Matthew 5:21-37 / 16 February 2014 (Epiphany 6)

Last week, we heard Jesus say that He had come not to abolish the Law but to fulfill it, and that anyone who relaxed the slightest commandment in the Law and taught others to do so, would be called “least” in the kingdom of God. The Law of God cannot be negotiated or compromised. And you dare not toy with it. It will accuse you, it will amplify and magnify your sin, and it will kill you. Religion tends to play with the Law as though it were a poodle on a leash. But Jesus unleashes a Doberman with fangs and a spiked collar on all who would play with the Law as though it were a pet.

“You’ve heard it said, but I say to you.” With those words, Jesus interprets the Law on the basis of His own authority. Never mind what the teachers of old said. The Lord is speaking. He doesn’t need footnotes, references, or credentials. He’s the Lord. It’s His Law. And He can apply it any way that He chooses.

What He chooses to do is to amplify the Law. Turn its volume way up. He moves from action to attitude, from outward compliance to inward attitude, from orientation to God and neighbor to the orientation of the heart. In each instance, Jesus goes from the outward sin to the inward sinfulness, from the symptom to the underlying disease. The problem is not simply that we do bad things, but that we are corrupted by Sin so that every thought, word, and deed, no matter how good it may appear, no matter how much it serves the neighbor, is tainted by Sin. Sin is like a malicious virus that has invaded the hardware and the software of our humanity to the extent that we cannot not sin.

Jesus preaches the Law this way in order to drive the religious old Adam to utter despair. You’ve heard it said, “do not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.” And you’re thinking to yourself, “Well, I’m off the hook on that one. I haven’t strangled, stabbed, shot, or even kicked anyone in the shins, at least not since that playground fight back in grammar school. I’m generally kind to people, always help little old ladies cross the street, and would never harm anyone.”

And then Jesus comes along with His “But I say to you” and says, “But I say to you, that everyone who is angry (Angry? Yes, 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.” So that little altercation you had in the parking lot or that flash of road rage at the guy who cut you off on the 60 or that simmering anger you’re nursing will get you convicted of murder in God’s court of law. And if Jesus hadn’t become the murderer in your place, the hell of fire would be yours. But Barabbas the murderer goes free as Jesus goes to His innocent death.

You’ve heard it said, “Do not commit adultery,” and immediately you think, “I’ve got that one covered. I’m faithful in my marriage, never stray, always come home on time.” Like the man who once said to my vicarage supervisor, “I would never cheat on my wife.” My supervisor said to him, “You just haven’t met the right woman yet.” Almost every man in the crowd who heard Jesus that day thought he was pretty much immune from this law. They were the kind of people who stoned adulterers. There was no way any of them were guilty of adultery.

And then comes Jesus’ “But I say to you.” “Everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” That’s right, even a look. Whether live or online. At the beach or a strip club. Doesn’t matter. Guilty as charged. The law has no loopholes, no mercy, no ways out. You can live an entire life as celibate as a monk or as faithful as the most faithful husband. One stray look will nail you. Had Jesus not become the Adulterer in your place, you’d be doomed. You can even gouge out that offending eye and cut off that offending hand if you wish, but the other eye will lead you down the same path and your left hand will sin as much as your right hand. And so before you dismember yourself, consider this: No one will be declared righteous by the Law for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin.

You’ve heard it said, “Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.” The paper was called a “Git” and you had to place it in the hands of your wife in front of three rabbis while saying three times “I divorce you, I divorce you, I divorce you.” And that was supposed to make it all OK, as if God was our Great Bureaucrat in heaven who cared only that we got our paperwork in order. There is probably no other area in our lives where the inherent darkness of our sinfulness shines through than our marital lives. And there is no more fertile field for self-justifying than the divorce court where we justify ourselves at the expense of our spouses.

We hear the Law say, “no divorcing” and we either take pride in the fact that we’ve toughed out our marital years without divorcing, or we try to justify our divorces by pointing the finger at the other. The state has given up listening to the self-justifying and has simply declared divorce a “no-fault” situation, which is actually opposite to the truth. Divorce isn’t no fault, it’s everyone’s fault.

Again, Jesus’ authoritative “but I say to you” cuts through the self-justifications and goes right to the heart. “Everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery. And whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” He’s talking to the men here because there were only men in his audience. In the thinking of the One who made them male and female in the beginning and said, “the two become one flesh,” there is no divorce that can be legitimized by paperwork. Divorce and adultery go hand in hand. One always leads to the other. Either adultery causes divorce or divorce causes adultery. It’s inescapable. And there’s no point or use attempting to justify yourself before God. You can’t.

Jesus never married; Gnostic rumors to the contrary notwithstanding. But Jesus became Sin for us in the totality of our sinfulness. He became the faithless, divorcing spouse. He took up our faithlessness, our unwillingness to forgive, our selfishness, all that drives a wedge between husband and wife. He became one flesh with His bride, the church. He forgives and sustains her even when she is faithless and adulterous. He refuses to divorce His church even when she deserves it. He does it to rescue us from our adulteries, our divorces, all the ways we have taken the gift of marriage and used it for our own self-centered purposes.

You’ve heard it said, “Do not swear falsely, but perform to the Lord what you have sworn.” And you’re thinking, “I do pretty well here. I tell the truth and nothing but the truth so help me God in the courtroom. When I pledge to give a certain amount of money, I do it. When I say, ‘I swear to God’ I mean it and I do it.

And along comes Jesus’ “but I say to you.” Don’t swear at all – by heaven, by the earth, by the hairs of your head. The very fact that you have to swear an oath at all means that you are a natural-born liar. You have to be put under oath and threat to coerce the truth out of you. Our fish stories just keep growing larger with the retelling. We’re always the hero of our own narrative. History gets rewritten in our minds to vindicate ourselves. We’re liars at the core. The half-truth and untruth come out much more easily than the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

Jesus came in the flesh to speak the truth and to be the Truth enfleshed. He suffered the false accusations and lies of humanity. In becoming our Sin, the One who is the Truth became the Lie in order to rescue liars from the father of lies.

This is the deeper diagnosis, the one we don’t want to hear. Sin isn’t superficial and topical, it’s deep and total. It’s not just a matter of a bad word here, a bad thought there, and a bad action now and then. Sin is a deeply corrupted orientation of the heart. It’s not simply murder but anger and hatred. Not simply adultery but lust in the heart. Not simply little white lies but a darkness of untruth. We don’t willingly want to hear that. No one left the sermon on the mount happy that day. No one left feeling justified about himself. No one left thinking, “Hey, I’m doing pretty well here; God must be pleased with me.”

Jesus said that not an iota or a dot would pass from the Law until all was fulfilled. To play games with the Law is to play games with the life and suffering and death of Jesus who came to fulfill the Law. When we justify ourselves, even when in our minds we believe we are right and good, we are saying in effect, “I don’t need Jesus in that part of my life.” When we boast about our good works or when we make excuses for our sin, we are saying in so many words, “Jesus’ death and resurrection doesn’t apply here. I don’t need Jesus here. I’ve got this part of my life covered.”

Every loophole in the Law, every erased iota or dot, every self-justification takes something away from Jesus’ death on the cross. He came to fulfill the Law completely not just in the places where we need a little help. He came to save sinners, not people who were doing “pretty well” under the Law. He came to become our Sin for us not help us progress in our moral improvement program.

The way to hear the Law is not to find ways that it doesn’t apply to you, but to recognize how it all applies to you. You are the murderer, the adulterer, the guilty party in a divorce, the liar. In yourself, you have no righteousness, no holiness, no innocence, no claim to make before God. But Christ became Sin for you that in Him you might be and become the righteousness of God. Christ died and rose for you that you might live under Him in His kingdom and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness. Christ is the end of the Law for all who believe. Jesus didn’t just preach the Law, He did the Law and He died under the Law to rescue you from every commandment, every iota, every dot that would condemn you.

So when that Doberman of the Law comes after you, hide behind the Lamb who was slain and lives. He’s got you covered with His blood.

In the Name of Jesus,
Amen.

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