6th Sunday after the Epiphany, year A, 2014 (preached February 16, 2014)
First Reading: Deuteronomy 30:15-20
Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 3:1-9
Gospel Reading: Matthew 5:21-37
You know, even as a pastor I admit that I don’t “love” every word of Scripture. Some passages make me uncomfortable, some parts don’t jive with the overall picture I have of who God is. There are some parts of the Bible that I wish we could just skip over. Today’s gospel is one of those parts.
If the word “gospel” means “good news,” then where is the gospel in Matthew’s reading? What does it give us? A whole bunch of commands on how we should live. And they’re not easy ones either.
They don’t just deal with how we should behave toward our neighbors, they deal with how we should FEEL, with our hearts, and that is HARD.
In addition to that, this text shows us just how much we HAVEN’T done. It puts us in our place. It shows us where we have failed. And NO ONE likes to be shown where they have failed.
You see, in this text, Jesus redefines the 5th, 6th and 8th commandments. He broadens their meaning to include our FEELINGS as well as our ACTIONS – so much so that none of us have a place to hide.
The first part, vs. 21-26, concerns the 5th commandment, “You shall not murder.” I can honestly say to you all that I’ve never murdered anyone. That may put me in good standing with the Pharisees – but it doesn’t with Jesus. He wants more.
He says that if I’ve had ANGER in my heart towards a brother or sister I’m just as guilty. So I’m supposed to live anger-free. I don’t live alone. I’m not a hermit. I have a husband and three kids. I’m angry several times a day, sometimes several times an hour.
WHO CAN DO THIS?
The second part in vs. 27-32 concerns the 6th commandment, “You shall not commit adultery.” Again, Jesus is concerned both with how we act, and how we FEEL. He expands this command to include not only the physical act of adultery, but also how we FEEL when we look at someone who is not our spouse.
WHO CAN DO THIS?
And Jesus speaks not only of adultery within marriage, he also speaks about divorce. Such a “touchy” subject. I know many good, faithful people who have been through the pain of divorce. I know many people who have left marriages because of abuse. But Jesus clearly states that it is sin, just like the rest.
In the last part of our reading, Jesus discusses the 8th commandment, “You shall not swear falsely, ” or as it’s more popularly known, “You shall not bear false witness.” As we have come to expect by now, Jesus takes this commandment one step further.
New Testament scholar, Robert Smith, speculates on why Jesus tells us not to swear at all. We have the wrong motives. Smith writes, “Precisely because talk is cheap, memories self-serving, and promises often broken: people resort to oaths, dressing up their poor words by throwing over them a cloak of divinity, thinking to ‘use God’ makes their words more impressive.”*
Again I ask, WHO CAN DO THIS?
The obvious answer is – NO ONE.
Maybe some of us can fulfill some of what Jesus laid out in today’s gospel – but I guarantee you that no one here can fulfill ALL of these commands ALL of the time.
So what are we to do?
What I DON’T like about passages like today’s gospel is that some people read it and come away thinking they have to follow every word of it to be saved – that they have to measure up to Jesus’ standards in order to be accepted by him. They use passages like this and others to exclude people from the fellowship of God, for not living up to Jesus’ expectations. This is a misreading and misunderstanding of the whole purpose of Jesus’ life and death.
Martin Luther said repeatedly that the purpose of passages like this, the purpose of the law, was to hold up a mirror for us, so that we may see how little we can do on our own – and how much we need Jesus. The purpose of a passage like today’s gospel for Luther, for me, and I hope for you, is to show us how utterly WE NEED A SAVIOR.
This can be difficult for us to accept at times. We like to think we have some control over our salvation, that it’s somehow a “partnership” between Christ and ourselves. But today’s gospel is a reminder of how wrong we are when we make that assumption. This is perhaps what makes us MOST uncomfortable.
There is absolutely nothing we can do to make ourselves righteous, nothing we can do to earn our salvation. We are completely, totally, utterly dependent on Jesus – on his sacrifice and love and forgiveness and mercy.
If we could live up to Jesus’ expectations, if we were humanly able to DO and BE everything he calls us to – then we WOULDN’T NEED HIM. If we were capable of doing it for ourselves, then Jesus died for NOTHING.
But the truth is that we CAN’T fulfill the law’s demands. Even as he spoke these words Jesus had to know it was impossible for those disciples, and for us.
But does this mean that we’re free from TRYING to follow God’s commandments? By no means.
We need to make our best attempt to follow the commands the Lord has given us. We are part of God’s family, you and I. And as Christians, what we do with our lives reflects upon the whole Church, and as we read last week, gives God glory in heaven.
This doesn’t mean we won’t fall, that we won’t fail. What it DOES mean is that, through our baptism, forgiveness and reconciliation are always there for us.
And that brothers and sisters IS “good news.”
*Augsburg Commentary on the New Testament: Matthew. Robert H. Smith. 1989, Augsburg Publishing House, p. 101.