6th Sunday after Epiphany – A LSB #511
Text – Matthew 5:21
“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; & whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’”
LIABLE TO JUDGMENT
In gift giving, you may have heard, or been taught, “It’s the thought that counts!” Did you realize that the saying also applies to sin? In the Gospel reading from Matthew, Jesus calls for a righteousness that involves our inner thoughts, desires & intentions as well as our deeds. The point is clear that even with sin, “It’s the thought that counts!”
Hear Jesus’ teaching about murder: “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; & whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment…” (Matthew 5:21-22 ESV) Do you get the drift? If you get angry with your brother, Jesus is saying that you have committed murder.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matthew 5:27-28 ESV) There too, Jesus is teaching – it is the thought that counts.
In their day, adultery was punishable by death. Men ruled their society & women were taken advantage of in many respects. The men in charge thought of themselves as innocent. Yet the words of Jesus – explaining the application of the Law to the men – apply to you & me as well. It’s the thought that counts, & all of us in this room are therefore liable to judgment.
If you consider that seriously, it should be disturbing to your heart & soul. Hearing the strict application of the Law, have you noticed your excuse making machinery shifting into overdrive? “When it comes to sin it can’t possibly be ‘It’s the thought that counts,’ otherwise no one is righteous or safe from damnation.” That’s what our sinful nature tempts us to think. We are uncomfortable with admitting our guilt. The opening line of the sermon hymn is meant to turn your thoughts from the uncomfortable nature of Jesus’ words to the ultimate purpose for which Jesus spoke them. Listen carefully: “Herald, sound the note of judgment, warning us of right & wrong, turning us from sin & sadness till once more we sing the song.” (LSB 511:1)
The lyrics are about John the Baptist who sounded the warning by preaching a baptism of repentance. Yet he did so to turn us away from the sadness of our sins so that once more we might sing the song of gladness. John’s message, as recorded by Matthew in 3:2, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Even if that rubs you the wrong way it is good news!
Jesus had arrived to take away our sins, so give them up, turn them over, spit them out through repentance. Your sins are hurting you, & your family & your neighbor. Your refusal to repent is poisoning your relationship with your Creator. Yet, people we know don’t see that anymore. They don’t believe in judgment, & that unbelief puts them in grave danger.
So, another point of Jesus’ sermon on the mount is this: a person who claims to follow Jesus cannot pretend that the relationships he carries on with his neighbors & family are independent of his relationship with God. Our vertical relationship with the Lord of the universe must affect our horizontal relationships with our fellow human beings.
If we refuse to allow that to happen, we are refusing the will of God. Sometimes His will means we reconcile with people in our lives because they too are followers of Christ. Sometimes that means we break off our relationship with another person because they refuse to acknowledge Jesus as Lord. And there as many variations in between as there are relationships in the world.
Our Creator does not offer one size fits all solutions because He has created billions of completely unique individuals, no two of us alike, & no two of our relationships are the same. Jesus told us that in this world we will have trouble. A lot of that comes from our relationships with all the other sinful people in this world. Trying to find the loopholes in God’s commands is the kind of task the devil assigns. How to avoid being liable to judgment is what Satan wants us to worry about. That does not come from the life which the Holy Spirit pours into us. From the cross of Calvary Jesus told us, concerning the punishment for sin, “It is finished.”
In the Gospel reading, Jesus’ words about being liable to judgment are meant for the person who feels secure & comfortable even in their sin. The words are meant for the person who, apart from Christ, believes they’re innocent & guilty of no wrong. That is who should be disturbed in their heart & soul, for they are refusing the will & mercy of their loving Creator.
The life which Yahweh’s Spirit gives is always seeking to shine the light & the love of Christ into the darkness of sin. God’s Spirit always seeks to bring reconciliation into the broken relationships of this world.
The life which Yahweh’s Spirit gives does not worry about being liable to judgment, because that life, that faith, already knows, trusts & believes that repentant sinners are forgiven. Being repentant & forgiven is what it means to be spiritually alive. Being “born again” is not defined by what you do or say. It’s defined by whom God says you are!
Yahweh says, “I created you & you are mine.” Unbelief denies that reality & thus brings upon itself the curse of sin. In the Garden of Eden, Adam & Eve belonged to God & were holy, until they decided not to be. After that, they needed to be rescued from death. After sin entered the world, people are now born apart from God, & they too need to be rescued from death.
Anger & bitter insults partake of the same poisonous root as murder itself; & there’s no essential difference in the sight of God. In case you haven’t noticed, it’s not healthy to have that root thriving within. Even the youngest child knows how to demonstrate anger when it doesn’t get what it wants. As adults, we’re simply capable of expressing that anger in ways that are much more harmful to others. Though it hurts to hear it, our sins of anger, murder, lust & adultery do actual harm to us & to those around us. So Jesus reached into the Law to reveal its true objective: the valuing & the protection of others. Love wishes the other person well, & seeks to effect their welfare.
Anything less than that with regard to another’s physical well-being is a sin against the 5th commandment. Human personalities & relationships grounded in anger & hatred are like poison, they seek to steal, kill & destroy as Satan does. Grounded in anger we are prevented from receiving what we need most – love. So anger & hatred are ultimately self-destructive.
Coming from that weakened condition, to be reconciled is difficult, & to forgive is troubling. It requires humility & the enduring of insults, but it is the way of Christ’s righteousness. In the Gospel reading, Jesus is revealing that way to us. He knows we cannot live it out perfectly, but He wants us to know that sinning wantonly is extremely harmful.
As we see that, then the love of Christ is able to lift us out of it. As we see our failures & that Jesus came to overcome them, love for what He does enables us to keep returning to Him through repentance. That is done, not by our power, but by the power of God’s Spirit, so as long we trust Him, we will not be lost. His power never fails, never grows weak, & never sleeps.
In gift giving, “It’s the thought that counts” is a way of explaining that it is the motive of love behind the gift that really matters. Likewise with our sinful actions, the motive behind them also matters. It is also harmful to others as well as to our relationship with God.
Jesus is Lord. He is Lord & Master over all things – Heaven & Earth, sin & death, all that was & all that is yet to come. Because He is gracious, He exercises His lordship, not to destroy us, but by restoring us to life & by forgiving everything which has gone before. Jesus speaks a lot about justice in the Sermon on the Mount, but Yahweh is both just & merciful. The divine preacher of this text did not come to condemn the world but to redeem it by His suffering & death. The One who crushes us with this Law message is the same One who wants to say to us, as He said to the paralytic, “Take heart... your sins are forgiven” (Matthew 9:2).
Both Law & Gospel are part of the equation in God’s plan of redemption. The Law is explicitly stated so that the Gospel, implicit in the person of Christ who is speaking the text in Matthew’s account, may console the sinner convicted of his sins.
In this text Christ lets no one escape the brunt of the Law, but He does this so that the heart, crying out in spiritual desperation, may be prepared for the blessed message of the Good News, namely, that we have been redeemed by Christ. This is an epiphany, a manifestation of God’s grace & mercy to our world.
Do we sin & fall short of God’s expectation for His children? Yes.
Confronted with our sin & shortcomings, we repent & confess our sins of thought & attitude, word & deed. Asking forgiveness for Jesus’s sake & for the strength of God’s Spirit to turn us away from these sins, we live at peace with one another, loving & serving each other, as Christ Jesus continues to love & forgive us. Amen.
“Herald, sound the note of judgment, warning us of right & wrong, turning us from sin & sadness till once more we sing the song.” Herald, sound the note of gladness; tell the news that Christ is here; make a pathway through the desert for the one who brings God near. Herald, sound the note of pardon – those repenting are forgiven; God receives His wayward children, & to them new life is given. Sound the trumpet! Tell the message: Christ, the Savior king, is come! Amen. (LSB 511:1-3)
Pastor Dean R. Poellet