Before considering Jesus’ tough words to us in today’s Gospel lesson, it’s important to remember several things.
First, our lesson continues Jesus’ sermon on the mount. This “sermon” is an extended time in which Jesus teaches disciples like you and me about life in the kingdom of heaven we enter by faith in Christ.
It’s also important to remember that we are saved by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ.
People who deliberately violate God’s laws are, in Jesus’ words today, “in danger of the fire of hell.” But, God also understands us. There isn’t a soul who doesn’t sin unintentionally, every day. God, the Bible tells us, “...remembers that we are dust.” [Psalm 103:14]
Thank God that Jesus, as He told us last week, came to fulfill the law you and I are incapable of fulfilling and covers those who repent and believe in Him with His righteousness through the power of His death and resurrection!
So, once again this week, we remember that, in these words, Jesus isn’t saying: “Do these things and your will be saved.” He’s really saying, “If you have received new life through Me, this is how you get to live.” For all their toughness, Jesus’ words for us today are brimming with love for those for whom He died and rose. And they teach us what it means for disciples to live in Jesus’ kingdom of love.
There isn't a soul in this sanctuary or in this world who perfectly keeps the commands Jesus lays down here. If anyone says they do, they're lying. But these commands reflect the pattern in which God's Holy Spirit is forming us--in the image of Christ--each day as we turn from sin and trust in Christ.
In today’s lesson, Jesus looks at anger and murder, lust, divorce, and oaths. (You know, the stuff that makes up a lot of the daily programming on HBO and Netflix.)
Let’s take a look at what the Lord is telling us, starting at verse 31: “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment...”
Here, Jesus refers to Exodus 20:13, which gives us the fifth commandment. Our English translations of this verse and of Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel lesson almost always mistranslate it, rendering the commandment as, “You shall not kill.” Even our catechisms are translated in this way.
But that’s not what God’s Word says. God recognizes that there may be times when a parent, soldier, police officer, or good neighbor may be forced to take the life of someone out to murder someone else. People in these circumstances do not violate the fifth commandment. What God does condemn is the willful taking of a human life. The command is, “You shall not murder.”
Just as we start to wipe our brows in relief over this understanding of the commandment though, Jesus expands the definition of murder. Jesus says that sustained anger, hatred, or disdain of another human being is murder. That means that in Jesus’ eyes, it’s possible to murder someone without laying a hand on them. (I learned this a long time ago as a kid whenever my folks gave me a withering look for misbehaving.) Seriously though, anyone who’s ever been bullied by classmates, belittled by parents, treated with contempt by a spouse, or abused in any way knows exactly what Jesus is saying.
A person who willfully murders another human being seeks to rob their victim of the life and dignity that only God can give. In just the same way, the person who denigrates another person or holds a grudge against them is harboring the same hatred, hostility, and denial of respect that murderers harbor toward their victims. In treating others as though they have no right to exist, we are guilty of murder. In 1 John 3:15, we’re told: “Anyone who hates a brother or sister is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life residing in him.”
Jesus then emphasizes how seriously He takes this matter through the use of a little exaggeration or hyperbole. (Jesus often used hyperbole. Remember when He talked about a camel going through the eye of a needle?) Verses 23-24: “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.”
Remember, that Jesus is in Galilee as He speaks these words. His first audience is composed of Galileans, who live about 75 miles from Jerusalem, the site of the temple where pious Jews leave their sacrifices. It would be preposterous to think of a Galilean leaving the temple, going back to their home region to make things right with someone, then making the return trip to Jerusalem.
What Jesus is saying this: Don’t dare to worship God without trying to be reconciled with those with whom you have differences. The reason for this is simple, as we see in 1 John 4:20:: “For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.” We can’t claim to truly love God if there’s any person with whom we’re not willing to be reconciled.
In verses 27 and 28, Jesus goes on to say: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
As with murder, it’s one thing to be technically compliant with God’s will, but still be in violation of the sixth commandment.
That’s because adultery is a sin that happens in the heart, mind, will, and words long before it happens bodily. Adultery is a rebellion against God’s will for marriage that may never be expressed in an affair, but in things like the pursuit of pornography, or fantasies of being with someone other than the person to whom we’re married.
From the standpoint of the Bible, lust in itself is a good thing, given by God to men and women bound together by God in marriage. And also from the standpoint of the Bible, lust is not exclusively sexual.
Any desire that we allow to carry us away from being faithful spouses adulterates a marriage. The dictionary gives this definition of adulterate: “[to] render (something) poorer in quality by adding another substance, typically an inferior one.” Our marriages can be adulterated--made poorer--whenever we give other things--another person, our careers, our hobbies, alcohol and drugs--consideration, respect, and attention that belongs exclusively to our spouses. Because God wants our marriages to be blessings to us, Jesus takes a dim view of all forms of adultery.
Then, Jesus says maybe the toughest thing in our entire lesson. Verses 31 and 32: “It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”
These were tough words because in the first century Roman world in which Jesus lived divorce was at least as common as it is today. (Probably more common.) And in the Jewish nation of which Jesus was a part, a man could send his wife a certificate of divorce just because she no longer pleased him.
In Matthew 19:8, Jesus says that Moses allowed divorce among God’s people because of their “hardness of heart.” But even in Deuteronomy 24, where Moses makes the allowance for divorce, Moses makes it clear that divorce should never be undertaken for frivolous reasons. Jesus mentions unfaithfulness as a grounds for divorce. Paul also says in 1 Corinthians 7:15 that spiritual abandonment their by unbelieving spouses is a legitimate reason for divorce.
But Jesus’ words are tough for us too.
Rare is the extended family, even among Christians, that hasn’t been visited by the tragedy of divorce. In my own extended family, several members have been victimized by constant emotional abuse from unbelieving spouses, making divorce seem like the only option.
But even under those circumstances, committed Christians will take stock to see how their own “hardness of heart” may have contributed to the demise of their marriages.
Always it’s important to remember that the God we meet in the crucified and risen Jesus Christ is able to cover the sins of the repentant in His grace and forgiveness. As we currently have posted on our signboard out front, “Jesus can forgive all that we regret.”
What Jesus wants us to remember is that marriage is a sacred thing, instituted by God, the only legitimate place in which the intimacy between woman and man is to be expressed, the place from which the young are to be prepared for adulthood and introduced to Jesus Christ as God and Savior.
At the end, Jesus addresses the business of oaths. Jesus says, “do not swear an oath at all.” The key to understanding Jesus’ words here come in verse 37, where He says: “All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.”
People who are truthful don’t need to swear by God or anything else. Their simple yes or no stand on their own. Jesus is saying here, Don’t you dare invoke the name of God to prop up your lies!
I grew up in a family in which lying was just part of every day life. It made me comfortable with telling lies. It’s a habit that I’ve had to learn to hate, repudiate, repent for, and learn from as God’s grace has sunk more deeply into my life.
I'm not certain that I'm so alone in that experience, though. The truth is that descendants of Adam and Eve are prone to lying, distortion, exaggeration, misstatements, responsibility-dodging, excuse-making, and “little white lies,” whatever those are.
Often we lie just to avoid the unpleasantness of the truth. But Jesus says that lying has no place in the Kingdom of God.
Of course, some people take words like these from Jesus as license to say whatever comes into their heads, no matter who gets hurt by it. But Ephesians 4:15 tells us to speak “the truth in love.” If it’s not loving, even the truth shouldn’t escape our mouths!
The love of God given to us through Christ is, in fact, to be reflected in everything about us, in everything that Jesus talks about today! That's something you and I will do only imperfectly on this side of our own deaths and resurrections. But to all who believe in Christ, God sends His Holy Spirit to daily refashion willing believers after the image of Christ.
In the meantime, for those saved by God’s grace in Christ, as God transforms us day in and day out by the power of His grace, love is becoming less of a distasteful obligation than it might otherwise seem to be.
Our call is to daily repent for sin and trust in Jesus Christ as the Lord Who has conquered sin and death for us.
Our joy is to live as people set free from our slavery. Jesus sets us free to live lifestyles of true, pure, Godly love:
- free to seek reconciliation with others because Christ has reconciled us to God for all eternity;
- free to seek to be faithful in all of our relationships because Christ has set us free from death, hell, and futility;
- if we're married, free to pursue solid, joyful marriages because Jesus Christ has made us eternally part of His bride, the Church; and
- free to become more honest people because we know that no matter how the truth may offend, in Christ, we belong to God forever.
[Blogger Mark Daniels is pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio. This message was prepared for worship this morning.]