Matthew 5:21-26
The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
June 9, 2024

“The law of the Lord is,” David says in Psalm 19, “perfect, reviving the soul … making wise the simple …rejoicing the heart…enlightening the eyes … enduring forever … righteous altogether.”  It is, he added, “more to be desired … [than] much fine gold”.

Jesus, the Son of David, couldn’t agree more!  In the Sermon on the Mount He urges His followers to fulfill God’s perfect law in all it entails.  By means of six case studies in the last 27 verses of Matthew 5, He elaborates the depth and breadth of the law’s implications.  As He deals with each, He interprets its demands as more demanding than most think and its permissions as less permissive.  He makes keeping the law more exacting.

Jesus introduces each of the six case studies in the same way.  He begins by saying “You have heard that it was said” (or the like) and then He sets up a contrast, introduced by His saying “But I say to you” – whereupon He intensifies what the law asks of us by bringing to light its full ramifications.

Today we study Jesus’ word about doing justice to the sixth of the Ten Commandments, the one that tells us not to murder.  While the scribes and Pharisees restrict it to just a prohibition of homicide, Jesus enlarges its meaning to involve honoring the sacredness of each human being.  He thereby makes obedience to the commandment bigger and harder than we first supposed.  It’s not just a matter of being as decent as the next guy.  And it won’t cut it to say, “Hey, I ain’t perfect, but at least I’ve never killed anyone!”

So what is Jesus’ agenda in being so challenging?

It’s not always easy to discern what a person is driving at, especially when one’s mind is already set in a certain way.  Once, a man was tooling down the 405 freeway with his SUV full of dozens of penguins.  When a highway patrol officer spotted him and pulled him over, the officer told him, “I don’t know what you’re up to, but you can’t be doing this.  I want you to take these penguins to the zoo right away!”  The driver swore he’d do it.

The next day the officer spotted the same driver in the same SUV full of the same number of penguins – only this time all the penguins were wearing dark sunglasses.  The officer pulled him over and said, “Do you think I’m too dumb to see through your lame disguises?  I told you to take these penguins to zoo.”  “I did,” the driver protested.  “Yesterday, I took them to the zoo, and today I’m taking them to the beach.”

False preconceptions might also lead us to think that Jesus raises the bar on fulfilling God’s law because He wants us to become good enough to enter the kingdom of heaven.  But, with His very first words in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus declares that the kingdom belongs to those who know they’re not good enough for it and never could be – that is, to the poor in spirit who are aware that their only hope is in God’s mercy and grace.

Jesus doesn’t want His followers to honor each person’s sacredness so that they might enter His kingdom, because they already have by choosing to follow Him.  He wants them to do it, first, just because it’s the right thing to do.  For each human being is sacred by virtue of having been made in God’s likeness and being someone for whom the Son of God gave His life, in whom the Holy Spirit longs to make a home, and with whom the Father yearns to spend eternity.

The second reason Jesus wants His followers to honor each person’s sacredness is that they thereby do themselves a favor.  For giving the good that we have enables us to receive more of the good that God has.  While God fills spiritual cup of every heart to the brim, the hearts of some folks are bigger than others’.  Those who have a bigger heart for helping others have a bigger capacity to take in God’s blessings.  The deeper and wider our love for others, the more profoundly and extensively we enjoy God’s love for us.

So how do we honor each person’s sacredness?

While there are many elements to it, the one Jesus addresses here is that of managing our anger.  For anger’s emotions can cause us to say cruel and unfair things that may kill a person’s spirit.

This is not to say that all anger is wrong.  While some forms of anger unrighteously demean people, there is righteous anger.  The Bible tells us that Jesus got angry several times.  Anger is often a product of caring; and the right expression of it often drives home, in a helpfully forceful way, a heart-felt concern about the welfare of someone making self-destructive choices.

Yet, it’s imperative we learn to control our anger lest it degenerate into a malicious form that denigrates folks by disparaging insults or put-downs.  Uncensored words, arising from unchecked anger, while not as bad as literal homicide, can fatally wound a person’s soul and take the life out of them.

Anger can, alas, frustrate our best efforts to manage it.  We so easily get carried away by it and let it lead us into unrighteousness.  I think of a woman who was complaining to a friend about her husband.  Her friend finally asked, “Do you ever think of divorcing Murray?”  She replied, “Divorce never!  Murder maybe…but divorce, never!”  Angry exasperation with someone can even make us wish they were dead!  But, even if it doesn’t reach that point, demeaning expressions of anger may murder a person’s sense of self-worth.  And that is such a serious sin in God’s eyes that Jesus says that, once we realize that we should apologize and make amends, we should immediately drop whatever we’re doing and make things right again right away.  If we realize it at worship, we should not wait for the service to end but leave our gift at the altar to find the one we’ve wronged and pay the debt we owe.  Or if we realize it while on our way to court to face a lawsuit over a disputed contract, we should stop in our tracks, settle out of court and pay our obligation in full then and there.  There’s no higher priority than doing right by our neighbor.  God Himself will defer to our doing that duty!  For God, like most parents with respect to their children, feels loved by those who truly love His children.  We cannot do right by God unless we do right by His children.

So let us fulfill the sixth commandment of the Ten by refraining from homicide and all its lesser (but still awful) angry cousins.  Let us as well practice the positive ways to honor a person’s sacredness: listen to them with careful attention and sensitivity, respect them and treat them fairly, take their problems to heart, and take action to serve their best interest – as Jesus always has, and always will, for us!

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