Readings: Exodus 20:1–17 | Romans 6:1–11 | Matthew 5:17–26
Text: Matthew 5:20-26
For centuries, the first thing those learning the Christian faith encounter is the Ten Commandments. We may think they are elementary, and therefore easy to do. After all, they sound so simple:
- You shall have no other gods.
- You shall not misuse the Name of the Lord your God.
- Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.
- Honor your father and your mother.
- You shall not murder.
- You shall not commit adultery.
- You shall not steal.
- You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.
- You shall not covet your neighbor’s house.
- You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.
We would like the Commandments to be tame, manageable. As easy as following the civil laws, such as where to park and the proper way to conduct business. But as we will find out, God our Father gave them to us, knowing they are exactly what we need to hear.
The Gospel reading for today is part of what’s called the Sermon on the Mount. Most of us are familiar with the very beginning, the Beatitudes, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven,” and so on. Then Jesus compares Christians to the light of the world and salt of the earth, as I mentioned a couple weeks ago: “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house.” (Matt. 5:14) In the part read today, He begins to explain God’s Law and its relation to the Kingdom of Heaven. Just as if we were learning the faith all over again, He takes us to the Ten Commandments. If you thought the thunder and lightning of Mount Sinai were scary, listen to how the Lord explains the Fifth Commandment:
“21“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ 22But 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. 23So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. 25Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison. 26Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.” (Matthew 5:20–26)
“You shall not murder,” we heard Moses say, and we feel pretty good if we haven’t actually ended anyone’s life. This commandment however, might plague someone whose work might include ending another’s life, as with soldiers and peace officers. Here it is extremely important for one’s conscience to remember the distinction between office and person. Being an agent of the state, it is part of the job description: “He is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.” (Rom. 13:4) A Christian, according to their duty in the police force or in the armed forces, can serve blamelessly in being the one who carries out God’s justice in this world.
This is also applies to what is called the Castle Doctrine, the right to defend one’s own home with deadly force. Without getting into legal nuance, as Christians we see this as the duty of the office of a head of household protecting the lives of spouse and children. The fifth commandment forbids vigilantism and private revenge, because outside of the office, the Lord says, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” (see Rom. 12:19-20, citing Deut. 32:35)
Here in Matthew 5, our Lord is applying the Commandment to how it impacts each of us every day. One commentator explains, “Jesus says that the commandment extends to…resentment and anger against someone. Such anger is itself a violation on man made in the image of God. God cannot accept our offering if we are angry with our brother (vv. 23–24)” So, while this Commandment does not apply to the full extent every day, it shows us what lies behind sinful murder: resentment and hatred, casting other people off without thought of their Creator.
This is how it is with all of the commandments: they do not just speak to outward actions, where we can put on a good show before others. Rather, the Law of God exposes the sinful motives. It shows us how, from our hearts, we have “lived as if God did not matter, and as if I mattered most.” (LSB 292, Individual Confession).
In a sense, the Law of God can be compared to juggling plates. You’re handed one, and that’s okay. Two is a little harder, three a little more difficult. Then, four, five, six, all the way to ten. You are going to drop and break them, because our sin is more than we can manage, and God wants us to recognize that.
Consider this incident at Mount Sinai where the Law was first given:
“15Then Moses turned and went down from the mountain with the two tablets of the testimony in his hand, tablets that were written on both sides; on the front and on the back they were written. 16The tablets were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, engraved on the tablets…19And as soon as Moses came near the camp and saw the [golden] calf and the dancing, Moses’ anger burned hot, and he threw the tablets out of his hands and broke them at the foot of the mountain. 20He took the calf that they had made and burned it with fire and ground it to powder and scattered it on the water and made the people of Israel drink it.” (Exodus 32:15–20)
If the Commandments are so elementary, then it should be easy to keep them. You work hard to keep them diligently. So what’s the problem? It’s the reality of your sin. David says, “Enter not into judgment with your servant, for no one living is righteous before you” (Psalm 143:2) None of us has the ability to keep ourselves together and avoid breaking the commandments. They speak not just to our actions, but also the thoughts and intents of our heart. We are going to break the Law, and when it does—as often as it does—our confidence can’t be in our obedience to the Law.
The Law of God is also like charming a snake. You think you’ve got it under control and suddenly it lashes out and bites you.
Just like this:
“4From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom. And the people became impatient on the way. 5And the people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food.” 6Then the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died.” (Numbers 21:4–6)
You know better than trying to master all Ten Commandments. Maybe you’d be content to conquer one or two that you really struggle with. You want to be more loving and patient toward people, and you’re doing well for a while. You’ve got a problem with internet porn, and you think you’re finally stronger than you used to be. You try really hard to be content with what God has given you, and for a while you have a time of clarity. You think you’ve gotten the upper hand on your weakness.
But then it happens again. The old worry takes over your heart and you make hasty plans without prayer. Your weak flesh is led away by the faintest reminder and those old evil fires are kindled again. A friend of yours makes a big ticket purchase and you curse God because it isn’t you who gets something new and shiny.
The Law cannot and will not be mastered by any of us sinners. It will always exercise its power over our members. Remember the experience of even St. Paul:
“18For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. 19For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing…21So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. 22For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, 23but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. 24Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:18–24)
When you run up against the holy Ten Commandments, your only hope is this: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (v. 25) It is this glorious Gospel that Jesus brings you to after you have been broken by the Law.
As you stand amid the proverbial rubble of the stone tablets, hear the Word of the Lord from Colossians 2:
“13And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, 14by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.” (Colossians 2:13–14)
The Lord has taken your sin away from you. He took it to the cross and died your justly-deserved sentence. You are forgiven and free.
To you in your pitiful, frustrating weakness, bitten by the snakes of sins you thought you could master, this is the Gospel of the Lord to you:
“14And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” (John 3:14–15)
Those bitten by the serpents in the wilderness were commanded to look up to the bronze serpent and live. Look up to Jesus hanging on the cross, naked and shameful, receiving the wrath you and I have deserved. Now look at your Baptism: “3 Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” (Rom. 6:3-4) Here, your God has clothed you with the holiness of His Son; weak, and yet giving you strength; defeated, giving you a share in His victory over sin and Satan and the grave.
Beloved of God, Christ says, “I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” He has done it all for you to give you the righteousness though which you may enter the Kingdom of heaven. This is how our Lord explains the Law in light of the Kingdom of heaven, so that “no human being may boast in the presence of God” and as many as believe may rejoice in the gift of salvation which Jesus alone gained for us. As St. Paul writes in Philippians 3:9, this is what it means to “be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ.” Amen.
 Iain Campbell, “Opening Up Matthew”
 1 Corinthians 1:29