“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’s Gospel Reading (Matthew 5:21-37) brings to mind a famous story told about the comedian, W.C. Fields. Mr. Fields was an atheist, but on his deathbed, a friend walked into his hospital room and caught Fields thumbing through a Bible. The friend naturally asked Mr. Fields what he was doing, and his prompt reply was: “I’m looking for loopholes.” It would be understandable, after reading today’s Gospel passage, for any of us to try and look for loopholes. After all, are we really liable for judgment just for being angry with someone? And Jesus can’t really mean that should tear out our eye, or cut off our hand, if they cause us to sin, can he? Where are the loopholes to these extreme statements? Or, if there aren’t loopholes, how are we to understand what Jesus is teaching us today?
This gospel reading is part of a larger series of teachings that we know of as the Sermon on the Mount. It is three chapters of Matthew’s Gospel, and offers us some of the most important teachings of our Lord and Savior. But these teachings are challenging. Especially if we take them seriously. But isn’t that why we are here? To seek to better understand God’s plan and purpose for us? And to learn how to faithfully follow his son? So, let’s dig in and learn from Jesus this morning.
A Catechism on the Ten Commandments
If you get out your Bible and look at today’s gospel reading, you will find three paragraphs that all begin with the same basic statement from Jesus: “You have heard that it was said … but I say to you …” Think about that. What Jesus is doing here is interpreting the commandments that are taught in the Old Testament, which are known in Hebrew as the Torah. And in this reading, Jesus is interpreting for us one of the most important parts of the Torah, which is the Ten Commandments. He is teaching us what these commandments really mean for us. It is kind of like studying a book with the author. We get to study the Ten Commandments with the Son of God. And who wouldn’t want that, right?
When our congregation’s Midweek Bible Study group studied the Sermon on the Mount recently (using Amy-Jill Levine’s “Sermon on the Mount”), we learned a very helpful way to look at this particular section of this sermon. And that is to look at Jesus’ teachings as building a fence around the Torah. Think about the Torah, God’s law, as being like a house. When you are trying to protect your house, you can put locks on your doors. You can even put bars on your windows. A security system. Spotlights. But another very effective way to protect your house is to build a fence around your property. If people can’t get close to the house, they can’t break into it, right?
So, that is what Jesus is doing with the Torah in today’s gospel reading. He is building a fence around it. Let me show you what I mean by this by looking at the first of these three teachings.
So, in the first teaching, Jesus says that “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.” You see? He’s building a fence around the commandment not to murder. And he’s doing this by looking not just at the action. It’s not just the action that matters. It is what is going on inside of us. What we are thinking matters as much as what we are doing.
That is what Jesus is helping us to see this morning. That is how to build a fence around the Torah, to better protect it. Focus on our thoughts, not just our actions. 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 one of the reasons, by the way, that we share the peace before we celebrate Holy Communion. So that before we approach this altar, we can be reconciled to each other. That is a way to build a fence around this commandment. To protect us from ever getting close to breaking it.
It is interesting to see how Martin Luther also did this, in his Small Catechism. In his section on the commandment not to murder, Luther also expanded it. He taught us that “We are to fear and love God, so that we neither endanger nor harm the lives of our neighbors, but instead help and support them in all of life’s needs.” That, too, is a way to live out the commandment not to murder. And a way to build a fence around this commandment.
Lust / Adultery
Jesus goes on in this passage to tackle another of the Ten Commandments, and that is the commandment not to commit adultery. And, again, Jesus is going to build a fence around it, by teaching us to think not just about our actions, but also our thoughts. Jesus teaches 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, and with our thoughts. We can honor this commandment – build a fence around it – by not looking at people with lust. 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.
So how do we build a fence around 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 this same sermon that today’s passage comes from, the Sermon on the Mount. 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.
There is one more fence that Jesus builds in today’s gospel reading, and that is around the commandment not to bear false witness. “Again,” Jesus teaches us, “you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool … [But] Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No.’” Why do we have to swear to tell the truth? Let our yes be yes and our no be no. No need for “fact checking” when we always tell the truth.
The truth has fallen on hard times, it seems. But perhaps that is always the case. So, Jesus builds a fence around it. How? 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 the Old Testament and our society 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.
Now, there are obviously times when we have to take an oath. A courtroom being an obvious example. But Jesus wants us to live in such a way that the truth is never at risk. And that seems like a good way to live, doesn’t it? Build a fence around the commandment not to bear false witness, so that it is never at risk.
Martin Luther, by the way, does this, too, in his Small Catechism. He teaches us that we should not just refrain from lying about our neighbor,
but that 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? And especially with those with whom we disagree. 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? When we focus on that, we are building a fence around God’s commandment not to bear false witness.
Good fences make good neighbors, it has been said. And a good fence around the Torah is what Jesus is building for us today. Living by his teaching isn’t always easy, of course. Jesus’ teaching today can be quite challenging. That’s why it is important to remember that we don’t do this alone. Jesus only asks his followers to do this, after all. And if you’re following him, then you’re with him, and he is with you. He knows that we can’t do this without him. So he teaches us, he forgives us, he leads us, and he sends us, but always with the promise to be with us.
His presence, his grace, his mercy, and his forgiveness, build a wonderful fence around our hearts and souls, that protects us, blesses us, and keeps us. That is his promise. And remember that Jesus never looks for a loophole in that promise. Trust in that, and find life in his name. Amen.
2 thoughts on ““But I Say to You”: My Sermon on Matthew 5:21-37”
I like the word picture of building a fence around the ten commandments.