Grant us, O Lord, an ever-growing, ever-deepening experience of the truth as it is in Christ Jesus. Grant that we may learn it, not only with our minds, but in our hearts. Grant that with lengthening years we may have increasing proof of it in our lives; and give us wisdom, that we may use it, as Jesus did, in the service of our fellow-men; through the Same Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen. [C&P #67]
God’s grace, mercy, and peace are yours from God our Father, through our Lord Jesus Christ.
In the name of Jesus, Amen.
True religion: in the minds of some, those two words can never belong together. But that’s what the summary prayer for this Sunday requests from God. The Church has prayed that collect on this Sunday of the year for centuries. God has answered and provided true religion. We prayed it today, and part of God’s answer is in the appointed lessons of Holy Scripture.
For many, religion is about the way people ought to live. Some think it’s an excuse for people to intrude on your personal choices. Others take it more seriously: God really exists, and cares how we live. Nobody wants to be on His bad side, so we must live right. Some don’t care about God, but still believe in doing what is right on principle. They may even think it’s important to be good without God. (What “good” means without God I don’t know.)
All of these opinions exist in your neighborhood and your town or city. But everyone should agree that they can’t all be right in the same way at the same time. Let’s hear again what Jesus says.
20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
21 “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ 22 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. 23 So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. 25 Come 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. 26 Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.
This is God’s Word. Sanctify us through the truth, O Lord. Your Word is truth. Amen.
True religion. The scribes and Pharisees thought they had it. Few would disagree with them publicly. They knew the Law. That is, the sacred writings. They studied them. They even taught them. They knew especially the parts of the Scriptures where God says what we need to do in order to be righteous people; to live a good and God-pleasing life. We are blessed in our time, in this church, because we all have access to the Scriptures. We even memorize parts like the Ten Commandments. You might even see a parallel between the scribes and Pharisees and Christians like us. We all have such ready access to God’s Word. Many of us read it regularly. Some of us have committed parts of it to memory. We also could say that we have true religion.
That’s where Jesus enters with some bad news. “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
Jesus goes on to talk about some of those commandments that we know. Today’s gospel shows the part about the fifth commandment, “You shall not kill.” (The word “murder” is better here to express the meaning.)
What’s true about all the commandments is especially true here. Most of us are not aware of a time when we have taken the life of another human being. For those of us who can think of such a time, we may understand how the circumstances make it not a case of murder. For example, a police officer, soldier, or executioner performing his duty may have to take a life, but does so on the part of the governing authorities. St. Paul writes in Romans 13 that God has endowed these authorities with “the sword,” the legitimate power to take life when necessary to fulfill their God-given role. That’s why “murder” is a better word to use in the fifth commandment. Not all wilful taking of human life is murder.
So most of us are not aware of a time when we literally committed murder. To some degree, we may also be unaware of breaking the other commandments. To that extent, we may consider ourselves to be righteous. (Or maybe more righteous than we could be.) Again, this puts us in a position comparable to the scribes and Pharisees, who were careful not to cross the line that they knew so well.
So then, why does Jesus say that only those with a righteousness better than that of the scribes and Pharisees can ever enter the kingdom of heaven? His answer is the discussion about those commandments, beginning with the fifth.
Murder brings judgment. Not only human judgment, with a possible conviction and sentence to prison or death. Those consequences are earthly consequences. They result from the authority that God has given to earthly government. But murder brings judgment also before God himself.
You don’t have to be a Christian to sense this. Every culture has some kind of prohibition or taboo about taking human life. Even though these prohibitions vary, their existence suggests a common cause, which St. Paul explains in Romans 1. The gentiles (who do not have God’s Word) are still creatures of God and possess some sense of what is right or wrong. This is the basis of the American Declaration of Independence. King George had crossed a line that could be recognized by all people. Even kings must stand before God’s judgment. Nobody but God can restore a life that is unjustly taken.
We have seen these worldly consciences at work recently with the conviction of police officers for crossing the line and massive demonstrations calling for justice. We have also seen the limits of these consciences as people protesting one injustice so easily justify themselves committing others. This all serves as a stark example of the point Jesus is making today, and not only about the behavior of protesters. He’s speaking to us.
“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.”
Anger alone can bring God’s judgment. That’s something to remember as we are exposed to media and reports designed to produce anger.
Insulting another person is serious enough for legal action in God’s sight. How important to keep in mind when most public discourse in our nation has degenerated into name-calling and wild claims about others.
Calling someone a fool can lead to God’s everlasting punishment. That’s just one example. There are others.
Jesus describes the importance of working it out, patching things up, making it right. It’s a matter of life and death in the presence of God, who knows all things. “If you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you…” Even there, at the one altar in Israel with a line of worshippers waiting behind you, don’t presume to make an offering to God until you’ve made amends with others. You owe it not only to them, but to God.
This is serious. God’s not playing. The deeper point is that His standard is so high that our best efforts can’t reach it. We won’t enter the kingdom of heaven that way. Anger in the heart? Rash words on our lips? We can’t beat the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees.
In today’s Old Testament, God speaks to the Israelites. Each commandment begins, “You shall not… ,” which we take rightly as strict commands. But it’s also interesting to notice that these commands may also be taken as statements. “You shall not… “ can be understood as a prediction of the future, both in English and the original Hebrew, as well as the ancient Greek version. That means that in a sense, God was telling the Israelites that one day they would keep those commandments and be a righteous people.
Maybe you would disagree with that translation, but you would have to agree that our epistle lesson describes it happening. And like the Ten Commandments, this is also part of Luther’s Small Catechism. “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.” This is the fulfillment of God saying, “You shall (some day) have no other gods,” and “You shall (some day) not murder.”
Another way to say this is that Baptism into Christ gives us the righteousness of God’s Law. If you are baptized into Christ, your status before God is the status of Jesus Christ. His suffering paid the penalty for sins in full, and His righteous and holy life shines like the sun at the right hand of God the Father.
Through baptism, with faith in Jesus, so do you, because baptism connects you directly to Jesus.
Now the problem we have is that our lives often seem contrary to this status we have by faith as children of God. We don’t see it. We don’t feel it. Often, we don’t even hear it. This life in Christ can be more of a struggle than not, because Christians are in tune with God, instead of the fallen world. Do you remember last week’s epistle? Christians believe the gospel of Jesus Christ, God’s wisdom, but to the world it’s foolish. If that’s not hard enough, even Christians have a worldly part of us, which the Bible calls our sinful “flesh.” In the resurrection to life it will be gone, but for now, our own flesh agrees with the fallen world that the gospel is foolish.
Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” He predicted this life of faith and He has called you to it. This is the true religion. It doesn’t get rid of the commandments, but fulfills them: first with the holy life of Jesus, and now abounding with your thank-offerings of good works, pleasing to God in Christ. It’s a righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees: righteousness not from you, but from Jesus; religion not from the imagination of man, but from the Word of God. Your flesh is perishing, but your new life in Christ will outlast this world.
This is the true religion in which we live in the midst of mercies that are new every morning.
In the name of Jesus. Amen.
Soli Deo Gloria