We continue today with Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:21-37). Last Sunday we talked about perfection as we examined Matthew 5:13-20. God’s Law demands perfection in all things. It demands that we be holy as He is holy. Jesus ended by saying, “… unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
In this context, then, we explored how we cannot make ourselves perfect and holy; that is to say, that we cannot achieve a righteousness of our own. Instead, we rely on the righteousness of Jesus Christ, which is given to us freely as a gift; it is his righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, and he clothes us with his righteousness in order to save us from the condemnation of the Law. Jesus fulfilled the Law perfectly on our behalf and atoned for our sins, and therefore gives us life.
Now, the scribes and the Pharisees certainly thought that they had achieved perfection and holiness through their own works, because they thought that they followed the Law perfectly. So, when Jesus tells the crowds that their righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees, I’m sure the scribes and Pharisees were thinking, “What is this guy talking about? We are very righteous, for we follow all of God’s Laws. We haven’t killed anyone, and we haven’t committed adultery, and our divorces are completely legal.” They appealed to their own sense of self-righteousness in their belief that they had not broken God’s Law. But, as at many other times, Jesus begins to break this down so as to remove all pretense from them.
First, he tells them that the commandment to not murder includes the prohibition of hating or insulting another person (Matthew 5:21ff). For hate is murder of the heart. Likewise, he tells them that the commandment to not commit adultery includes the prohibition of lusting after another (Matthew 5:27ff). For lust is adultery of the heart. He also tells them that whoever breaks the bonds of man and woman in marriage commits adultery, for man and woman are united in marriage by God Himself (Matthew 5:31ff).
So, in these three injunctions against murder, adultery, and divorce, Jesus is saying that God’s Law does not just cover the outward act, but the inward one as well. God isn’t satisfied with outward obedience to His Law, He demands a perfection that touches our innermost thoughts as well. God demands all of us, body and soul, because that is how He made us.
So, if you’re trying to work your way to heaven by showing God your great works – as were the scribes and Pharisees – then you need to be perfect. That is, if you reject the righteousness of Christ, then you must obtain a righteousness of your own. So, there must be no imperfection or sin in you – if you’re relying on yourself to be saved rather than relying on Christ.
Therefore, “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell” (Matthew 5:29-30). If you want to be perfect, then you had better remove the imperfect parts of your body, so that your entire body is not cast into hell. For that is the punishment that sin deserves; so, if you simply remove the parts of your body that are sinning, then you should be good to go. It’s that easy. Right?
The trouble is, if we follow this advice, then it won’t be long until there is nothing left of us. We’ll quickly get to the point where we’re contemplating the sinfulness of our hearts and minds and wonder what to do. We begin to see that even if we removed all our limbs, we would still be sinners at heart. This is the purpose of what Jesus is saying, to show us that no matter what we do, we are still sinners at heart; we cannot make ourselves perfect, we cannot cut off the sinful parts, because all of us is tainted by sin.
How do you cut off the sin from your heart? We can’t do it. Indeed, the only way is for the Lord to do it. He demanded in Deuteronomy 10 that our hearts be circumcised, then promised in Deuteronomy 30 that He would perform this circumcision, and then St. Paul points out in Romans 2 that the Lord has done this to us through Christ. We receive Christ’s righteousness as our own through faith; he circumcises our hearts, and then we perform goods works which arise out of our faith as a natural consequence.
Now, we mentioned last week that God doesn’t need our good works, but our neighbor does. This is basically what Jesus is saying 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” (Matthew 5:23ff). God wants you to reconcile with your fellow man, just as God has reconciled you to Himself through Christ.
So again, God doesn’t need our works, but our neighbor does. The Pharisees tended to neglect their neighbors and the needs of other people in order to remain “holy” and “undefiled.” We see this later in the Gospels when they are upset that Jesus is healing people on the Sabbath. How dare Jesus work on the Sabbath, shouldn’t he be “serving God?” “Shouldn’t he go bring his gift to the altar rather than doing something menial like helping another person?”
The attitude of the Pharisees is similar to those people who want to remain “pure” before God at the expense of helping their neighbor. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Lutheran pastor killed by the Nazis at the end of WWII, talks about this in his book called “The Cost of Discipleship.” He uses the example of a man who wants to remain pure and perfect and never lie. But, what if someone comes to his house looking for someone that this man is hiding in order to kill him? This was a very real concern for Bonhoeffer, living as he did in Nazi Germany. So, in the example, what should the man do? Should he remain pure in his convictions and not lie? This would mean that he would tell the killer where to find his victim. Or, should he break his vow of purity and lie to the killer? This would mean that he is no longer pure, because he had lied.
In this example, the Pharisees were the type of people who would refuse to defile themselves and so would condemn people to death. They believed that they were serving God in this way. Yet, Jesus’ own words tell us that this is not the way to serve God. For as Jesus says, leave your gift at the altar and first be reconciled to your brother. Sometimes in this imperfect world that we call life, we have to incur some condemnation on ourselves in service to our neighbor. Bonhoeffer referred to this as taking sin upon yourself and bearing the shame and distress of others. In the example of the man who lies to protect another person, he is “taking sin upon himself” for the benefit of his neighbor.
And isn’t this what God has done for us, in the most ultimate way imaginable? Didn’t our God take our sin, shame, and distress upon himself as he hung on the cross, dying for our sins? It’s hard for people to understand how or why God would dirty himself with our world. In fact, in the first few centuries after the birth of Christ, there was a philosophical group called the Gnostics. The word “Gnostic” comes from the Greek word “gnosis,” which means knowledge. They believed that the key to salvation was gaining knowledge that would allow a person to separate his soul from his body. They believed that the material world was evil and that the goal was to become more “spiritual” and “pure.”
The view of the Gnostics was totally at odds with the view of the Hebrews. In the Old Testament, the Hebrews viewed creation as good, even though it is tainted by sin. The material world is good, because God created it. He created us both body and soul, as material beings. Our goal isn’t to become more “spiritual,” it’s to become more “human.” And to be fully human in its most basic sense is to be reconciled to God and each other and creation itself, a return to the perfect communion we had in Eden. And, in fact, this reconciliation we have received through Christ; we have the firstfruits now and will partake of the full feast at the resurrection.
But, the Gnostics didn’t believe any of this. So, influenced as they were by their Greek philosophical ideas, they couldn’t understand how a holy, infinite, almighty God would “defile” himself by uniting himself with humanity. How could a holy God become man? Why would the infinite God undergo the dirty, messy business of being born of a woman? God should be put high up on a shelf where He can’t get dirty. He should be protected from our sin, shame, and distress.
God tells us, though, that our own ideas about how God should be don’t reflect how He really is, just as our natural ideas about how we should be holy don’t reflect how things really are.
God did not stay undefiled up on the high shelf, He came down to us. God became man, the Word in the flesh. And this Word in the flesh, Jesus Christ, was born of a woman, was hungry, dirty, tired, tempted. As Paul wrote to the Philippians: “Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:3-8).
Jesus Christ took sin upon himself – our sin. In doing so, he bore our shame and distress. He did not desire to remain undefiled by humanity’s sins and struggles, but he bore them in his body on the cross. Thank God that He didn’t listen to our ideas about how to be holy and righteous, for he would have remained clean, pure, and untouched up in heaven, while we died the eternal death in our sins. Instead, he came down to redeem us, and on that altar of his cross, he reconciled us to God. And so we are not holy because of our actions or works; no, we are holy because God is holy and has called us apart as His own people through Christ. To be holy is simply to be “set apart,” and we have been “set apart” by God through Christ for salvation.
Christ is our holiness. And, just as Christ bore our sins for us, we now bear his righteousness which he has given us. In Baptism, we have died and risen with Christ so that we are not liable to be handed over to the judge for eternal punishment (cf. Matthew 5:25-26). Christ is our advocate who has come to terms with our accuser for us. He has fulfilled the Law on our behalf, paid for our sins through his cross, and triumphed over them through his empty tomb.
The Christian life, then, is a life lived out under the shadow of the cross and the joy of the empty tomb, receiving salvation from the body and blood of Christ, brought into God’s family through the waters of Baptism, communing with Him and each other through the Lord’s Supper, and receiving all things from God Himself. And under this shadow of the cross, where Christ has reconciled us to God, he has also reconciled us to each other and creation; his empty tomb has brought us new life together, a life that leads into eternity. And so we are freed from the worry of trying to earn our salvation, for it has been freely given us, thus we can serve our neighbor in the confidence of who we are – the children of God through Christ.
And you do not have to seclude yourself from the world in order to avoid the stain of sin and unrighteousness, for Jesus Christ himself lived in the midst of a sinful and unrighteous people. And just as Christ did so in order to take sin upon himself for our benefit, so too can you bear the sins, shame, and distresses of others in service to your neighbor. You can bring the restoring Gospel of Jesus Christ to others and embody the love which Christ has for his creation, trusting in the power of God’s Word to change people, even as God’s Word has worked upon you.
You are in the world as salt and light, just as Christ was and still is in the world. And just as Christ did not remain secluded, but rather came to us to sully himself with the grime of our sins and sufferings, so too can you go out into this fallen world as Christ’s witnesses. For you have the sure promise of God that He has already reconciled you to Himself through Christ’s death on the cross and his resurrection from the dead. You are God’s children, because His sinless, perfect, holy only-begotten Son took your sin, shame, and distress upon himself. And we go and tell others that Christ has done the same for them.
(Image: “The Teacher” by Hans Thoma [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AHans_Thoma_Der_Lehrer.jpg ).