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Sermon for the Sixth Sunday after Epiphany – February 12, 2023

Matthew 5:21-37

As the actor and comedian W. C. Fields was dying in the hospital, a longtime friend went to visit him. He was surprised to find Fields reading a Bible. Fields had never shown any interest in God or religion before. In fact, he was widely known as an outspoken atheist and a bit of a scoundrel. So, his friend was surprised to see the famous man reading the Bible on his deathbed. “What are you doing, W. C.?” the friend asked. To which the comedian replied: “I’m looking for a loophole.”

This seems to be a common practice, and not just for atheists who are hedging their bets on their deathbed. God’s own people throughout history have sought loopholes when it comes to obeying God’s holy law. God’s people throughout history have sought loopholes when it comes to being held accountable to that law.

As we heard in our first reading from Deuteronomy, God set before his people commandments by which they were to live. Doing so would lead to human flourishing. Doing so would bring life and prosperity rather than death and adversity. This wasn’t just a matter of outward behavior; it was also a matter of the heart. And so comes the warning we heard in Deuteronomy: “If your heart turns away and you do not hear…I declare to you that you shall perish.”

And as soon as these words were spoken, as soon as these commandments and decrees and ordinances were given, God’s people started looking for loopholes. They started making excuses. They started challenging the authority of God. They started watering down and explaining away the commandments. This game very much continues today as people cleverly edit or massage or set aside God’s commands in a vain attempt to create a loophole through which they may pass, avoiding God’s judgement.

Jesus clearly knows all about this game. Apparently, some had gotten the impression that he had come to abolish the law. We heard Jesus debunk this rumor last week when he said: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law. I haven’t come to abolish one letter of it! I have come not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it.” Jesus had not come to bring loopholes! And as we pick up where we left off last week with the Sermon on the Mount, this could not be more clear.

“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times,” Jesus says, ‘You shall not murder,’ but I say to you, if you are even angry with a brother or sister, if you even insult someone, if you even call someone a fool, you are liable to the hell of fire.” Remember the law was not just given by God to regulate outward behavior. It was given to regulate the heart. And Jesus says here that anger and spite and name-calling comes from the same place in the heart that murder does. It makes you just as guilty before God. No loopholes.

This is so important to God, Jesus says, that before you bring your offering to God, you are to go and be reconciled first. Don’t think you can be all lovey-dovey towards God while holding grudges against your neighbor. First, be reconciled! Don’t think your offering offsets your hardened heart! Don’t think that you can write a check to compensate for your violation of this commandment! No loopholes.

Next up we have the commandment on adultery. Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Again, the law was not just given to regulate outward behavior. It was given to regulate the heart. And to let your eyes fall lustfully on someone to whom you are not married, whether it’s an attractive stranger at the grocery store, or a Super Bowl cheerleader on TV, or someone in a magazine or on a screen, to look at them in this way is to reveal what is truly in your heart.

Don’t think that just because there is no physical contact that it doesn’t matter, Jesus is saying. How dare you take your eyes off the spouse God gave you? How dare you look at one of God’s daughters in that way! When you do so you are objectifying them, bringing shame on yourself, and betraying your wife. It would be better, Jesus says, for you to cut out your eye if that’s what it takes than to have your whole body cast into hell! It’s that serious! Don’t think that you can look but not touch. Even a wandering eye is a form of adultery. No loopholes.

Jesus then moves from adultery to divorce, and what he says here is just as hard to hear for many people here today as it was then. Only men could initiate a divorce in Jesus’ time, so he addressed them specifically. He says: “whoever divorces his wife, except on the grounds of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” It wasn’t hard at all in Jesus’ time for a man to find a rabbi who would sign off on his divorce certificate, for just about any reason. Archeologists have found some of these ancient divorce papers where the reason for the divorce is cited as “she burned my dinner.” Many of the men of Jesus’ time, then, came to believe that as long as they had the certificate, they were good! As long as they did the paperwork, they believed, they hadn’t violated any of God’s laws.

But once again, remember that the law was not given just to govern outward behavior. It was given to regulate the heart. And divorce always involves a hardened heart in at least one of the parties, much of the time both. Sometimes it is that one person’s heart becomes hardened while the other’s is broken. Much of the time it involves two hearts which have both become too hardened to be reconciled. It always involves a broken promise. It always involves tearing asunder of hearts that God has joined together.

Jesus’ words might sound harsh, especially to those who have divorced and remarried. But isn’t it true that every divorce involves a measure of heartache, of regret and sadness? There is no certificate or legal document that takes away the painful complications of a marriage that has ended. If there are children involved, there is no certificate that can take away the heartache of those kids being torn between dad and mom for the rest of their lives. Jesus is just being honest here about what divorce is like. I’ve never met a divorced person who didn’t have a lingering wound somewhere in their heart. Just because the paperwork is in order doesn’t mean God’s intention for marriage wasn’t violated. There’s no way around it. No loopholes.

Jesus takes up one last commandment in our reading for today, the commandment against lying. He says: “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely,’ but I say to you, do not swear at all.” Jesus is not talking about using bad words here. He is talking about the way we try to add some oomph to our words by saying things like, “I swear!” or even worse, “I swear to God!”

You see, human beings tend to be untrustworthy in how we use words. We often use words to shade the truth in our favor. We use words to influence, even to misrepresent and manipulate. This is why people say, “I swear.” We do it to make our words more believable. And doing so just outs us as people who have already broken the commandment against lying. It outs us as people who aren’t normally trustworthy. So let your yes be yes and your no be no, Jesus says. Anyone who needs to swear an oath to make themselves more believable has shown that they have already violated the commandment. No loopholes.

It is sometimes thought that Jesus is the nice, laid-back God of the New Testament, in contrast to the mean, strict God of the Old Testament. It is sometimes thought that Jesus came to relax the law, reducing it all to some squishy definition of love that accepts and affirms everything and never makes any demands on anyone’s life. It is sometimes thought that Jesus came to abolish the law, or at least reduce it to something that is easier to keep.

Can you hear Jesus today and still think any of this? Last week we heard Jesus say, “I have not come to abolish the law. Not one stroke of it.” And then in the part of the sermon we hear today, Jesus points to the deeper meaning of the law, applying it not just to outward behavior but to what is going on in our hearts. Jesus is relentless in applying God’s law to every corner of our lives, every corner of our being, telling us in no uncertain terms that there are no loopholes.

Some of you might be especially sensitive to some of what Jesus says today – but make no mistake about it, every single one of us here today are in the same boat. The law convicts and condemns all of us. None of you here today are any worse off than anyone else. We have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. There are no loopholes for any of us!

If some of this has been too much for you to bear and the pain of it all has caused you to shut your ears to my voice, please open them again. Please listen to me, because what I am about to say to you is the most important thing you will hear today. Jesus didn’t come to bring loopholes. He came to bring something better. He came to reconcile you to God through his forgiveness.  Jesus didn’t come to abolish the law. He came to do something better. He came to fulfill it for you! He lived in perfect obedience to God’s holy law for you, and he gives you his righteousness as a gift of grace, to be received in faith. Jesus didn’t just come to preach and teach God’s law. He did that too, and we cannot simultaneously love him and ignore his words, but he came to be so much more than a preacher and a teacher. He came to be a savior!

Jesus befriended sinners of every stripe. He spoke words of forgiveness to the woman caught in adultery. He even forgave the angry crowds who put him on the cross. There is nothing mentioned in this relentless sermon of his that Jesus didn’t go on to forgive. It was ultimately Jesus’ good pleasure to fulfill the law for us. He ultimately came to give us what the law can never give. He came to save us. He came to reconcile us to God. He came to bring forgiveness, and he specifically told his church to continue his mission and ministry by proclaiming this forgiveness in his name.

So listen up and listen good: In Christ Jesus your sin forgiven. All of it – every angry thought, every insult, every failure to reconcile, every wayward glance, every failed relationship, every broken promise, every deception – in Jesus Christ, all is forgiven.

There are no loopholes in the Bible. Jesus sure as heck doesn’t give us any! But as we look beyond this sermon to what Jesus did for us in his death and resurrection, we find something much better than a loophole. We find a savior who died the death we deserve, and even now is raising us to new life with him.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer

Oak Harbor Lutheran Church