The Sixth Sunday after Epiphany (February 13, 2011)

Lessons: Deuteronomy 30:15-20 or Sirach 15:15-20 Psalm 119:1-8 (1) 1 Corinthians 3:1-9 St. Matthew 5:21-37

Prayer of the Day
: O God, strength of all who hope in you, because we are weak mortals we accomplish nothing good without you.  Help us to see and understand the things we ought to do, and give us grace and power to do them, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.  Amen.

5:21 [Jesus said,] "You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ 22 But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. 23 So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. 25 Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. 26 Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.

27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.

31 “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32 But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

33 “Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ 34 But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36 And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37 Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one."

St. Matthew 5:21-37 New Revised Version Bible (C)1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.

The Law(s) of God

If you are angry with a brother or sister… if you insult a brother or sister… if you say “you fool”… if you lust… if you divorce… if you make an oath…

The people of Jesus’ day had inherited a massive collection of laws, customs and traditions. Most well-known is the Decalogue — a collection of Ten Commandments that Moses received directly from God on Mt. Sinai. But by some counts, the Torah (the first five books of the Bible) includes as many as 613 additional instructions from God. What’s more, there were countless other customs, traditions and local practices to consider. It was nearly a full-time job for a first century believer to study the law and apply it to life.

Perhaps in part because this body of law was so large, and so unmanageable, believers had come to use excuses to keep the impact of the law at a minimum. In some cases, they applied a very strict interpretation of the law. Someone who had never willfully ended the life of another human being was considered as never having broken the fifth commandment. Someone who divorced his wife properly and according to custom was considered as never having broken the sixth commandment. It left the believer with the impression that he or she “wasn’t all that bad.” And, of course, consequently, “not all that in need of forgiveness.” Believers had come to use excuses to keep the impact of the law at a minimum.

In our day, it may well be that we use grace to keep the impact of the law at a minimum. Sure, we may break the commandments now and then. Sure, we may not always live in a way that is pleasing to God. But after all, we’re forgiven anyway, so in the long run it really doesn’t matter all that much, right? It may be that in our day we use grace to keep the impact of the law at a minimum.

In either time, then or now, Jesus will have none of it. His message may be rooted in grace. His primary objective may be to help God’s people experience forgiveness and grace. But that in no way means that he is uninterested in the quality of our lives and the integrity of our discipleship. (Remember last week: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.”)

In this week’s Gospel lesson, not only does Jesus call us to take the law of God seriously, he heightens that call. You’ve heard it said that you shall not murder, but I say to you, that if you are angry with a brother or sister you are liable to judgment. You’ve heard it said you shall not commit adultery, but I say to you, that if you have lusted in your heart, you are guilty. You’ve heard it said that you shouldn’t swear falsely, but I say to you that taking any oath at all is offensive to God.

Jesus interprets the law in a way that nobody is above it. Jesus interprets the law in a way that nobody can stand on his or her own two feet in the face of God. All have room for improvement. All have opportunity to grow in faithfulness. All are guilty. All stand in need of God’s grace and forgiveness.

From the world’s point of view, people tend to say, “I’m not as bad as you think I am.” From faith’s point of view, believers tend to say, “I’m not as good as you think I am.” We all fall short from our Lord’s interpretation of God’s command. We all stand in need of his forgiveness and grace.

And, thankfully, we stand in the assurance that it is ours. Amen.

David J. Risendal, Pastor

Exploring This Week’s Gospel:

  1. How did the people of the first century understand the law of God?
  2. Why had “excuses” been developed for those who were having trouble obeying the law?
  3. What did Jesus teach them by strengthening the sense of what these laws meant?

Connecting with This Week’s Gospel:

  1. When have I shrunk from allowing the law to name my sin and shortcomings?
  2. What ares of my life and discipleship cry out for growth and renewal?
  3. How might I allow the law to shape me, and strengthen my witness?