Jesus Set the Bar High

Sermon preached on February 13, 2011 at Our Savior Lutheran Church for the 6th Sunday after Epiphany. Sermon text: Matthew 5:21-37

I rode school buses a lot as a kid. From first grade up into high school I rode the bus pretty much every school day. A lot of people did things they shouldn’t do on the bus, but to try to stop too much trouble, buses always had rules to follow.

One of those rules always involved the windows. You could open the windows on the bus, but you couldn’t stick your hand out the window. That’s all the bus company and school needed was for someone to get hurt by hitting their hand against something. So they made a rule about it. But the rule itself was not, “do not stick your hand out the window.”

That rule would’ve had too many loopholes. Loopholes are the ways that rules can be broken without them technically being broken. That’s why the rule on my bus was never “Don’t stick your hand out the window.” Too many loopholes. With a rule like that, you’d have a kid with his foot out the window, trying to kick passing cars. You’d have kids waving their books out the window. It’d be horribly unsafe, but they couldn’t get in trouble for it. After all, they were obeying the rule by not sticking their hand out the window. But no, the real rule on my bus closed all those loopholes. That rule was, “Keep hands, feet, and other objects inside the bus at all times.”

And if kids try to find loopholes in bus rules, you can be sure that people try to find them in God’s rules. Take the ten commandments for example. Those are God’s rules for our lives. But if all you had were the bare words of those commandments, there’d be a few loopholes. Do not murder. Ok, that’s a good rule, but does that mean we can hurt someone, beat them within an inch of their life, and it’s ok? Of course not. But that could be considered a loophole.

As we continue Jesus’ sermon on the mount here in our text from Matthew, we have Jesus closing those loopholes. He takes the commandments, and he shows how those commandments leave no wiggle room. Think you can get away with something? Think you’ve done a pretty job at obeying everything God has said? Think again. Jesus set the bar high. God demands complete perfection from us. So let’s look at what we have really done, and what God has really done for us.

This section of Jesus’ sermon really is an expansion on the last verse from the previous section of the sermon. In that verse Jesus said, Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matt. 5:20)

Now, the Pharisees and the teachers of the law were the religious elite of Jesus’ day. You wanted a good Jew? You wanted an example of someone who must be doing what God wants? Then you could look no further than the Pharisees and the teachers of the law. They lived according to God’s commands. They were the example to live up to.

At least, that’s what it seemed like. But they were also good at finding the loopholes. Jesus once mentioned how the Pharisees gave God a tenth of everything, including even their spices, but they left out the more important things that didn’t have a command attached to them, like showing justice, mercy, and faithfulness. (Matt. 23:23) They seemed to be obeying God’s law, but really they weren’t. They found the loopholes.

So Jesus set out to close a few loopholes. You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell. (Matt. 5:21-22)

Jesus words here still kind of surprise me, and maybe they surprise you, too. Murder is wrong; no one is arguing that. But Jesus cuts us pretty deep right after that. Even getting angry with someone makes you subject to judgment. That seems a little unfair, doesn’t it?

We try to justify ourselves with everything we do. We justify ourselves by saying, “Hey, I’ve never murdered anyone, so I’m doing pretty good.” But getting angry? We try to justify ourselves again. We think, “Hey even Jesus got angry. He had righteous anger, and I have that sometimes, too. So I’m really not sinning.” You sure about that?

Do you think you’re often angry without any trace of sin whatsoever? Do you think you have truly righteous anger often? I highly doubt it. Jesus’ other examples make it clear here. He mentions the word “Raca,” which is a disrespectful, name-calling kind of word, and saying, “You fool!” as examples of sin. Think of how often your “righteous anger” includes thought of how foolish the other person is being. Of how that other person makes you sick by thinking they are so great all the time. Oh, there’s sin in your anger.

Why do you get angry at people? “He cut me off on the road!” “She talks to me as if I were some sort of idiot.” “I never get the credit I deserve!” Our anger is not usually this self-less, righteous anger where we are angry that someone is disrespecting the one true God. No, we get angry when someone is disrespecting us. When they’ve made our lives inconvenient. When they’ve gotten in the way of something we want!

Think of someone you’ve gotten angry at recently. If possible, think of someone you’ve been angry at in this congregation. Did that person deserve your anger? Maybe. Was your anger pure and sinless and without a selfish, me-first attitude? Probably not. You most likely weren’t concerned with God’s honor, you were concerned with yourself. And it came out in anger. Jesus doesn’t laugh this anger off. He doesn’t shrug his shoulders and say, “Aww, shucks, it’s okay!” He says this kind of anger leaves one in danger of the fire of hell.

Then Jesus moves from the 5th Commandment to the 6th. You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. (Matt. 5:28)

Again, Jesus takes the commandment and just explodes the conventional wisdom on what it means. “Don’t commit adultery” seems pretty straightforward; plenty of people can say they’ve never actually committed adultery. Go ahead and scratch the 6th commandment off the list, right? No! Jesus says, your thoughts must be completely pure at all times, too! One lustful look is enough. Of course, Jesus didn’t mention ways that these thoughts can so easily come to people’s minds in our day on television or the internet.

Our society doesn’t find these sins of our thoughts a very big deal, and it’s awfully easy for us not to worry about them either. It’s just a thought! Look but don’t touch, right? Well, Jesus takes these things seriously. So seriously, in fact, that he mentions that if your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. (Matt. 5:29) Jesus is using an extreme example, of course, but his reasoning is pretty solid. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. Jesus isn’t giving casual advice; he’s talking about the difference between eternal life and death.

But maybe the scariest part is that gouging your eye out might not even do the trick. You can’t really gouge your brain out, after all. You see, when your enemy is the thoughts in your own mind, you can’t win. Jesus is showing us here that we are losing this battle with sin, and even if we maimed ourselves permanently, in wouldn’t help.

And Jesus wasn’t even done with the sixth commandment. It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce. But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery. (Matt. 5:31-32)

The Pharisees were big into the rules, and right there in the law of Moses there were instructions for how to get a divorce. So, they figured it must be okay. Jesus put that notion to rest. No, divorce is not okay, it’s not a part of God’s plan. Because of sin God had to allow it, particularly in the case of when one of the people had broken their marriage vows. But it was not meant for any and every reason that someone wants.

Something tells me the Pharisees would’ve cringed at our world’s take on divorce. In our nation, “as long as you both shall live” has become, “as long as you both shall love.” And that “love” is a subjective feeling that comes and goes. And are we really exempt from this? The institution of marriage is a gift from God, but all too often we act like it’s a curse or that it doesn’t deserve our respect. Jesus tells us otherwise.

Finally Jesus makes us think about how we tell the truth. Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but keep the oaths you have made to the Lord.’ But I tell you, Do not swear at all. (Matt. 5:33-34) Some people might today say “I swear to God” in every other sentence. Well, if we’re telling the truth all the time; we don’t need to do that.

Jesus isn’t saying here we can’t swear to tell the truth in court. He’s saying that we need to tell the truth at all times. Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one. (Matt. 5:37) The devil is the father of lies; so we need to tell the truth.
Sure, we agree with this, but do we really live it? We look for the loopholes. We might not outright lie, but we don’t tell the full truth, or we tell a half-truth, or we say somethings that is just vague enough that people don’t really know what the truth is anymore. Or, we flat out lie, when the situation works out to our advantage. This, and every variation on it is a sin. And sin leads to death and hell.
Do you get the point? We can’t really fathom how much we sin. There are no loopholes. We try to excuse it, we try to laugh it off, we try to hide it, but there’s no hiding it. Our sin is an offense to the holy God. He cannot stand sin. He hates it, and he must destroy it forever. Yes, Jesus set the bar high. So high we could never live up to it.
But make no mistake about it. Jesus set the bar high, and he lived up to it. He lived perfectly according to every one of God’s commandments. He didn’t just live to the letter of the law; he lived up to it completely in thought, word, and deed.
And no, we can’t excuse our sins, we can’t shrug them off, and we can never say that God just ignores our sins or says, “Aww, that’s okay.” No, God punishes every single one of our sins, and in fact he has punished them. He punished them in his Son. He punished him on the cross, in his suffering, in his death. For you and me.
Jesus lived and fulfilled every commandment for you. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Cor. 5:21) By faith in Jesus, we are declared righteous, we are made worthy of eternal life, we have forgiveness, life and salvation.
Imagine someone saved you from drowning. They pulled you out of the water and saved your life. You’d be thankful, right? And if you saw that person on the street later, you’d say, “Thanks, again! What can I do for you? Name it! Tell me what I can do!” And if the person said, “No, no don’t worry about it!” you might still say, “No! Tell me! Anything!”
Well, Jesus saved us from more than drowning, more than death, he saved us from hell itself. And is there anything we can do? Well, we can’t contribute to our salvation. That’s already done. But we can live for Christ. We can live to obey God’s commandments for us. In thanks to him who has done it all for us. So live for him. Obey God’s commands, not just to the letter, but in full. Do it in thanks for your Savior. Jesus set the bar high with his love for us.

One thought on “Jesus Set the Bar High

  1. Pingback: The Purpose-Driven Knife « Pastor Walters Has A Blog

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