Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
The really annoying thing about hard work is that, when you do it well, it always seems like additional hard work gets added to what you’ve already done. That’s a good thing in the workplace. If your boss gives you extra responsibility, it means you’re a reliable employee who may very well be on the way up the company ladder. That’s all very well and good; but a teenager who finally gets done mowing the lawn and then finds out that he also has to paint the picket fence might not find it so easy to see the benefits of hard work. What, then, do we say when Jesus puts His holy thoughts to the Ten Commandments?
Jesus shows the scribes and Pharisees the difference between true righteousness and their obedience to their own interpretation of the Ten Commandments, and how empty that interpretation is. Look at the example that Jesus gives us: You shall not murder. The scribes and Pharisees would say that, so long as you do not perform the act of murdering someone or use your influence to have someone murdered—as King David did with Uriah—you have not committed murder. It is enough for the Pharisees that you do not commit the deed. And if you don’t commit the deed, you can avoid prosecution. At no time do the Pharisees ever concern themselves with the spiritual consequences of murder; their only concern in obeying the law is about avoiding civil judgment.
But Jesus looks deeper. As only Jesus can truly do, he looks at the heart and mind to see what is behind the act of murder. Now, Jesus is not contradicting or adding to the Law of Moses here. He has come to fulfill the Law, not to abolish it. Instead of doing away with the Law, Jesus shows us what the Law truly means, showing us that it goes beyond the physical act into the emotions and thoughts that form the act. So even though a man doesn’t take up a knife or a gun or a club and cause the physical death of his neighbor, in the eyes of God, a man who becomes inflamed with anger toward his neighbor or even takes the first step of anger in calling his neighbor a name is guilty of murder, and thus faces the wrath of judgment.
We’re no better than the scribes and Pharisees, though. And it’s not just with the Fifth Commandment, either. What about our interactions with our parents, the police, employers, and other authority figures? How many of us have ignored our parents, seeing their opinions as obsolete? How comforting it is look at a police car pulling someone over for speeding and think that they should find a real job instead of harassing decent people. But as long as we give Mom a card for Mother’s Day, as long as we don’t try to get our boss fired, as long as we don’t try to run the police officer over as we drive past, it’s easy to think that we have honored those whom God has placed in positions of authority over us.
It doesn’t matter which Commandment we consider. We act as though we’re lawyers before the city judge, looking for loopholes so that we can be exonerated despite our guilt. We do our best to ignore the fact that we will find ourselves before the righteous Judge of all people, the only Judge who can truly read our minds and our hearts as well as our actions. This Judge knows all the laws and has plugged all the loopholes. God’s Law requires not only outward obedience to the letter of the law, obedience in deed; it also requires inner obedience, perfect obedience, obedience in thought and word. There is no bloody glove that our hand will not fit, no paid-off witness to give a false alibi, and no prison guard who will look the other way while we make our escape. When the Judge declares us guilty—and make no mistake: you are guilty—the sentence is just, and there’s no chance for parole.
Sinners must face the consequences of their sins. When you sin against your neighbor, you are acting against your own conscience. Thus you harm both yourself and your neighbor. But more than that, you are also sinning against God. Jesus recognizes this, and He says to you, “If you bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” This is the language of the Church. This is confession and absolution. Brothers and sisters in Christ would not come to the altar for the Holy Supper of Christ’s body and blood until they were first reconciled with each other. The Church from its earliest days has practiced this, and it is a practice which we must still practice today. To approach the altar with unrepentant anger in your heart is to approach the altar unworthily, and what you receive there will be received to your own judgment.
If you plan on receiving the Lord’s Supper but you remember that you have sinned against your neighbor, go to your neighbor. God’s good gifts aren’t going anywhere. Apologize. Make peace with him. If your neighbor has sinned against you and comes to you to apologize, grant him forgiveness rather than holding a grudge. Then come to the altar. Confess your sin before God. Your neighbor may or may not forgive you; but God will surely forgive you. I John tells us, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” God is faithful and just, and He is gracious to forgive our sins in the name of Jesus. And with that forgiveness, we can then approach the altar with joy to receive the body and blood of Jesus, which strengthens our faith for this life and the life of the world to come. You cannot trust your own reason or strength. You cannot trust your own works. But even though you cannot trust your own works, you can certainly trust in the Lord. You can trust that Jesus lived to fulfill the Law. You can trust that Jesus died under the sentence of our sin and guilt. And you can trust that Jesus rose again for your sake, so that the perfect obedience and righteousness of Christ is all the righteous Judge sees when He looks at you. When you look to Christ instead of to your own works and strength, God is merciful. He gives you forgiveness, striking away that sentence of eternal damnation, giving you pardon and peace for now and for all eternity.
The Lord has higher standards for us in His Word, standards that we cannot hope to meet. But thanks be to God, for we don’t have to rely on our works. Christ lived in perfect obedience, and through His death and resurrection, in Holy Baptism He has made that obedience yours. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The peace of God which passes all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus always. Amen.