Sermon for the Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany based on Matthew 5:21-37
Dear recipients of forgiveness: Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.
God’s Law says, “You shall not murder.” Our sinful tendency is to apply this only to the course outward deed of striking our neighbour so that he dies, as if that is the only thing forbidden in this Commandment. Our sinful tendency is to think that we can do anything we want to harm our neighbour, so long as we do not personally and physically put him to death.
This was the interpretation of the Jews, and thus they thought they were not guilty of killing Jesus. They delivered Him over to Pilate for crucifixion and considered their own hands to be clean and innocent of His blood. When Peter accused the Jewish Council of being guilty of killing Jesus (Acts 4:10), they respond by saying, “You intend to bring this man’s blood upon us” (Acts 5:28) as if they were innocent and the Gentile Romans were the guilty ones, even though it was the Jews that compelled Pilate against his own will to kill Jesus.
So also, David thought he was innocent of the blood of Uriah the Hittite when he had Uriah put to death by the hands of the Ammonites. David had committed adultery with Uriah’s wife Bathsheba, and to cover up his sin he put Uriah at the forefront of the hardest fighting where the enemy had their most valiant fighters. Then David had the rest of the soldiers pull back from Uriah so that he was struck down dead by the enemy. Somehow David thought he was innocent of Uriah’s death because his own hand had not struck the killing blow.
What Pharisaic holiness! It dismisses the heart full of anger, hate, and envy, of hidden and evil schemes of murder. It dismisses the indifference the heart has to the needs of neighbours, as if we can do anything we want to our neighbour as long as we don’t personally take his life. As if we can be angry and unforgiving towards our brother, insult him, hold a grudge, and betray him to be killed as long as we do not strike him dead ourselves.
Jesus teaches us the true meaning of the Fifth Commandment when He says, “I say to you that everyone who is 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.” God’s Law demands to be kept not just outwardly, but also inwardly, in the heart. We are not to break God’s Commandments in thought, word, or deed. Insulting our brother makes us as guilty in God’s eyes as if we had murdered him.
Even failing to help our neighbour in need is breaking the Fifth Commandment. Luther explains this in the Large Catechism, “If you send a person away naked when you could clothe him, you have let him freeze to death. If you see anyone suffer hunger and do not feed him, you have let him starve. Likewise, if you see anyone condemned to death or in similar peril and do not save him although you know ways and means to do so, you have killed him. It will do you no good to plead that you did not contribute to his death by word or deed, for you have withheld your love from him and robbed him of the service by which his life might have been saved. Therefore God rightly calls all persons murderers who do not offer counsel and aid to men in need and in peril of body and life [LC I.V. 190 – 191].”
Jesus also teaches us the true meaning of the Sixth Commandment when He says, “I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” This Commandment also is not only about the course outward deed of adultery, but it is also about the heart, the eyes, and the mouth – sinful lust, looking, and speaking. This Commandment is not just broken when you fornicate, but it is broken when you don’t love and honour your spouse as you should, when you speak poorly of him to your friends, or when you selfishly neglect her needs. This Commandment is broken when you are unsatisfied with your spouse and look at or think of someone else in the way you should only look at and think of your spouse.
Jesus teaches us the true meaning of these Commandments so that we would not be proud and flatter ourselves by considering that we have fulfilled them. He wants to lead us to repentance, so that turning away from our sins, we would receive forgiveness.
He shows this when He says, “If you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” Here Jesus is saying that if you are about to do the best good work you can do, of giving God an offering, of sacrificing or giving up something He has given to you, God wants no part of it unless you are first reconciled to your brother. If you intend to serve God while you have unrepentant sin in your life, Jesus says, “Stop! Lay it down right now, drop everything, and go be reconciled with your brother first.” Repent of your sins or God will accept nothing from your hand.
It is an unchristian attitude that is hateful and bears a grudge. It is an unchristian attitude that refuses to repent and refuses to be reconciled.
Jesus sets the example for us in bearing the hatred and grudges of the world and still desiring nothing except our good. It was, after all, our sins that killed Jesus. We are guilty of murder here, too. Do not respond with saying, “You intend to bring this man’s blood upon us” as if you are not guilty of murdering Jesus just because your hands did not do the whipping, nailing, and piercing. We are guilty. Jesus died because of our sins. Yet the very One we are guilty of murdering gladly took our sins. He was pierced for our sins. He was crushed for our sins. He voluntarily died for our sins.
See how Jesus fulfilled the Fifth Commandment? Jesus helped you in your physical need. To prevent your eternal death because of your sins, He Himself died. To prevent your eternal suffering and death He instead suffered and died in your place. As He was crucified by you and your sins, Jesus did not get angry with you or insult you or bear a grudge against you. He prayed for you. He said, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do [Lk. 23:34].”
The suffering and death of Jesus on your behalf is why you are forgiven. Your failures to keep the Fifth, Sixth, and every other Commandment were put on Jesus. The very piercing and crushing of Jesus is what brings you peace and heals you.
Jesus teaches us the true meaning of the Commandments so that we would not be proud and flatter ourselves by considering that we have fulfilled them. He wants to lead us to repentance, so that turning away from our sins, we would receive forgiveness.
God’s forgiveness is what enables you to repent of your sins and to be reconciled to your brother. You are forgiven, so turn away from your sins. You are forgiven by God, so forgive your brother. You are forgiven, so you have God’s promise of eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. Jesus died for your sins, so your sins have been taken away from you, and you are forgiven. Amen.
The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen. [i]
[i] Part of the ideas in this sermon are indebted to Luther’s sermon on the Sermon on the Mount, AE 21.