[Jesus said to the disciples:] “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment.Matthew 5:21-22
Today seems like a good day to remind you that I don’t choose these gospel readings. They come from a lectionary, a three-year schedule of readings, that many different denominations use, including ours.
Most weeks, I find it a good discipline, because it forces me to preach on a wide variety of passages that I might otherwise avoid. In this chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, for example, I would be happy to preach on the Beatitudes. I was happy last Sunday to preach on our being the salt of the earth and the light of the world. But I might, on my own, have avoided today’s more difficult passage. I might have just moved on to the next chapter, with the beautiful teachings on loving our enemies and turning the other cheek. Or Jesus teaching us the Lord’s Prayer later in that same chapter. Much easier to preach than these strong statements by Jesus about being liable to judgment and tearing our eye out if it causes us to sin.
But here we are. So I am going to preach on what we have in our gospel today. And if I were looking for a good catchy title on this difficult passage, I think I’d call it “Sex, Lies, and Murder.” Because in this passage Jesus is interpreting for us the commandments not to murder, not to commit adultery, or not to bear false witness.
Catechesis with Jesus
But think of what Jesus actually says about these topics. Think of just how Jesus goes about interpreting these commandments: With all the authority of the Son of God. If you look at today’s gospel reading (Matthew 5:21-37), you will find three paragraphs that all begin with the same basic statement: “You have heard that it was said … but I say to you …” Do you hear the authority in this? Jesus reminds us of the Ten Commandments, but then tells us what they mean, with the authority of the author himself. So, what we really have here is a catechism on the ten commandments, but from the author himself. We get to study the Ten Commandments with the Son of God.
And what do we find, when we look at this teaching? We discover that in each case what Jesus is trying to do is to write these commandments in our hearts. Jesus doesn’t want us to simply memorize the Ten Commandments. He doesn’t want us to merely post them on our walls. He wants to write them in our hearts.
So, for example, in the first teaching, Jesus says that: “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’ … But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment.”
You see? It’s not just the action that matters. It is what is going on inside of us. Murder doesn’t start with our hands. It starts in our hearts. It doesn’t start with an act of violence. It starts with a feeling of anger. Jesus wants to get right to the heart of it, and stop it there.
Jesus knows that we can’t go around being angry with people, and not have that cause a problem in our relationship with God, or even with that person. If we have unchecked anger toward someone, it may not lead to murder, but if unresolved, it will create problems in our life.
So, what should we do when this happens? Jesus tells us. He says that we should go and talk to that person. Before you approach the altar, he says, be reconciled to your brother or your sister.
This is why, by the way, our worship service has us share the peace before we celebrate Communion. So that before we approach this altar, we can be reconciled to each other. Be reconciled to your brother or sister, Jesus says, and then bring your gift to the altar. Share the peace, share the gift of forgiveness, and then come to the altar for Communion. What a wonderful way to think about the commandment not to murder, and what it might mean to write it in our hearts.
After teaching us about this commandment not to commit muder, Jesus then tackles another of the Ten Commandments, and that is the commandment not to commit adultery. And, again, Jesus is going to push us to think about not just our actions, but even our thoughts. To go straight to the heart of it.
Jesus tells us that if we even look at someone with lust, we have already committed adultery in our heart. Like murder, adultery doesn’t start with a physical act, but starts in our hearts. So, Jesus says, you can’t look at someone with lust without beginning a walk down a very slippery slope.
I can only imagine what Jesus would say about our world today. We seem to have whole industries devoted to promoting and encouraging lust. It is all around us, in a way that people in Jesus’s time could not even have imagined.
Jesus says to us that if our right eye causes us to sin, we should tear it out and throw it away. Better that than to be thrown into hell. What do we make of such extreme advice? Scholars will sometimes argue that Jesus should not be taken literally here, but rather figuratively. Others point out that if we take Jesus figuratively, then when should we take him literally? My thought about this is that in all things, we should simply take Jesus seriously. Lust is a big deal, and we should do what we have to avoid going down that road.
We might wonder, though, how do we escape it, when it is all around us, and when it is becoming so widely accepted in our culture? It makes me think of something that Martin Luther once said about temptation: He said that we can’t stop a bird from flying over our head, but we can stop that bird from building a nest in our hair. And I think that is what we can and should do with temptations of lust. We can’t completely escape them these days. But we can stop them from building nests in our hair.
Whenever we face any of these temptations, we can and should turn back to Jesus, and ask for his help to “lead us not into temptation.” It is the prayer that Jesus taught in the very next chapter of Matthew’s Gospel. And it reminds us that Jesus not only teaches us how to live, but through prayer he promises to help us to live the way that he teaches.
Okay. So after tackling the commandments not to murder or commit adultery, Jesus goes on in this passage to tackle one more: the eighth commandment, the commandment not to bear false witness against our neighbor.
A few decades ago, one of my favorite singers, Billy Joel, sang a song about this, called “Honesty.” Honesty, he sang, is such a lonely word. Everyone is so untrue. If that was true back in the ‘80s, doesn’t it seem even more true today? With fake news everywhere, and the need to fact check everything we read or hear, it seems that honesty is becoming more and more lonely.
Jesus responds to this by teaching us about oaths. And what he teaches us is that we should never take an oath. Not only should we not swear falsely, or lie under oath, but we should never swear at all, we should never take an oath. And his reasoning is simple. It is because taking oaths assumes that we don’t always tell the truth! Otherwise, we would never have to take an oath.
So, while our society and even the Old Testament often require us to take oaths in order to prevent us from lying, Jesus says that if we never lie, we won’t have to go around taking oaths. Let our yes be yes and our no and be no. Now, there are obviously times when we have to take an oath. A courtroom being an obvious example.
So this is another example of something that we perhaps cannot take literally, but that we must take seriously. And what we should take seriously is the importance of truthfulness and honesty.
I love what Martin Luther teaches us about this particular commandment in his Small Catechism. He says that we should not just refrain from bearing false witness about our neighbor, but we should also “come to their defense, speak well of them, and interpret everything they do in the best possible light.”
Imagine what a difference it would make if everyone in our world would do just that? But everyone in the world begins with you and me, doesn’t it? You and I can come to the defense of those around us, speak well of them, and always interpret everything they do in the best possible light. And this is especially important, it seems to me, to do with people with whom we disagree. I think that it is more important now than ever before, for us to find ways to do this, in this incredibly polarized society of ours. How can we learn to speak well of those with whom we disagree, and defend them, and interpret what they say and do in the best possible light?
Don’t murder. Don’t commit adultery. And don’t swear falsely. Of course. But what Jesus is inviting us to do today is to take another look at these commandments, and to consider what it might mean to write them in our hearts. To obey them in our hearts, and to live by them in ways that would have been surprising even to those who first heard Jesus’s teachings.
When we really pay attention to what Jesus is teaching us today, we almost can’t help but go back to how this whole Sermon on the Mount began – with Jesus looking at his disciples and saying, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Blessed are we when we know that we need God. It is part of the purpose of this teaching, Luther would remind us: To drive us to our knees, to open our eyes to our need for a Savior, and to accept the salvation and forgiveness, the grace and the mercy, that Jesus is dying to give to each and every one of us.
Jesus is not just the one who has the authority to interpret these commandments for us. He is also the one who came to forgive us when we fall short. And this, too, should be written in our hearts:
That the Son of God did not come to judge the world, or us, but that the world, and all of us, might be saved through him. That is the gospel. And I hope that you hear it every Sunday. To the glory of God. Amen