St Matthew 5:20-26
'You Shall Not Murder'
The 6th Sunday after Trinity Sunday | July 19th, 2009
“You shall not murder.” If you go out on the street and ask someone to name the ten commandments, this is almost always the first one named, and often times the last one. It is the most basic rule and law for mankind. Don't kill each other.
It seems pretty simple. Don't shoot anyone, stab any one, starve anyone, don't do anything that would end another person's life. If we were to take our man on the street who knew the commandment “You shall not murder” and ask him, “Have you kept this commandment?” they would almost certainly say “Of course.” Most people have never taken another's life, and if they have I'm sure they wouldn't mention it.
This was the Pharisees' idea of righteousness. It had to do only with the outward works. If you held your hands back from ringing someone's neck, then you had kept this commandment. It didn't matter if you hated the person in your heart, or were bitter about some sin committed against you, or if you spoke poorly about the person. All this you could do, and still be righteous, as long as you didn't run your neighbor through with a sword.
This is why Jesus calls the Pharisees “white-washed tombs”. On the outside they looked clean, righteous, holy, but on the inside they were full of rot. The Pharisees loved a law that you could keep, that way they could have a check-list of their own goodness and everyone else's sin. And we should know that at the time our Lord Jesus walked the earth, the Pharisees had a pretty good thing going. They had everyone convinced that they were righteous, holy, the ones with whom God was pleased. They might have even been convinced of that themselves. If you were to go to Jerusalem and ask, “Is there anyone holy around here?” the person would have pointed you to the closest Pharisee.
The Pharisees were convinced that they kept the law, and that because of that they would reach heaven.
This is why the words of Jesus would have dropped like a bomb, “For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.”
What? The Pharisees were the height of righteousness, and now Jesus is saying that it has to exceed that!?
Jesus goes on to explain what that means.
“You have heard that it was said to those of old, 'You shall not murder; and 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; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, 'You fool!' will be liable to the hell of fire.”
There it is: Jesus unfolds the preaching of Moses; He lets it loose and it does it's killing work. All illusions of man's righteousness are undone. It is not enough that we hold back our hands from taking someone's life. This commandment requires us to care for every physical need of our neighbor, and more, it requires us to love our neighbor and be kindly disposed toward him, to think and speak kindly of our neighbor, even our enemies. Every thought or word or anger against your neighbor, says Jesus, is deserving of the wrath of God. Every time you have, in anger, called a person a fool, or even thought of them as a fool, you have committed a sin that deserves the judgment of the fires of hell - it is just as if you had murdered him.
Sin is not just committed with our hands, but also with our mouths and minds and eyes and hearts. And Jesus shows that the law of Moses requires it all. It is not enough to be righteous on the outside, we have to also be pure and holy in our hearts. If our hearts do not overflow with love for our neighbor, we are murderers.
Now you might say, “Pastor, don't get carried away here. Surely killing someone is worse than calling them a fool.” True enough from an earthly perspective. I would much rather you have angry thoughts toward me than to come up and punch me in the face; I would much rather you call me a fool and not hit me on the head with a baseball bat. Among men there are differences and degrees of sin. Some sins are more destructive on earth than others. But before God all sins are equally detestable, equally unholy, equally damning.
To curse is to kill, to look with lust is to commit adultery, to covet is to steal, and all of it, each and every sin is to commit idolatry, to worship a false god. What happens now is that Jesus, in teaching us what exceeding righteousness is, ends up showing us our exceeding sinfulness. When we try to measure up to the standard of the law that He teaches in the sermon on the mount, we fall short, desperately short, of the mark. This preaching condemns us. We don't keep God's law and we can't keep God's law.
And now we come to a dangerous crossroads. If we believe this word of Jesus (and we are Christians, that means that we do believe this word) that we cannot keep God's law, we are presented with a number of temptations.
First, we are tempted not to believe it, that God commands us to do something we cannot do. Do you know this temptation? This resistance of your flesh to the full on preaching of the law? “Surely God wouldn't command me to do something that I can't do!” Sure enough, He does. You have it here in the preaching of Jesus. If you are angry with your brother without cause, if you think or call him a fool, your are as guilty as if you had murdered him.
The second temptation grows out of the first, and that is the thought that it would not be fair for God to judge us for sinning when we can't help it. “Surely God wouldn't judge my unholy anger as if I was a murderer! Surely God wouldn't condemn me as a sinner if I have no choice about it.” If you find yourself thinking this, then you get exactly what Jesus is saying. You sin. You do not have a choice about it. And God will judge you for it. “Everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment.”
This, then, leads to a third temptation, that we resign ourselves to this judgment. We think, “If I'm a sinner and there's nothing else for me but to sin, then I'll try to go out in a blaze of glory.” This is the temptation of our flesh: to live without the law, to do whatever we want because it doesn't matter anyway. “If all I can do is sin, then I won't even try to stop, to quit, to keep the law. We hear this all the time, “To err is human. Everyone makes mistakes.” We try to squeeze out from under God's judgment because everyone sins. If we cannot keep God's law, then we don't have to keep it; we don't even have to try. This is also our sinful flesh squeezing out from under God's law. But, in the end, there is no escaping it. We truly ought to love our neighbor, but we don't.
Our righteousness, even if it exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, still falls short of the mark. God's law always accuses us; it condemns us; it kills us. If we want a righteousness that will prevail before the throne of God, and grant us passage through the judgment to the kingdom of heaven, then we need a righteousness outside of ourselves, a righteousness apart from the law. And we, dear saints, can give thanks to God this day that He has provided for us that righteousness.
Listen to these beautiful words of St. Paul, who spent his life preaching this righteousness, the righteousness that comes by faith.
Romans 3:19-25 Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law ... the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.
There is a righteousness that truly exceeds that of the scribe and Pharisees, the very righteousness of God Himself, the perfection of Jesus applied to you in the declaration of all your sins. You are forgiven, that is, you are completely righteous, perfect in the sight of God, holy to stand in the presence of God. The law that we could not keep has been kept on our behalf, and this perfect keeping of the Law has been given to you.
And now, as you begin to keep these words of Jesus, and as we make a beginning of loving our neighbors and caring for their bodily needs, we have the confidence that you are forgiven and loved by God, that He smiles upon you with His peace. Amen.
And the peace of God which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
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Pastor Bryan Wolfmueller
Hope Lutheran Church | Aurora, CO