No wiggling around it.
No justifying our outbursts or mistakes.
No relaxing the rules.
Sin is sin and sin’s no joke.
That’s the gist of what Jesus is preaching on the mountain. He begins by saying, “If you want to enter the kingdom of heaven, your righteousness must exceed even that of the Pharisees” (Matthew 5:20). Later, He says, “Be perfect even as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).
Of course, the sins He mentions in our reading today sound sinful enough: anger, murder, lust, adultery, divorce, and swearing. But lest we think we aren’t as guilty of some of them as much as others, Jesus is very careful to close every loophole. For example: I might say to myself…
I’ve never murdered anyone.
I’ve never had sex with anyone other than my wife.
Sure, I may get angry sometimes—sometimes too easily–but it’s only when others provoke me.
These all sound like good excuses, but Jesus won’t let me off the hook. There can be no excuses. Sin is sin. While you and I haven’t physically murdered anyone, Jesus reminds us that hate, though it does not look like murder, is very much akin to murder. It is the very opposite of love. Hatred of any sort is a desire to deprive our neighbor of anything and everything good… and that probably includes God’s forgiveness, too.
But wait… Can’t I hate someone and still want them to be loved by God?
(Why does that sound like such a legitimate question?)
Let me ask you this: If God can love the person you hate, then why can’t you? And if you can’t love and forgive them, then why should God? If you are angry with someone then why shouldn’t God also be angry with them? Surely God has many more reasons than you to hold a grudge against them?
You see the problem?
Any excuse we give for feeling hatred toward someone can’t stand before God. He has many more reasons than we do to feel animosity toward sinners—including you—but He shows absolute love, instead. It therefore follows that we should be able to show a little love, too, even toward those we want to hate.
What about lust, adultery and marriage? You may not openly ogle the opposite sex. You may not sleep around. You might not have an addiction to porn. Good for you! But do you really believe that you’re off the hook? In our overly sex-saturated culture, how can anyone avoid participating in things that promote lust and adulterous thoughts? Did you watch the Super Bowl halftime show? Do you turn off the TV every time there is sexual content or innuendo? You may not be divorced, but why do you sometimes live and act toward your spouse like you’re divorced? Where’s the forgiveness? What about enduring for better or for worse, in sickness and in health? Where’s the love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, self-control that supposed to exemplify the Christian life… and the Christian marriage? Can’t’ you at least show these fruits of the spirit to your spouse?
Finally, what’s the big deal about oaths and swearing? Do words really matter that much? Yes! The bible begins by reporting that all of creation was brought forth out of nothing but the spoken Word of God. That same Word later became flesh (John 1:14). At the end of the Gospel of Matthew, the Word will call His disciples to go and make disciples by baptizing and teaching and proclaiming God’s Word (Matthew 28:19-20). The short of it is this: If God’s own people cannot be trusted because our “yes” doesn’t mean yes and our “no” doesn’t mean no, then why should the world trust anything we have to say about our Lord?
Given what Jesus says today (and we’ve only read the first part of the sermon on the mount) how can any of us hope to enter the kingdom of God? How can we be perfect as our Father is perfect? Because, Jesus makes it pretty apparent that our righteousness sucks!
The truth is, sin is sin, and it is terrible. It can’t be avoided. You can try to gouge out your eye or cut off your hand, but you know as well as I do, it won’t fix the problem. What we’d really have to do is gouge out our hearts and that would kill us.
However, I think that’s the point. We have to die. The wages of sin us death. It’s only by killing us that God can raise us back to new life, with a new heart, and this is what God is planning to do. He’s been at work bringing sinful people like you and me to the waters of holy baptism where we die with Christ so that we can live with Christ (Romans 6). Our baptism is a kind of foreshadowing of what will happen on the last day when God raises us out of physical death and gives us eternal life in and through Christ.
Of course, our sinful flesh doesn’t like God’s plan. We want our best life now. We foolishly think that we can salvage the sinful flesh, slap on a new paint job, download some new software and everything will be just fine. We love a good DIY project, right? I convince myself that things will be okay if I try harder and sin less. If God could just give me a checklist of things to avoid and righteous things to do, then I could manage, somehow.
But Jesus stomps all of our prideful ambitions to smithereens. He eliminates any possibility. He preaches the Law like it’s always been meant to be preached. He uses it to cut us to shreds, to show us that we aren’t just in need of a tune-up, we are helplessly broken. We need the impossible. We need God to come and do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. We need God to save us.
“Lord have mercy.” That’s all we can say. If you want to get to heaven on your own, by your own righteousness, good luck! True blessing comes to those who see that sin is sin and that Jesus is the only one who can help you.
“Bessed are the poor in spirit for they shall enter the kingdom. Blessed are those who morn for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth.”
As Jesus goes down the mountain and begins His ministry, there will be many very sinful, broken people who will step out of the crowd desperate for Jesus’ help: lepers, demon possessed, Gentiles, the unclean, the paralyzed, sick and lame. Jesus will not refuse them.