-assertion that often contradict God’s will, Jesus’ statements are the revelation of God’s true will, because he is the Son of God.

            Jesus begins our text by saying, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”  Now we think of the Pharisees as being very strict and zealous in keeping the Law – the Torah. And this is true – but only true in a particular way.

            The Torah – the Law that God delivered to Moses is very large.  However, much of it sets forth general principles about how a person is to conduct life. It certainly does also contain specific directions. Yet many of these are illustrative of how those principles are to be enacted. And even where it does provide detailed directions, we need to recognize that with the variety and unpredictability of life, there is no way that any law code can address every situation there will arise.

            Thus, there will always be a need to interpret the law and apply those principles to situations that aren’t explicitly addressed by the law.  The Pharisees had done this in their body of oral teaching – the tradition of the elders.  But the tradition of the elders did more than this. First, it added demands that weren’t in the law as it applied rules meant for the priests to people in every day life.  It also interpreted parts of the Torah in ways that made the law easier to keep.  Yes the Pharisees were very strict about keeping the law. But they were very strict about keeping their own interpretation of the law. And many times, that interpretation helped a person get around the strict requirements of the law.

            Six times Jesus states: “You have heard that it was said .... But I say you to you….”  In each case, Jesus takes up a false interpretation of the Torah that was present in Judaism of his day.  So in our text he says: “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’”  This statement quotes the Fifth Commandment, and then adds that whoever murders will be liable to divine judgment. This is certainly true. In Jesus’ words that follow we learn that the problem is that the interpretation stops there. 

            In this view, “You shall not murder” means “You shall not murder.” So, if you don’t kill someone, you have kept he commandment and are not liable to judgment.  I presume that a similar kind of approach to the law allowed the rich young man to tell Jesus that he had kept this commandment.

            Yet as the divine source of the Ten Commandments, Jesus now gives the full meaning of this statement when he adds: “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 it is not merely the physical act of murder that breaks the Fifth Commandment.  Anger in the heart is the source of all physical harm. Anger breeds hatred and contempt, and hatred does not express itself only in physical ways.  Our translation has “whoever insults his brother.”  The Greek text actually has an Aramaic word here, raka, which means “fool,” quite like the Greek word in the next statement translated as “You fool!”  The word used here in Greek is the one that gives us “moron.” So to put it in more colloquial English, Jesus is saying, “And whoever says, 'Moron!' will be liable to the hell of fire.”

Think about that. Everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment – and Jesus clearly means eternal judgment. Whoever says, ‘Moron!” will be liable to the hell of fire.  What does life in your family, or with your spouse, or with your friends or co-workers look like when measured against that standard – against God’s standard? Do you get angry with others? Do you speak dismissive and insulting words to others? When you do – and notice I am not even going to entertain the idea about whether we do – this is sin that damns to hell.

Jesus’ words condemn us all. They reveal us to be sinners who must stand before the holy God. They leave no about the outcome.  Left to ourselves, we're on an express elevator to hell, going down.

Jesus’ words certainly reveal the sin in our life. But their presence in the Sermon on the Mount do not cause us to despair. They cause us to confess our sin. They cause us to repent. And they cause us to turn to Jesus in faith.

In Matthew’s Gospel, the Sermon on the Mount is found just after Jesus has begun his public ministry.  Matthew tells us, “From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’”  Jesus was announcing that in his person the kingdom of heaven – which is just a Jewish way of saying kingdom of God” was at hand.  Now this is important because Jesus begins the Sermon on the Mount by saying, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

The poor in spirit are those who know their sin and confess it.  They don’t defend their sin. They try to ignore their sin. They confess that they have sinned, and that this sin is against God. As David confessed in the Psalms, “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment.” 

Our Lord says that such people – the poor in spirit – are blessed.  They have the end time blessing now because theirs is the kingdom of heaven. They have received the reign of God.

            Jesus’ words are true of you.  You are poor in spirit.  You know your sin.  You know that you get angry with others.  You know that you speak words that are motivated by hatred.  However, you are blessed because the kingdom of heaven – the reign of God – belongs to you.

            It does because Jesus brought the reign of God by dying on the cross for your sins.  Just before Holy Week, Jesus said, “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Jesus Christ suffered and died because you and I are sinners. By that death, he won the forgiveness of sins for us.  Raised from the dead by the Father he has defeated death.  Until Christ returns, sin still brings death. But in God’s eyes we are freed from sin, and death can never hold on to our bodies.  In the resurrected body of Jesus we see what awaits us.

            Because of our crucified and risen Lord, we have forgiveness and salvation.  Through baptism we have shared in Jesus’ saving death.  In baptism the Spirit has caused to be born again – we are a new creation in Christ.  Because the Spirit has done this, he now enables us to live in ways that are true to God’s will.  St. Paul says in our epistle lesson today, “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.”

            In our text, Jesus describes what this life looks like for those who have received the kingdom of God. He 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 speaks about his first century setting when the temple in Jerusalem was still standing.  His point is that we do not let anger fester.  We do not live in anger.  Instead, we seek reconciliation. We forgive one another.  We do this because God has forgiven us in Christ.

            This is true of everyone with whom we interact.  But it is especially true of the people gathered here this morning – those with whom we are about the receive the Sacrament of the Altar. We come to the Sacrament confessing our sins in order to receive forgiveness.  But if we want to receive forgiveness, we must also be willing to forgive others.

            St. Paul told the Corinthians about the Sacrament: “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.”  We learn that the Sacrament joins us together as the body of Christ.  It is the Sacrament of unity, and as the apostle goes on to teach in chapter eleven, because the body and blood of Christ join us together as one body, we are not to bring any division to the Sacrament. There is no place for anger and failure to forgive among those who commune together.

            This fact is announced in liturgy of the Sacrament by the Pax Domini – the moment when I hold up the body and blood of Christ before you and sing, “The peace of the Lord be with you always.”  On the one hand, this is a declaration that the body of blood of Christ you are about the receive delivers peace with God through the forgiveness of sins.  On the other hand, it is a reminder that we need to be at peace with one another – reconciled – if we are to come forward and receive the Sacrament.

            In our Gospel lesson, Jesus teaches us that the Fifth Commandment is broken not simply by the physical murder of another person.  We sin against God and break the Fifth Commandment when there is anger in our heart and abusive words directed toward others. Because Christ died and rose again to make us sharers in the kingdom of heaven, we confess this sin and cling to the forgiveness won by Christ – forgiveness given to us in Baptism and the Sacrament of the Altar.  As the forgiven people of God, we forgive others as we seek reconciliation.



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