Sometimes I find the 10 commandments very easy. After all, I’ve never murdered anyone. I love my parents. I have been faithful in my marriage. I don’t bear false witness against my neighbour.
I have never coveted my neighbour’s house or my neighbor’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to my neighbour. It’s like the rich man who went up to Jesus wanting to know about achieving eternal life. Jesus tells him to keep the commandments. His response; “I’ve obeyed all these commandments since my youth. What else must I do?” (Matthew 19:20)
So it can be quite easy for a person to believe that according to the letter of the law we have not broken the commandments that God has set in place. Until, that is, Jesus explains their true meaning and the spirit of the law that sits behind the letter of the law. Jesus shows that behind the letter of the law is our heart and he shows that behaviours that lead up to and result in breaking the commandments are also concerning. And so he says: You have heard it said: You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment;
To understand Jesus’ teaching we need to look at it in the context of Jesus’ command to love the Lord our God with ALL our heart – ALL our soul – ALL our mind = ALL our strength – there is the expectation that it is 100% obedience to God. It’s what Jesus calls the greatest commandment (Matthew 22:27) Jesus doesn’t say to love the Lord your God to the best of your ability but ALL. And if our neighbour is created in the image of God, then we are called to love our neighbour with ALL our heart – ALL our soul – ALL our mind – ALL our strength. If we are not loving our neighbour with ALL that is in us then we are not loving God in whose image they have been created. So to be angry with our neighbour is in effect being angry with God. When we hurt our neighbour we are hurting God. And taken to the extreme our anger would break the command to do not murder. And we know that in their anger the people did in fact murder God on the cross.
So what Jesus is showing us is that we can’t simply focus on the end results of the commandments because behaviours along the way also break the commandment including the great commandment to love the Lord your God with ALL your heart, soul, mind and strength. Now, all of a sudden, the commandments become very real and alive and we cannot ignore them. The emphasis shifts from outward acts to attitude of the heart.
Who of us has not been angry? Who has not justified anger at someone because what they have done was just so hurtful. But Jesus reminds us that if you, in offering worship, remember that someone is angry with you, go and be reconciled; then come to offer your worship.
What’s interesting is the order that Jesus puts the anger in. The comment is not whether you are angry but whether someone else is angry with you. Sometimes we can block out a person and our anger at them. But if a person is angry with you, you are asked to take the initiative to be reconciled. And that act of reconciliation takes precedence even over the act of worship.
What a challenge this is. And when we consider St Paul’s instruction to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship”? (Romans 12:1b) then our entire life requires us to continually seek reconciliation with others.
Yes it is hard work reconciling but the blessings will far outweigh the sacrifice and discomfort as we remember Jesus’ promise: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God” (Matthew 5:9). Maybe some feel it’s a big stretch to go from anger to murder as we have all been angry. But think of issues in the church. How many churches have been divided and ultimately ended because of a fight that began over words that were said. What began as perhaps a misplaced word festered and grew to a point where it became toxic and killed the congregation. Look at Paul’s example and the division in the Corinthian Church simply over words about who was baptised by whom (1 Corinthians 3:1-9)
Jesus is heading off the ultimate end by dealing with the heart of the matter. How many fatal ends could have been resolved by an apology and forgiveness? But it’s so hard but that’s why Jesus says – blessed are the peacemakers because they shall be called children of God – equivalent to Jesus the Son of God. What an honour that we would receive. But our human nature would rather be proved right when we are wronged. And that’s why Jesus says – YOU go and reconcile.
So Jesus draws a warning to the behaviour that leads to that end behaviour which we cannot ignore – the breaking of the commandment.. He deals with adultery which begins with temptation. The lustful lure – the temptation that seems innocent enough as we convince ourselves it’s okay to look but not touch. But unfortunately our human desires grow from the smallest of temptations. And we live in a world where that temptation is everywhere around us. Like a festering wound that goes unattended, it worsens and spreads.
In these days with such easy access through the internet, which is not just a computer at home but something we carry around in our pockets in our mobile phone which we can use in secret, the temptation never leaves us and becomes more and more discreet to use. So Jesus says that we should identify where that weakness –where that temptation comes from and “cut it off”. Again it sounds extreme but the principal is spot on when he says: 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 eyes than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 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 hands than for your whole body to go into hell.
As Lutherans we have often glossed over the commandments as we have focused on the Gospel for fear of preaching works righteousness. And that’s a fair point as Paul even said that the law cannot save us. (see Galatians 2:21) But the commandments were given to help us live blessed lives. As Jesus himself said – he has not come to abolish the law but to fulfil them. So Jesus here is teaching us how to find true blessings through them by taking them back one step and touching our hearts with them. He is challenging the very fabric of our nature to go against our human pride and reach out to our neighbour in reconciliation. He is challenging us to look at the source of spiritual and physical damage in our closest relationships and ridding our lives of those things that tempt us no matter how much pleasure they bring. And too often our pleasure leads us to break the commandment we know we should keep, as Jesus says: The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” (Matthew 26:41)
It is easy to excuse our actions: “We’re only human.” We’re bound to make mistakes and get angry, bound to gossip and complain, bound to give in to our impulses. It is hard – it is challenging to hear Jesus’ interpretation of the commandments. But when you follow them and make that sacrifice you discover a peace and blessing that you cannot find by indulging in human pleasures. Paul struggled and we hear that when he says in Romans:
I don’t really understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do what I hate. I want to do what is right, but I can’t. I want to do what is good, but I don’t. I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway. When I want to do what is right, I inevitably do what is wrong. Oh, what a miserable person I am! Who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin and death?
Isn’t that how we feel at time? Well Paul reveals the answer: Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord! (Romans 7:14-25) May you too keep going to Jesus to find the comfort of God’s unconditional forgiveness but also find the blessings that God placed in keeping the spirit of the Commandments.