In His Word to you this morning from His Sermon on the Mount, the Lord Jesus addresses you with the clear meaning and significance of the Law, especially the Fifth and Sixth Commandments, whereby He guards and protects His good gifts of human life and holy marriage and teaches you to receive and sanctify these divine and sacred works in the righteousness of faith and love.
As He catechizes you in these Commandments of God, Jesus pushes you beyond the surface to the deeper intention and fundamental spirit of the Law, revealing that God is concerned not only with your outward behavior but with your heart and mind. The anger and hatred that you harbor inside against your neighbor is already murder in the eyes of the Lord your God. Likewise, the covetous lust and desire that you entertain and exercise for the bodies of other people is already adulterous.
This Word of our Lord could hardly be more timely and pertinent to our present day and culture, as the onslaught against human life and the perversion of human sexuality are rampant in the world around us. Indeed, such sins are not only defended but increasingly celebrated, to such an extent that even many Christians have been numbed to the deadly seriousness of these matters. Even so, the fact remains that these sins, in particular, are not only contrary to the Law of the Lord in the Holy Scriptures, but are diametrically opposed to the very nature and survival of the human race.
But lest you presume to hide behind the fact that you may not be guilty of doing this or that, it is again to the point at hand that the Lord aims at your heart and mind and cuts you to the quick. Have you not gotten angry, lost your temper, and cursed your neighbor to his face and behind his back? Have you not maintained grudges and nurtured bitter resentments against your neighbors, instead of seeking to be reconciled through mutual repentance and forgiveness of sins? And have you not looked upon your neighbor’s spouse, marriage, and family with deep envy and jealousy?
It is sobering to consider how seriously the Lord describes the lust in your eyes and in your heart as adultery, justly deserving of temporal and eternal punishment. Yet, lust pervades our culture as a basic marketing tool. Adultery in all of its many and various forms is treated as the norm. All manner of sexual confusion is glamorized and promoted. And divorce is taken for granted, though anyone who has suffered through the breaking of a marriage knows well enough how painful and damaging it is, not only to the estranged husband and wife, but as much or more to their children.
What Jesus says concerning divorce may be especially difficult for many to hear and take to heart. But His purpose is not to hurt or harm; it is to emphasize the importance and sanctity of marriage — and so also to signify His own marriage to the Church. He thereby stresses the necessity of our faithfulness to Him as our true Bridegroom. Even more to the point, though He would have the legal right to divorce us because of our unfaithfulness, He does not exercise that prerogative, but in His faithfulness, love, and mercy He lays down His Body and Life to reconcile us to Himself.
Later in St. Matthew, Jesus speaks again concerning marriage and divorce. There He indicates that Moses permitted and made provisions for divorce because of the hardness of hearts. Divorce thus belongs to the realm of sinful unbelief. But God’s intentions were not so; and from the beginning His good creation included marriage as the union of one man and one woman as one flesh, joined together by God and not subject to human disruption. Indeed, from the beginning man and woman were created in God’s own Image, and marriage as such was a reflection of Christ and His Bride, the Church. So, for divorce to be tolerated and given a place within the Church is a contradiction at the most fundamental level. It is a false confession of Christ and His Church, and therefore a denial of the Gospel itself. That is why the Lord addresses it and deals with it so very seriously.
None of which is to say that divorce or any other sort of adultery cannot be forgiven. Christ died also for these sins, and His Word of forgiveness absolves them. But they are thereby dealt with precisely as sins, and not excused or rationalized as okay. It must be so. To treat them as anything else than sinful is to reject the very forgiveness they require, which is so freely offered in Christ.
The challenge is that even many Christians fail to consider and take to heart that all of us truly are sinners, not just in a general, abstract sort of way, but really and concretely in our thoughts, words, and deeds. So, in exposing and condemning your sins for what they are, the Lord is not rejecting you; He is calling you to repentance, to fear, love, and trust in the one true God instead of yourself, and to find your righteousness by grace alone through faith alone in His Gospel of forgiveness.
Your only real life, which is your only real hope, is the life that Jesus Christ has lived for you and sacrificed for you — the life that Jesus Christ has given to you in your Baptism — the life you live in Him and He in you. Every other sort of “life,” which is really only death in disguise, steeped in anger, hatred, and murder, lust, adultery, and divorce, must be repudiated. The Church dare not tolerate these things as though they were innocent or harmless, but must condemn them for what they are, as sins leading to death; and daily call both you and all other sinners to repentance; and then speak and bestow the free and full forgiveness of sins in the Name of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Now, if you are divorced, you might be thinking that I am picking on you this morning; and if you’re not divorced, you might be thinking to yourself that I am really letting those “other folks” have it. Either way, not only would you be forgetting that these are not my words but the Words of Christ Jesus; you would also be missing the whole point and not hearing what Jesus has to say.
Jesus does not let anyone off the hook; and in that respect He is letting each and every one of you “have it” with both barrels. His Sermon on the Mount exposes the roots of your sin already in your sinful heart, in your thoughts long before it ever gets into your words and actions. He does so in order to contrast the death of your sin with the life and salvation of His mercy and forgiveness. For in Him you are given a new life — one that is not characterized by murder, adultery, theft, false witness, and covetousness, as your so-called “life” apart from Christ is found to be; no, your life in Christ is characterized by His perfect righteousness, which is revealed above all and most clearly in His Cross and Resurrection, and which is credited to you by grace through faith in Him.
His Word against divorce is so serious and harsh, because divorce is the very opposite of the mercy and forgiveness and reconciliation of His Cross. He thus condemns this sin and all your sins, that He might forgive your sins and reconcile you to Himself as a member of His Bride, the Church.
As we also heard from Jesus last week, He did not come to abolish the Law and the Prophets but to fulfill them — to bring them to perfect completion in His own life. Everything that He calls for throughout His Sermon on the Mount, all that He calls you to be and to do, He Himself lives and fulfills in His own flesh, even to His death upon the Cross. For as St. Paul writes to the Church at Rome, love is the fulfillment of the Law, because love does nothing to harm the neighbor but rather seeks to help and serve. It is such love that you see in the Cross and Crucifixion of Christ.
Instead of taking revenge, “an eye for an eye,” “a tooth for a tooth,” the Lord God responded to those who sinned against Him with mercy and forgiveness, giving His own Son for the world.
All that you and this whole world of sinners deserve, the Son of God has suffered. All the debt that you owe, the Son of God has paid with His own Body and Life. And since the Lord your God has thereby reconciled the world to Himself in Christ Jesus, any and all claims of wrongdoing and revenge that people may have against each other are already satisfied and wiped out, null and void. Of course, here we are not speaking about worldly economics, but of sins and forgiveness.
“Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us,” Jesus teaches you to pray in the Our Father. Because Jesus has turned His cheek, surrendered His garments, and carried His Cross — for you and your salvation — you have no right to exact retribution from others. Rather, you are to forgive, even at your own expense, as you are freely forgiven by God in Christ Jesus.
The perfection that is required of you — like that of your Father in heaven — is that righteousness of Christ which exceeds that of the scribes and pharisees — a righteousness defined and perfected by His mercy and forgiveness. It is in the mercy and forgiveness of God in Christ Jesus that His perfection is most clearly revealed and expressed. It is perfected by our Lord upon the Cross, even as He declares that “It is finished.” For there His mercy and forgiveness are accomplished for you.
As a beloved and well-pleasing child of God in Christ Jesus, you are here called to be “perfect” in this same sense, in this same way, that is, by loving your enemies, by showing mercy toward and forgiving those who sin against you, and by finding and living your life in the Cross of Christ.
That is the point to all of Jesus’ Words: To love your neighbor as yourself, even your enemies, for the sake of your Father in heaven. To love and serve your spouse, and to respect your neighbor’s marriage; to refrain from revenge, and to forgive instead; to give freely at your own expense, even to those who are taking advantage of you; to love and pray for those who hate you and hurt you. All of this the Lord has done and continues to do for you. Not only that, but He credits His perfect life to your account, so that you are righteous by faith in Him. And He now lives His life in you, and through you for your neighbors, so that your body and life are an “epiphany” of His Gospel.
To make this very concrete and particular, by way of a specific example, consider again the Word of the Lord concerning adultery and divorce. In that light, the higher and perfect righteousness of Christ Jesus is demonstrated by the betrayed husband who does not divorce his unfaithful wife but rather forgives her and reconciles her to himself in love. The letter of the Law does not require such mercy and forgiveness. But this is an example of how and why this righteousness of God in Christ Jesus exceeds that of the scribes and pharisees — not only by degree, but also by kind. For His righteousness is revealed and perfected precisely in His gracious mercy and free forgiveness.
So it is that He, your heavenly Bridegroom, did not divorce His people, though they have been so unfaithful and adulterous. But from heaven He came and sought you and all the children of Adam and Eve to be His holy Bride. With His own blood He bought you, and for your life He died.
That is the righteousness to which you are called, which you cannot earn or obtain for yourself, but which has been obtained for you and given to you by Christ. Only by faith in Christ Jesus do you live as a perfect child of your Father in heaven; for it is only in Christ Jesus that His God and Father is your God and Father. And so it is that, by His Holy Spirit, you love and forgive where you would otherwise hate and hurt; you give and sacrifice where you would otherwise covet and lust; you serve without any thanks where you would otherwise retaliate with anger and revenge.
In all this, it is the Gospel that is confessed, and the world sees in you the grace of God in Christ.
Instead of retaliating, seeking revenge, and refusing to forgive, the righteousness of faith in Christ suffers all things, bears all things, endures all things — for the sake of Him who suffered death upon the Cross in your stead, bearing all your sins and griefs and sorrows in His own Body; who endured the righteous wrath of God on your behalf, that you should be redeemed and reconciled. Think of how He turned the other cheek to those who mocked and abused Him; and when He was reviled, He did not revile in return, but He kept on entrusting Himself to His Father in heaven.
By His stripes you are healed — so that, having died to sin, you might live unto righteousness.
You thus live by entrusting yourself to your God and Father in Christ, seeking not your own way but His way of mercy, peace, and love. In any case, you have no need to seek revenge or justice for yourself, since the Lord your God Himself has redeemed you and declared you to be righteous.
What is more — and most wonderful of all — wherever and however you have fallen short of His perfection, your merciful and great High Priest, the incarnate Son of God, Christ Jesus, avails for you unto repentance and faith in the atoning sacrifice of His Cross and the perfect righteousness of His Resurrection from the dead. He is your Life and your Salvation. In His crucified and risen Body, as a member of His Body and Bride, the Church, you are perfect, as He Himself is perfect.
In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.