Text: Matthew 5:21-37
Grace, mercy, and peace to each of you from our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.
In my short time as a parent I have already noticed a trend in my parenting. I’ve noticed that every once and a while Leah and I make a new rule for the kids, a new way that things are to be done, or new consequences for bad behaviour, but over time the “new rules” start to slide. Eventually, despite our best efforts and intentions, the rules end up getting loosened and the consequences lessen.
This reminds me of something that happened in the National Hockey League a number of years ago too. In 2005 the league decided that they would make a concerted effort to call all of the rules by the book. Penalties that had been overlooked previously would not be overlooked anymore. For hockey fans like me who like to see lots of goals and fast skating action this was good news. However, within a few years the rules started to slide again. Penalties weren’t being called at the same rate anymore and players were getting away will stuff all over the place.
Despite our best efforts in life this tends to happen. We set the bar high in our rules and expectations for ourselves and others, but before too long we start lowering the bar to make things more manageable. We lower the standards to make it easier for ourselves to meet those standards. This is, I think, just the reality of our human nature and how we respond to rules and expectations.
Jesus confronts this tendency of ours head on today in our gospel reading. Jesus isn’t particularly concerned about parents not sticking to their guns over rules around the house or the enforcement of penalties in professional hockey, but this tendency to loosen the rule does have the potential to cause problems in our lives and Christians following Jesus. The same temptation to lower the bar that we face in other areas of life also applies to our lives as Christians. We are tempted daily to lower the expectations that God places on us to make them more manageable and this is a problem. Jesus takes this problem on today by showing us how high the bar really is.
Jesus says, “You have heard it said to the people of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgement.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with His brother is liable to judgement; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool’ will be liable to the hell of fire.” These are harsh sounding words of God’s Law from Jesus. He takes the 5th commandment about murder and shows us what that commandment really means. He doesn’t stop here either, in the rest of the text he keeps going through other commandments from God and shows us how we have lowered the bar for ourselves.
To understand these words from Jesus today we actually need to go back to something that Jesus just said in the verses leading up to our reading today. These words were actually from our gospel reading last week and lead right into what we heard today. Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matthew 5:17). Jesus is confronting here a temptation that might come up in our hearts and in the hearts of our fellow Christians to think that Jesus came into this world to take away God’s law and remove all meaning from God’s commandments. But, contrary to what we might think or feel, Jesus says He has not come to do that at all. Instead, Jesus insists that He has come to fulfill God’s Law and commandments, not abolish them. The Law of God still stands Jesus says, we cannot just lower the bar to make ourselves feel better or make our church seem more inclusive or to excuse our own bad behaviour. Jesus has not come to lower the bar of God’s law.
Instead, Jesus sets the bar so high in our gospel reading today that it crushes us. Anyone who is angry with his brother or sister in Christ (fellow Christian) will be liable to judgement. Anyone who insults his or her fellow Christian by questioning their mental capacity and calling them an idiot or unintelligent will be subject to judgment. Anyone who calls another person a fool or questions their moral competence calling them a jerk will be subject to the fire of hell. The bar here is set so high that none of us, not even one of us, can even come close to claiming that we have met this standard. If you’re anything like me then all you have to do is put me behind the wheel of a car with some less than capable drivers around and you can very quickly see me get angry with my brother, insult his intelligence, and call him a jerk. And like that I am subject to judgment and the fire of hell. The bar is set high and the consequences or falling short are dreadful.
All of this would paint a pretty bleak picture of our lives as Christians. If being a Christian were simply about living up to the moral and ethical standards like this set by Jesus. It would seem pointless to try because we simply cannot do it. But we need to go back again to what Jesus said last week in our gospel reading: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” Jesus did not come to abolish the law, we see that in what He says today about our anger with our brother being the equivalent of murder and our words of frustration being just as bad along with the stuff about the other commandments, but He has come to fulfill the law. Jesus has fulfilled the law by His holy and perfect life and death and resurrection in our place. Having been arrested and treated shamefully at the hands of His own people and sent off to be crucified Jesus “was like a lamb led to the slaughter and a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so He opened not His mouth” (Isaiah 52:7) He did not grow angry with the people who treated Him like this, but instead pleaded with God for their forgiveness. And as He gave up His life of the cross His innocent and holy death paid for all of their sins of anger against Him and against their neighbour. His death paid for our sins of anger too. He fulfilled the law perfectly for us in His life and died perfectly for us on the cross and rose from the dead perfectly for us.
None of this lowers the bar. The law is not abolished, it is fulfilled. Jesus has fulfilled the law for us. Now as He calls us to be His disciples, to follow Him the way that those first disciples did, to learn from Him as they did on the hillside, He calls us to this same moral standard which is still too high for us. But now, with the law fulfilled for us by Jesus, we joyfully begin to do what He has commanded us to do. We fail, but we rest constantly on His fulfillment of the law for us.
Jesus goes on talking about this commandment and shows us how to begin loving our neighbour and turning away the anger in our sinful hearts. “If you are offering your gift at the temple,” Jesus says, “and remember that your brother has something against you leave your gift and go and be reconciled with your brother first.” In our context that would mean if you are coming to church, walking up those steps even, and remember that your brother or sister in Christ, your fellow believer, fellow Christian, is upset with you about something, you should go and straighten things out with them right away, even before coming to church to hear God’s Word and receive His gifts in the Sacraments. Jesus shows us here how loving our neighbour works in our church. We who have been reconciled to God through the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus ought to be reconciled with one another. This should be our first priority. This is even more important that coming together to worship God. After we have been reconciled we can come together, worship, and receive the gifts of God.
Jesus goes on and shifts the conversation to conflicts outside of church, “Come to terms quickly with your accuser,” Jesus says. When anyone is accusing you of some wrong doing (even if they are taking you to court!) settle it with them quickly. Don’t let it linger. Don’t get hung up on details of who did what and don’t obsess with protecting yourself and your honor or integrity. Confess your sins to your friend or your neighbour or your relative, and seek his or her forgiveness. Settle the matter quickly without delay.
Again here Jesus does not lower the bar for us. The law of God is not abolished by Jesus, but it has been fulfilled by Jesus. Through His death Jesus has saved us from the law that crushes us and kills us, that sets such a high standard that we would never even come close to keeping it, but in saving us from this crushing law Jesus does not destroy the law. Instead, because He has carried the weight of the law for us and fulfilled the law, He gives us a new life of joyfully, freely, and lovingly beginning to live out God’s law in our lives. So love your neighbour, be reconciled with those who have something against you, confess your sins to your neighbour and be forgiven, because Christ has fulfilled the law for you. In Jesus name. Amen.