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✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠
At the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, we have passages like today’s Gospel, where Jesus teaches the full meaning of the Law. True righteousness, a true keeping of the Law involves not only our outward behavior but also our inward thoughts and motivations and desires. It’s not only a matter of the hands but also a matter of the mind and heart. Anger=Murder, Lust=Adultery, Greed=Stealing, and so forth. This is a message that we need to hear. For too often we think of ourselves better than we ought to because most of us haven’t robbed a bank or committed adultery or engaged in violence against our neighbor. We feel self-satisfied and even a bit self-righteous about that. We’re good people. Sure, we’re not perfect and we’ve made a mistake here or there. But all in all, we’ve done well, definitely above average, we think. And so we need Jesus’ teaching here to remind us that in fact there isn’t a single commandment that we haven’t broken. We are all murderous, adulterous, lying, covetous thieves. And that doesn’t even take into account the most important commandments, the first three that have to do with our relationship with God. Jesus preaches this Law to us so that we might not become like the scribes and Pharisees, trusting in their own goodness and their own clean living. We need the Law to drive us away from trusting in ourselves to trust in Christ Jesus alone. The Law is good, but it cannot give us eternal life. It’s an abuse of the Law to try to do that. Only Jesus can save us and give us life.
But there is another more subtle way we can abuse the Law, too, which perhaps is more common for us Lutherans. We say to ourselves, “Well, since it’s just as much a sin before God if you do it inwardly or outwardly, then it really doesn’t matter if you go ahead and commit the sin with your body since you’ve already done it in your heart.” We try to justify our behavior by saying that since everyone breaks the commandments in their sinful hearts, then it’s no worse to be guilty of engaging in the outward behavior. All sins are the same, we say. But that is wrong and false. We abuse Jesus’ teaching here by trying to use it make our own outward sins seem not so bad.
Our Lord Jesus teaches us in Scripture that all sins are not equal or the same. God’s Word teaches that there are different types and different degrees of sin. What we have done in many cases is that we have taken the correct theological principle that all sins are equally damning, that all sins make us subject to judgment by God–which is true–and then we conclude that all sins therefore are the same and equal. But that’s clearly not the case.
For instance, 1 John 5 speaks of sins which lead to death and sins which do not lead to death, faith-destroying sins and those which do not destroy faith. Sins of weakness are not as damaging to faith, though they still should be considered to be quite dangerous. Deliberate sins are the worst, when we plan to sin, when we delight in sin, when we know exactly what we’re doing and don’t care. Jesus Himself said to Pontius Pilate, “Those who delivered me over to you have the greater sin.” So there are greater and lesser sins, even as Jesus speaks of greater and lesser commandments in today's Gospel. Or 1 Corinthians 6 speaks of how sexual sin is different because it’s a sin against one’s own body. Greater damage is inflicted to oneself through such sin.
Our problem is that we take the idea that all sins are damnable, and then we think therefore that there is no difference if you do it in your heart or if you do it externally. However, sinfully coveting your neighbor’s wealth is not as horrific as actually going and robbing someone of their life’s savings. The consequences to your neighbor are vastly different, and the danger to your faith is different. All sin is dangerous and damnable, but all sin is certainly not the same. Our bodily behavior matters. So we may not be able to stop a flash of anger or lust from arising within us from our sinful nature, but we can stop ourselves from dwelling upon it, from scheming for revenge or engaging in sinful daydreams; and we most certainly can control our bodies from doing someone physical harm or from physically watching pornography or engaging in sexual immorality. And thanks be to God that He is at work through the curbing influence of His Law, keeping us from ruining our own lives and the lives of our loved ones and others. Even here we see God’s mercy, that He keeps the effects of our sin in check, so that it doesn’t do all the earthly damage to us that it otherwise would do.
Don't abuse the Law, then, in either of these ways–whether to try to justify yourselves as righteous, or to try to excuse your sin as not so bad. Jesus said, “Whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven.” St. Paul said in the Epistle, “Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound? Certainly not! How shall we who died to sin live any longer in it?” God’s forgiveness is not a license to sin, it’s freedom from sin. It’s the taking away of sin. Why would you willingly want to embrace again the very things which once condemned you to hell? Since the old Adam still hangs around your neck, tempting you to think lightly of sin, the Law is still in force in this fallen world. Not one jot or tittle will pass away from it till all is fulfilled at Christ’s return. The commandments still apply to every single one of us, calling us to repent.
And here’s where the good news fully kicks in. Jesus says, “I did not come to destroy the Law but to fulfill it.” Jesus came not to undo the Law but to bring it to fulfillment and completion in Himself. He is our only hope and our only help. For only in Jesus do we receive an inward righteousness before God, the righteousness of faith, where we despair of our own goodness and instead rely on Christ alone. We prayed it in the Introit, “The Lord is my strength and my shield; my heart trusted in Him, and I am helped.” Only in Jesus is there deliverance from the judgment of the Law. For only Jesus has kept the Law without fault or failing. And all of this He did for you and in your place. So Jesus isn’t only your example. Rather, He keeps the Law completely and perfectly on your behalf. Through faith in Him, His righteousness is counted as yours.
It is written in Hebrews, “He was tempted in all points as we are, yet without sin.” Not only did Jesus not do the things that the commandments forbid, He also did do everything the commandments demand. Not only did He not murder or steal or have impure thoughts, but He also perfectly loved His Father in heaven and His neighbor on earth, showing compassion, healing, doing good and teaching the truth to all. Our Lord lived a holy life as our representative and our substitute, so that our unholy lives would be redeemed.
And Jesus also fulfilled the Law by completing all of the old ceremonial requirements regarding the Sabbath and the sacrifices and so forth. Through His holy death and His rest in the tomb, Jesus Himself became your eternal Sabbath rest; and so He says, “Come to Me all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” “I will release from the crushing weight of the Law; I give you the peace of being reconciled with God.” And by His once-for-all, final sacrifice as the Lamb of God, Jesus cleansed you from your sin and purified you. All the Old Testament Jewish rules and regulations found their goal in Jesus, who put that all to an end in His crucified body, that the Law might no longer condemn you. You’ve been put right with God again. That’s what Jesus was saying on the cross, “It is finished.” It is accomplished, completed, perfected, fulfilled. All has been done, as Romans 10 declares, “Christ is the end of the Law for righteousness to everyone who believes.”
That new life, that sure hope is entirely yours in holy baptism. For St. Paul says in the Epistle that by water and the Word you were buried with Christ and raised with Him to a new life. His death counts as your death. The hellish judgment he experienced counts for you too. It’s all done and behind you. Living in Christ, taking refuge under His wings, you are holy to Him; you are protected and kept safe from the power of sin and Satan and from death itself.
That’s how the words of Jesus which seemed to be impossible are now, in fact, true in Him: “Unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.” By faith in Christ, your righteousness actually does exceed that of the Pharisees, for it has been given to you freely by God’s grace. You have the perfect righteousness of Jesus as your own. The Father has declared it to be so. He didn’t just demand that you straighten out your life, He gave you a whole new life, the life of Jesus that is full and complete and perfect and everlasting. Through Christ you will enter the kingdom of heaven. In fact you have already entered it by faith in Jesus, the King of heaven and earth.
So whether you struggle with sins of weakness, or whether you have willfully sinned and rejected and turned away from God, you are not without hope. Return to faith in Christ; return to the Lord, for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. Our Lord has brought you through the Red Sea of baptism, out of the house of bondage. Your old selves were crucified with Christ, that you should no longer be slaves to sin. Therefore, reckon yourselves to be dead indeed to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus. That’s what’s real. For just as you have been united with Him in His death, you will surely also be united with Him in the resurrection of the body when He comes again. To Him with the Father and the Holy Spirit be all worship, honor, glory, and praise, now and forever. Amen.
(With thanks to David Petersen for some of the Law exposition above)