Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
In our politically-correct, fearful-to-offend culture, “sin” is a word that is not to be used very often. At times in our so-called “enlightened society,” sin is ignored, dismissed, overlooked, excused, denied, and—in many segments—even celebrated as good and beneficial.
Yet there are certain things which mankind simply cannot escape. The two most commonly spoken of are death and taxes. But one cannot escape sin, either. For as long as there is death, there is also sin. Ezekiel wrote: “For every living soul belongs to me, the father as well as the son—both alike belong to me. The soul who sins is the one who will die.” (Ezekiel 18:4)
Just as none can escape death so no one can escape sin. Jesus explains why: Sin begins in our hearts. And our hearts harbor murder. Insults. Anger. Jealousy. Lust. Selfishness. Deception. Arrogance.
As today’s Gospel lesson begins, we are still at the opening of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. It’s the first of the five great discourses found in Matthew’s gospel account. If you haven’t taken the time to read it lately—or ever—I’d strongly recommend it. Better yet: If you’re not too busy, lazy, distracted, self-righteous, or intellectually arrogant to go to Sunday School anymore, might I strongly encourage you to get yourself over to Bible study on Sunday mornings, where we are going through Matthew’s gospel. I can guarantee you it’s a better read—and better for you—than anything on Yahoo News or in the Austin American-Statesman or Wall Street Journal.
Just before this lesson, Jesus reminded the people that—to get into the kingdom of heaven—their righteousness had to be greater than the greatest ever generated by man. By telling them that their righteousness had to exceed that of the Jewish religious leaders, Jesus wanted His hearers to understand that their own righteousness could NOT save them. They all knew that they couldn’t begin to approach the righteousness they observed in the scribes and Pharisees, who had it down to an exact science.
But the righteousness they saw on the surface was a false one. In parsing, manipulating, slicing-and-dicing, and otherwise rationalizing the commandments God had given into a precise quantitative system, they’d lost sight of the Law’s most important purpose. It had been codified and elaborated upon and re-defined into something that human reason actually believed was achievable. And even if it couldn’t be, well, these leaders were certainly in the upper percentiles of the population, so they were certain they met the grade.
Yet Jesus raises the bar on the Law, very clearly turning up the heat until even the most self-righteous Jew could feel the flames of hell singeing the bottom of his tasseled robe. To make the Law a humanly-achievable code, the religious leaders taught that only the act of murdering someone was a sin.
Yet just as Luther would come to understand and later explain nearly fifteen centuries later in the Small Catechism, Jesus explains that narrowing the Law to simply the avoidance of outward acts against God and neighbor doesn’t work. Over and over again, He uses the phrases: “You have heard it said… but I say to you…”
It’s not that Jesus is over-riding, re-writing, or changing the great Commandments given to God’s people through Moses, or any of the other commandments which had been given to Adam, Noah, Abraham, David, or anyone else. God is never inconsistent, nor does He make mistakes and have to go back and have a “do-over” to fix what He has given in His Word.
Rather, He who is the Word made flesh—the very embodiment of both Law and Gospel—is showing how the spirit and intent of the Law can be lost. The recognition of the impossibility of making one’s self righteous in the eyes of God; the fear of knowing one is condemned to eternal punishment apart from His grace; the desperation of seeking and appealing to the Creator, Lord, and King of all things for His mercy—these had all faded to mere shadows of what they are and should be.
Lest any of us thinks we keep the commandments, even a little, listen to what the true Keeper of commandments and souls had to say: First, murder begins with anger in the heart that can soon lead to hurtful words. To call someone “Raca” was to accuse them of being stupid—literally, “attacked in the head.” Labeling them a fool or moron, not only insulted their intelligence, but also their character.
Contentiousness with others for selfish gain is also warned against in verses 23 and 24. They present a very specific example of a disagreement, one that is not a minor matter. It’s bad enough to be brought to court in verse 25. But Jesus is saying that compromise is better than prison. In our spiritual case, going further is essential: Complete admission of our sinfulness, total surrender of our entire being to God, is better than condemnation to hell for eternity. Verse 26 speaks of such eternal imprisonment. None in Jesus’ day could repay the last penny. Nor can we.
You have heard it said, “Actions speak louder than words.” That is quite true. But the reality is that our hearts silently scream out accusations and insults and lies, and inflict invisible slaps, punches, and kicks, long before our mouths speak or hands act. Sin begins in our heart. Our Lord looks at our hearts. Our Lord knows our thoughts.
We can be very thankful that our legal system does not punish for the secret crimes and sins buried in our hearts. This does not excuse us, however. God looks and knows. In complete, Spirit-led candor and frankness, we have to admit that we are murderers. It is an age-old sin – brother hating brother, sinful murder stewing, simmering, sometimes even boiling in one’s heart. Cain kills Abel. Esau is comforted in plotting to kill his brother Jacob.
We are no different. In his first epistle, St John wrote: “Anyone who does not love remains in death. Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life in him.” (1 John 3:14b, 15). We cannot deny, dismiss, ignore or excuse what is in our hearts. It is sin.
Yes, that sin begins in our hearts. Sadly, sin does not always stay there. Sin rears its ugly head in wicked words. How often have we blurted out words that were wrong, spiteful, and downright evil? These words of hatred were and are meant to harm our neighbor. Once the word escapes our hearts and lips, it cannot simply be taken back. We can retract and backpedal and even apologize all we want, but the damage has been done.
Our gracious God gives us divine advice, though, speaking through the epistle of St. James: “My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, for man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires.” (James 1:19, 20). Think before you speak, and pray that the thoughts God gives you supersede your own.
Murder does not take a knife, gun, rope or other deadly instrument. Murder begins with hatred and anger in our hearts. It is hard to escape. For as long as we live and breathe we have a beating heart that pumps more than blood. This heart also pulses with poison, pondering murderous threats. Thank God that we do not need to depend on our own righteousness to save us. “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us,” St. Paul tells us, “for it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree’.” (Galatians 3:13).
Our hearts harbor all sorts of other evil thoughts, too, some of which Jesus lists in the remaining verses: Lust, coveting, adultery, falsehood, and deception. In verse 27, Jesus repeats the wrong thought process of the crowd and their religious leaders: “You have heard that it was said…” He continues in verse 28 with God’s truth: “But I tell you…” The Pharisees taught that only the action of adultery was sin. Jesus taught that this sin, too, begins in the heart.
It is lust in the heart that causes the eye to wander, and then to continue to look and to sin, as the imaginings of what might happen grow stronger and more vivid. Think of King David: Walking on the roof of the palace David sees Bathsheba bathing. He thinks she is beautiful, but it becomes far more than just the appreciation of God’s creative power. David covets what is not his, and before he violates another man’s wife, he has already violated his vocations as husband, king, and especially his vocation as believer.
Bathsheba is brought to his bed, and when evidence of his sin is about to become all too apparent, David has her husband Uriah killed in battle. Just one lingering look leads to an act of adultery and to murder.
Jesus then stresses just how severe is the soul-destroying nature of sin in the heart. It is so damaging and damning, He says, that one should prefer to pluck out the eye or cut off a hand, rather than sin. Does Jesus teach mutilation, then? Is He advocating some sort of new, more radical mortification of the flesh, as mistakenly practiced by the falsely pious?
No, Jesus loves and values our bodies, for the Son actively participated in the creation of humanity and all things. What’s more, He came in human flesh to redeem and save both our bodies and our souls, and He will raise our bodies to a restored, glorified state on the last day, to live in perfection forever. He just wants us to understand how horribly distorting and disfiguring sin is to our well-being.
The new man or new woman in Christ is able—by faith and the power of the Holy Spirit—to control the eye and the hand, as well as the heart. God alone gives the strength. If, and only if, all else fails, then such drastic steps might be taken to save one from being eternally punished. But Jesus has already taken the drastic steps for us! He has offered up His own body to be disfigured—beaten with fists, whipped savagely, gouged with a thorny crown, punctured with coarse nails, and finally lanced with a spear.
Jesus wants us to remember that adultery does not mean that someone has to actually climb into the bed of someone else to commit that sin. Sin begins in our heart. Our society today promotes adultery at every possible opportunity and in every possible variation. Sex sells. The adultery lying dormant in the heart can very easily be awakened and lead to a quick, immoral downfall of the unsuspecting soul. There is truly eternal danger and temptation around us constantly.
Yet we are warned as St. Paul warned the Corinthians: “Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a man commits are outside his body, but he who sins sexually sins against his own body.” (1 Corinthians 6:18)
Scripture reminds us that God has ways to overcome the sins in our hearts. God has the power to overcome any and every addiction or inclination that may afflict us. With the Christ and the Spirit of God on our side, all things are possible. Think of Joseph of the Old Testament. Potiphar’s wife tempted him time and again to sleep with her. He refused. Joseph answered the temptress by saying, “how can I do this great wickedness and sin against God?” Finally Joseph even had to leave his cloak behind as he fled from sin.
Flee from all sin, and pray to God that He would make His presence known to you whenever temptation strikes. “Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed—which is idolatry,” Paul wrote to the Colossians (3:5). The desires that oppose God can be killed, by God. In fact, they have been killed already, by Jesus on the cross.
Remember always that world around is not much concerned with sin, other than by the sins of others that affect them. By God’s free, undeserved grace, though, the believer has been made a child of God. We are no longer our own because we have been bought at a price. By faith we now know, believe and trust in the promises of God. We are reminded how the righteousness of Christ covers up all our sins.
This gives each of us the ultimate motivation to turn away from sin and put behind us our former way of life. “We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.” (Romans 6:4). Christ buried our sins so that we are raised as new creatures.
Temptations abound. Sin is alive and well. Though many try to deny, dismiss, ignore, or excuse sin, sin infects and affects all mankind. It all begins in our heart. Looking at our hearts honestly, we discover that lurking there is hatred and anger, which is murder. Deep down and hidden away is lust and coveting, which are adultery and idolatry. Yet our gracious God gives us the strength and encouragement to flee.
God also gives us the privilege and opportunity to look to him in worship and praise, as we are instructed: “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things.” (Philippians 4:8).
Are you troubled by sin or afflicted with a constant or recurring temptation? Think on these godly things listed by Paul: That which is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent or praiseworthy! That can only be Jesus, or that which Jesus has created, given, said, or done. God will give you the strength, for the sake of Jesus. Amen.