Matthew 05:21-37 / 6 Epiphany A / 13 February 2011 / Holy Trinity – Hacienda Heights, CA
Very often, when a doctor wants to make a diagnosis, he has to look at your insides. Thankfully, we’ve come a long way since the days when the only way to do that was “exploratory” surgery, where he literally went in just to take a look around to see what was going on. That’s how surgery was invented, and thanks be to God, things have progressed far beyond cutting you open just to take a look inside. Today there are a variety of means at your doctor’s disposal, everything from sonograms and X-rays, to various kinds of CAT scans and MRI scans that can deliver a picture of what’s going on inside you.
That’s what is going on in today’s Gospel reading and this part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Jesus is taking the Law into His own hands, literally into His own mouth, and explicating in such a way that you get a good look at your insides. There is a line from a famous Lutheran hymn that goes:
The Law is but a mirror bright
To bring the inbred Sin to light
That lurks within our nature.
Jesus is putting us into the divine MRI machine of the Law. He’s giving a divine CAT scan of our internal condition. Not simply what’s going on with our hands and eyes, but our hearts. Not simply the external symptoms we call sins, but the internal condition called Sin that necessitates our being baptized in Christ and being born again from above. Not just the outward action here, but the inward orientation and attitude.
Our concern is with the outward stuff. How do we look to others? How are we acting toward others? And if we’re living pretty generally decent lives, we imagine that we are doing well. We’re basically “symptom free.” But being symptom free doesn’t mean you don’t have the disease, it just means you aren’t showing it very much at the moment. If you were to look at your heart from God’s perspective, from the inside, you’d see all sorts of things that would shock you: Murder, lies, theft, adultery, immorality, greed, lust, idolatry, hatred, envy, prejudice, pride, covetousness. It’s all there lurking in our hearts where the disease of Sin lives. The outward sins we do all begin with Sin hidden in our hearts. We can’t see that, it has to be revealed to us, by a spiritual scan, an MRI from above, so to speak.
To push the analogy a bit further, even if you have an X-ray or an MRI to look at, you probably wouldn’t recognize much of anything anyway. When Karen had her back surgery, the surgeon showed her the MRI of her spine and the two compressed discs. Had he not pointed it out, I’m not sure we would have seen it on our own. Or the doctor says you have a suspicious spot on an X-ray and points to this thing which looks like a piece of dust got into the picture. But his trained and focused eye sees what you and I would overlook.
Likewise, even having an inner look through the Law is not enough for us who eyes have been made blind by sin Even we’re staring at it face to face, we’re not prone to recognize it. That’s why we need the word of Jesus here. Over and over again, Jesus delivers the diagnosis on the basis of His own authority – “But I say to you.” Jesus has no need to refer you to a specialist. He is that specialist. His specialty is death and life, sin and grace. Jesus knows Sin when He sees it, and He sees it to the depths of your own heart with the full force of His “but I say to you.”
Who is He to talk like this? He doesn’t reference a single authority before Him. In fact, He seems to overturn all the authorities that came before Him, those “men of old” who handed down the tradition of their wisdom. Their diagnosis was too superficial, too shallow. They only looked at the outward action and thought that by doing those things, by keeping the commandment outwardly they would be doing the righteousness of God.
Now I’m not saying that this wouldn’t be a good start. You can only imagine a world with no murder, with no adultery, with no divorce. A world where debts were reconciled quickly and peaceably, where everyone spoke the plain and simply truth. You wouldn’t need policemen or prisons or courts or lawyers or judges. And yet, even in a world that externally ran by the Law of God written in our hearts, the law that every human being has available as part of their human hardwiring. Even if everyone kept the Law written in their hearts perfectly, it still would not be heaven on earth. The condition would still be there. Oh, we’d be basically symptom-free, but not disease free. And sooner or later, the symptoms of Sin in our hearts would emerge with the first angry word, the first lustful look, the first little lie.
No amount of external discipline can change the inward ways of the heart. Go ahead and cut off that offending hand; you’ll still have to deal with the other hand. Go ahead and poke out that offending eye; you’ll still have to deal with the other eye. And while it’s certainly preferable to enter the kingdom of heaven with one eye and one hand than to be thrown whole hog into hell, cutting off hands and poking out eyes won’t get you into the kingdom of heaven.
The entry ticket is this: Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, unless your righteousness exceeds the religious traditions taught by men, unless your righteousness flows from a heart uncorrupted by Sin, the kingdom of heaven is closed to you.
That’s the deep diagnosis, and we don’t like it one bit. And what do you do when you don’t like the doctor’s diagnosis? You get a second opinion. The world of religion is full of second opinions, and quack cures, and superficial treatments. When we get a second opinion, which one do we go with? That’s easy. The optimistic one. The one that says, “Oh, it’s nothing to worry about.” I think that would make a great inscription on a gravestone. “The doctor said it was nothing to worry about.” Which would you rather take – chemotherapy or a sugar pill? Which would you rather hear – your condition is terminal or there’s nothing to worry about? So much of what passes as religion is a sugar pill, a topical salve, a bandaid on behavior, a second opinion that says, “There’s nothing to worry about.”
Trust Good Dr. Jesus. He’s an expert in you. He knows your humanity better than you do. He knows the spiritual condition of your heart much better than you. He can read the details of the Law’s MRI. The condition is terminal, damnable, incurable. You may not have murdered anyone but you’ve harbored the hatred and anger that goes down that same road. You may be faithful to your marriage vows, but your eyes and heart have wandered. You may be truthful, but the truth always comes with a little spin. The fish you caught is always a little bigger than actual measurement. You are always more brilliant in the retelling than the first run.
The diagnosis: You’re a Sinner. Not because you sin, but because you have this condition called Sin. It’s fatal. The wages of Sin is Death. There’s nothing you can do about it. There’s no religious trick, no spiritual discipline, nothing in your little bag of religious tricks that can change a heart infected by Sin.
Here’s the good news. The cure has been worked. On a good, dark Friday between nine and three when this same Jesus who is speaking here in the Sermon on the Mount went the mount called Calvary not only to pay for our sins but to become our sin. To take up the disease called Sin and have it kill Him. To conquer it for all of humanity by dying with it.
It sounds strange, I know. Bizarre even. But this disease is unlike those diseases that affect the body but cannot harm the soul. Sin affects body and soul right to the core of our humanity. It calls for a drastic cure, extreme measures. The Son of God must become a human being born without Sin and take on this invader lodging in our humanity. He must die and rise. And you must die and rise with Him.
You won’t find the cure for Sin in self-discipline, in religious traditions, in commandment keeping, in any of the things you do. The cure for Sin is dying and rising in Jesus, being joined to Him through Baptism into His death and resurrection. Eating and drinking the fruits of HIs death and resurrection in the Lord’s Supper. Hearing the Word of forgiveness from Christ to you, a word that drowns Sin with forgiveness.
“See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil.” Death and evil in our hearts infected with Sin; life and good in Jesus who came to be Sin for us so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God. There is hope for every sinner, for you in the death and resurrection of Jesus.
In the name of Jesus, Amen