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Old and New

July 19, 2020
By Rev. Peter Heckert

+ Grace to you, and peace, from God our heavenly Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. + Amen.

The text for our meditation for this sixth Sunday after Trinity comes from our gospel text, where Matthew records Jesus’s words, “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.” Here ends our text; dear Christian friends …

I remember being absolutely terrified when I first heard these words as a child. See, I have an older sister, and when we were growing up, man alive, there were times when we made each other CRAZY. I remember her being absolutely livid with me on more than one occasion, and there being times when I was very angry at her. We have since, obviously, grown up and have become close – we still give each other a hard time every once in a while, but we love each other as brother and sister do – but in that moment, when I heard those convicting words of law coming from the lips of my Savior, even as a child, I knew that I was in trouble!

I don’t know how old I was at the time, but if my memory serves me correctly, after hearing those words, I did my best to try and be extra nice to my sister. I let her win playing Mario Kart 64 (even though I could have easily won). I let her have more time in the bathroom. I would even let her choose what toppings to put on the homemade pizza. That lasted … about a week, at most, before I couldn’t take it anymore. She started being a pill again, and I got angry. By that time, I think Jesus’s words had faded from my memory.

It’s probably a good thing, too. That sounds odd, but the reason I say that is because, as a child, I didn’t understand what Jesus was saying in our gospel reading. To my naïve, childish ears, it sounded to me that when Jesus said, “You have heard it said …” He was saying, “You think the Ten Commandments were tough to keep? Well, that was a cake-walk compared to these new commandments that you NEED to keep as a Christian!”

 No doubt, this is how many have read the Sermon on the Mount: basically, thinking of it as Sinai 2.0. This is Ten Commandments Plus. This is the stuff you’ve gotta do! After all, Jesus says, “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. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

From there, He moves into what some perceive as “amendments” to the Ten Commandments. “You have heard that it was said … But I say to you ….” He uses this formula with different issues – anger, lust, divorce, taking oaths, revenge and retaliation, love for one’s enemies, beneficence, praying, fasting, judging, and a myriad of other examples of where the Decalogue intersects with real life. At first glance, it does indeed look like Jesus is telling the people, “Y’all haven’t been pious enough! Because you haven’t kept the commandments, here are some new, even more impossible ways that you must keep them! If you keep them, heaven is yours! If you don’t … you will die and burn in hell for all eternity!” That’s what the Old Man, the Old Adam within us, hears. He hears God’s commandments as what we are to do in order to merit salvation, when in reality, that couldn’t be further from the truth.

The Sermon on the Mount is not Sinai 2.0. It’s Jesus’s way of painting the cats into the corner. See, the Pharisees had set up a whole system of rules and regulations that the people were expected to keep as a way of avoiding breaking the actual Commandments – by way of example, to avoid breaking the 3rd commandment regarding the Sabbath, it was forbidden to heal someone, lest that be construed as work and incur the wrath of God Almighty. Is that what the Commandments were meant for? Is that why YHWH wrote them on tablets of stone for Moses to bring to the people: to tell them how to act in order to be saved from eternal damnation? Not at all! That wasn’t their original intent, and it certainly wasn’t their purpose by the time Jesus began His public ministry!

It is true that the Law is what we strive to keep; no actual Christian would say otherwise. However, we don’t strive to keep them for our own sake and for the sake of our salvation; we strive to keep them … in order to serve our neighbor in love! The Pharisees had forgotten that; they thought that their salvation was assured because they had followed the rules and laws surrounding the Commandments … not realizing that God’s law is so utterly perfect that even anger against your brother, even insulting someone, even something as relatively benign as calling someone a fool is trespassing the commandment! The Sermon on the Mount is not some new-fangled laundry list of new laws you have to keep; they’re the evidence of our inability to keep them!

“Oh, you think you haven’t murdered anyone? Well, here’s the reality: if you get angry with your brother … if you insult your brother or call him a fool … you’ve broken that commandment!” The natural human response is, “But that’s impossible to keep! How can I possibly keep from being angry with my brother?” And to this, God smiles and says, “EXACTLY.”

The point of all that Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount is to show us poor, wretched sinners that it is IMPOSSIBLE for us to perfectly keep the Law of God, even though He demands that we do keep it perfectly! WE CAN’T DO IT, AND WITHOUT INTERVENTION, WE WOULD BE LIABLE TO THE FIRES OF PERDITION! The Law remains … to show us how incapable we are of saving ourselves! Like a mirror, we look at our lives and compare our conduct in thought, word, and deed with the perfect mandates of the Law, and we see how utterly short we fall! We see that we can’t do it, and that we need a Savior!

Thanks be to God, we have one! Jesus, God in the flesh, did what we could not by keeping and fulfilling the requirements of the Law on our behalf … and yet, even though He had never known or committed sin, He became the embodiment of sin for us, taking the sins of all the world upon His shoulders and killing it in His broken flesh on the cross! Salvation doesn’t come to us through the keeping of the Law; none of us would be saved were that the case! “Salvation unto us has come … by God’s free grace and favor! Good works cannot avert our doom; they help and save us never! Faith looks to Jesus Christ alone, who did for all the world atone; He is our ONE Redeemer!”

We need the Law to show our need for our Savior, and we yearn for the blessed day when we will actually be able to keep God’s perfect commandments perfectly, in the Day of our Lord Jesus! But until that time, we trust that it is faith in His all-atoning sacrifice alone that gives salvation! The Old Adam and his erroneous thought of earning salvation is drowned in the waters of holy baptism; he is replaced by the New Adam, Jesus Christ, who gives us His righteousness, which far exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, and who says, “You can’t do it; but take heart, for I have done it for you!”

+ In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.