Grace of the Law

Matthew 5:21-37

Back in Matthew chapter 4, just one chapter prior to today’s reading, Jesus announces the dawn of another reign, the kingdom of heaven. Beginning in Matthew chapter 5, known to us as The Sermon on the Mount Jesus gives us a glimpse of what this new reign will look like.

As a piece of The Sermon on the Mount, today’s Gospel, given the title in your bulletins, The teaching of Christ: forgiveness, Jesus guides us to reflect on forgiveness in regards to some of Old Testament law’s most challenging topics: murder, adultery, divorce, and broken promises.

There’s no question, today’s gospel is some pretty tough scripture. It’s one that, I’d be willing to bet caused nearly all of us as it was read to feel convicted at some point. That caused us to reflect personally on some of our more difficult moments in life. And while murder may not be on our personal sin checklist, anger, adultery, divorce, lust, unkept oaths and false promises, present forms of offense that most of us have been guilty of a time or two, or over and over.

With this, it wouldn’t be far out thinking to wonder if the Apostle Paul had these words from Jesus in mind as he penned some of scriptures most honest words, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”

So Jesus addresses sin, and as he does so, he follows a similar pattern of speech in each of the examples he lifts up. He begins by discussing the Old Testament law, what should happen to a person, according to the law, should they commit one of these sins. And then he goes on to discuss what he believes should happen to a person, should they commit one of these sins. And while we might expect Jesus’ opinions would present some relief from the condemnation… some grace, when held up against the law… they don’t. Things become all the more difficult should we take Jesus’ words literally.

You have heard that it was said to the people long ago (the law), ‘Do not murder… Do not commit adultery… Anyone who divorces… Do not break oaths…’ “But I tell you, ‘anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment… anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery… anyone who divorces his wife, except for unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress… do not make oaths at all…’

Feeling guilty yet?

Sin is a difficult matter for us to face, both in regards to those we have committed and to those that have been committed against us. Here, in today’s gospel, Jesus forces us to reflect on both. To think about those things we have done, and to, to reflect on how we have responded in those moments when others have done unto us.

As it is with all scripture, side by side with the challenge of today’s Gospel’s subject matter, is the danger of interpretation. It is easy to hear Jesus’ words and end up solely with a heavy-handed notion of God as chief judge and jury.  If that’s it, there’s a pretty good chance that we are all, you and me, in some pretty deep… you know what…

But as we Lutheran’s do so well, there’s got to be some grace found in Jesus’ words.

So, what if the main purpose of this scripture isn’t so much about Jesus warning us of the impending punishments of the sins we commit, but rather Jesus telling us something about the larger nature of God?

That for God, the creator of all things, the Master of the Universe who set the cosmos in motion, who separated light from darkness, who filled the sea, sky, and earth with life… in the end, doesn’t care so much about the law, but rather cares so much about us? What if… what if, it isn’t that God is saying, “don’t do this and don’t do that”, as God saying “love me and love each other, because of the love that I have for you”? Or as theologian David Lose asks in his commentary on today’s text, “What if God cares that we keep the law for OUR sake, NOT for the LAW’S sake?”

It seems to me, that for Jesus, following the law is about strengthening relationships. About building up, not tearing down. We see that again and again throughout his teaching. Through his words in today’s text, he speaks to those times when we fail to follow the law and damage relationships, and tells us that mending these relationships should be our response, on behalf of accuser and accused.

With this, Jesus makes forgiveness the ultimate goal of justice. And teaches that it is through our faithfulness to those around us, that we remain faithful to God.

As we find ourselves in a society that seeks punishment as the ultimate goal of justice this understanding becomes all the more difficult.  And in thinking about those times closest to us that Jesus’ words address: those of anger, adultery, broken relationships, temptation, and broken promises, we could probably all make the argument that forgiveness in its perfection, is unachievable.

My guess is, that Jesus was well aware of humankinds’ struggle with forgiveness.  As Jesus speaks in today’s text, he would have known that he did so with crowds of people who without a doubt faced the same struggles, and attempted to make sense of the same pains as we do today. They knew what it felt like to be the target of a person’s sin. To be betrayed and lied to.  What felt like to have those closest to them treat them as enemies. And to, they knew what it felt like to be the sinner as well.

With this, what if, Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel were meant not to condemn, but rather to help its hearers (us) trust in the unconditional love of a God who knows we will fall short of all God’s best hopes for us and loves us enough to say so? Who in the end isn’t so much interested in the “do this” or “don’t do that”, as in the “I love you” and “you are to love each other”?   And who hopes, by the love of Christ, Him crucified and risen from the dead, that somehow our personal wants and desires would be drawn to the bottom, while those of our neighbor would rise to the top.

As Christ followers, we are to take Christ’s words seriously. Never an easy task. Still, it remains our challenge and our calling to do our best.   We will fail. We will hurt those closet to us. We will lie, deceive, and desire things we ought not desire. We will cause relationships to come to an end. And too, we will at times be on the other end of these sins.

The Good News is, while, for us, forgiveness in its simplest form can be difficult and in its perfection may be impossible… for God… it is not

God gives us the final word on forgiveness through the act of the cross, where through the death of God’s only Son, God forgives us for all of our failures and wrongdoings… all of them…even those things we can’t forgive ourselves for committing…

Some will read today’s Gospel as a word of law from a legalistic God. But others will read it as a word of encouragement from the One who died for us, saying to us that our relationships matter, even in their worst moments. Our marriages, our parenting, our friendships. Where they are broken, offer them to God for divine help and healing. When you cannot forgive or feel as though you can’t be yourself, know that God can. For God’s Word is the gift of an adoring parent to beloved children, encouraging us to love each other and to love our Father.

Through this gift God frees us to live our lives’ striving to obey the law and to build our relationships reflective of the relationship that God has with each of us… One not built on fear, but on love and respect… on faithfulness and integrity… not on judgment and retribution, but on grace and forgiveness… One that gives us a glimpse of the kingdom to come… where God’s blessing makes us perfect regardless of our imperfections, and our sins are forgiven.

For you have heard that it was said to the people long ago… but as Jesus prayed from the cross, he prayed… he pleaded… forgive them. A prayer offered to God for you and for me. For this we give thanks.


~Pastor Andrew Geib


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