God resists the proud but gives grace to the humble. In pride the sinful man imagines that he is a competent judge of righteousness. Such an attitude allows a man to excuse his words said in anger, no matter how spiteful or cruel, because they were, by his judgement, just and fit the occasion and humbled whatever fool he had to deal with. But the wrath of man does not produce the righteousness of God. Far from it. The wrath of man poured out on his brother reveals the true condition of man’s heart. It reveals man’s sinfulness in the face of God’s righteousness, a righteousness that judges the heart of man, not only his outward actions. This righteousness demanded by God is not found within us. It is outside of us. The only righteousness that meets this standard is the righteousness of the Righteous One, Jesus Christ, whose perfect righteousness is given to His church, whom He has called to live by His righteousness in humility and thankfulness, not in pride and boasting.
In our text, Jesus teaches us what true righteousness according to God’s law is. It’s not the outward righteousness the Pharisees practiced. Instead, righteousness in Jesus’ church must conform perfectly to the true intentions of God’s law. Our righteousness must exceed the righteousness of the scribes and pharisees.
Their righteousness was superficial. The scribes and pharisees refused to see the law as the mirror of their hearts. It only demanded or prohibited outward actions. That’s why Jesus called the pharisees whitewashed tombs later in Matthew’s Gospel. They looked good on the outside, but they were rotten inside.
If God’s law only applies to outward actions, then it is no better than any earthly set of laws. The commandments – do not murder, steal, commit adultery, covet, etc. – are not arbitrary but useful civil laws that keep the playing field fair and give us a chance to make it in life while protecting us from other people’s conflicting interests. Because the goal of God’s law is not merely an outward civil righteousness, the 10 commandments aren’t kept if everybody doesn’t kill or commit adultery or cheat each other.
God’s commandments aren’t shorthand rules for outward harmony on earth. They show you who you must be at all times before God and men. The law shows you who you must be at heart, not in appearance. God’s law is not arbitrary. It allows no wiggle room, no equivocating, precisely because it sets forth what the true condition of your heart must be.
The commandments demand pure and perfect love to God and one’s neighbor without qualification. This love delights to do the will of God and cares ceaselessly for the well-being others. This love does not pass away, it is unflagging, undimmed by anything life throws its away; it doesn’t lessen from person to person, it shows no partiality to one man while denying its affection to another, but this love embraces every man alike with no distinction.
This is what God’s law demands of people. It requires love. Now, what man, whether Christian or pagan, who sincerely loves his wife, family, and friends, constantly asks himself what is the very least he can do to help and support the people he loves? Such an attitude does not grow from love. People only ask themselves what’s the least they can do for someone who needs their help when they don’t love him, don’t enjoy his company, but are obligated or forced to help. They figure out the least they can do to fulfill the obligation and they leave it at that.
But no honest person would call that love. Even unbelievers have the sense that love isn’t grudging, that love never seeks a way out but always seeks a way to serve. God’s eternal will is that all men love their Creator and love their brother. This is because God is in Himself love, and He created His creatures to be loving, not hateful, beings.
God’s desire is not for outward obedience any more than a father is content to let his children obey sullenly when forced. A father may be content with such superficial obedience for a time. Sometimes outward obedience is necessary when work needs to get done around the house, and you don’t care that your child pouts and cries while he sweeps the floor so long as he does it. But no father wants to see his children grow up to be selfish monsters who only help under compulsion. He wants to see them grow into cheerful people who gladly help not just people who are nice to them but anyone in need.
In the same way, God’s eternal desire that He has revealed in the law of Moses and has also inscribed on every human heart is sincere, willing obedience, an obedience stemming from the firm conviction of the heart that a fellow man’s needs are greater than his own and that his fellow man ought to be served in any and every situation, in any and every way possible, for the glory of God.
That is why Jesus tells us that these commandments cannot be diminished among us. They cannot be downplayed. You cannot find a way out of keeping the law, although people, like the scribes and pharisees long ago, often try. If you suppose you’ve found a way out of your calling to love and help and serve your neighbor, then your motives are selfish and contradict the law’s very essence – to love.
But if such love is the true requirement of the law, then who can measure up to it? Most of us probably have obtained a righteousness like the Pharisees. Before men we may look like outstanding people. But it’s the condition of our sinful hearts which we can hide from men that is suspect before God.
We may not be murderers, but who among us has loved his neighbor as he ought? Who shows mercy and care impartially? If you are judged by God’s law, and not by your own prideful and foolish understanding, then you will find a law that condemns not just actions you did or didn’t do, but a law that condemns your very heart itself, a law that judges you lacking in true righteousness.
Jesus tells you that not only is killing someone else breaking the commandment, but an angry heart breaks the commandment and places you under judgement. Jesus says very plainly later on in Matthew’s Gospel that sin comes right out of a corrupted heart that does not love but lusts and hates and is ruled by selfish desires.
Sin is within us, and its desire is to rule over us. It pollutes everything we do because it comes out of our hearts. Our sinful flesh cannot keep God’s law; it is judged by it and condemned by it. We our carnal, sold under sin, and the penalty of our sinfulness is death. We wither and fade all too quickly under the righteous requirements of the law that will never pass away. We are condemned to pass away with the heavens and the earth, consigned to destruction before the requirement of the eternal righteousness our frail flesh cannot bear.
No flesh will be justified by the law. The law would have to be loosened, its standards relaxed, if we were to obtain the righteousness demanded. But that cannot be. The law reflects the eternal, immutable will of God for man. God’s will does not change. And that’s why Jesus says that He has not come to abolish the law. It can’t be abolished. It can only be fulfilled. And so Jesus fulfilled it.
The law couldn’t make us righteous, for it was weakened by the sin corrupting our flesh. The law doesn’t have the right material to work with in us. It has a weak will enslaved to base desires, not a noble heart. But God sent His Son into the flesh, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law by fulfilling the law, that we might have adoption as sons. Jesus took on our flesh and shared in our humanity so that He could win a perfect righteousness under the law for us. He took our place and gave us all He had to offer.
The eternal Son of the Father descended into the flesh and gave the flesh a perfect righteousness. As both man and God, Jesus possessed a pure heart. His desires never wavered between hate and lust; they never stirred Him to sinful action. His heart carried the burden of His Father’s law willingly. In our sinful corruption, we will to do things contrary to God’s will, but Jesus’ will was to do His Father’s will. Unlike we who are proud, Jesus was humble and delighted to do God’s will, to keep His commandments. And He kept them perfectly. He loved God with all His heart, mind and soul, and He loved His neighbor as Himself.
He did no violence, there was no deceit found in His mouth, He was pure and spotless as a lamb, and, because He loved perfectly and loved His own to the end, Jesus completed the greatest act of love possible: He laid down His life for His friends. He deigned to die as the propitiation for the sins of the whole world. Not only did He keep the law for us, but in the most selfless love He suffered the punishment we deserved for the selfishness of our bitter, envious, angry hearts. His heart sorrowed for our sake, His heart was pierced in place of ours, that ours might rest in His, that He might create new hearts within us, hearts lifted up for cleansing and sprinkled with His own blood.
In baptism, we have put on Christ’s righteousness, for, as our Epistle text says, we were buried with Him through baptism into death (into His atoning death), that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.
St Paul says that when we were baptized, our old sinful man was crucified with Jesus, that our sinful ways would be done away with and our slavery to our sin ended. Not a jot or tittle of the law passes away, but it was all fulfilled for our sake by Jesus who died in our place. We have faith that Jesus’ suffering, death, and resurrection have won a perfect righteousness for us, a righteousness that is imputed to us at our baptism. Our faith takes comfort in St Paul’s words about what our baptism does. Baptism buries us and all our sins with Jesus and raises us up with Him to new life. Jesus’ righteousness is accounted to us. As the prophet Jeremiah says, “The LORD is our Righteousness.”
Jesus destroyed the curse of sin, which is death, by fulfilling the law for us. And as we live in Jesus, as He has gathered us into His church, so we are to consider ourselves dead to sin but alive to God. We live crucified to the world, Christ reigning in us where sin and death once reigned. The Holy Spirit, the Life-giver and Sanctifier, is given us in our baptism, and so now, as we live with Christ, by the power of Christ, enlivened by the Spirit of Christ, we begin to walk by the Spirit, not by the flesh, in holiness, not in sin.
This means that, in Jesus’ Church, the commandments are to be kept. We don’t break them by qualifying how they do or don’t apply to our lives. We are called to keep them from the heart. This we can only begin to do because we have been brought to faith and the Spirit is at work within us. Jesus shows us what this looks like in our text.
We are to love another because Jesus first loved us. Now, the difficult part for us is that, in the church, we don’t get to choose who to be around, we don’t get to choose people who are easy for us to love. Just as Jesus chose you and brought you into His church, so has he brought your neighbor into His church. He loves perfectly, and He laid down His life for people you, in your old, sinful man, are incapable of loving. But He has brought you all together, you all share one altar where you all partake of His body and blood given and shed for your sins.
He calls you to love one another, and He has put people in your life who are here with you today that you may find hard to love. Such people may at times excite your envy and provoke your anger in a way that people you like and want to spend time with do not. This means that quarrels are sure to arise here, when people do things that stoke your anger and loose your tongue. How easy it is then to judge harshly and be insulting. In our sinful natures, we take pleasure in feeling righteously indignant when we think we’ve been wronged by somebody we don’t like, and we convince ourselves that the anger our neighbor prompts in us is somehow justified, and so we feel free to throw insults at them and start fights with them.
Jesus knows that this will happen in His church, and He warns us sharply that we are not to approach His altar asking for His peace if we have quarreled with our brother and not made amends. Instead, He charges us to make peace with our adversary quickly. Jesus dealt with our sins on the cross. Christians must deal with the sins they’ve committed against each other by repenting daily of their sins. They must ask for forgiveness from those they have wronged. And if you have been wronged, you must forgive without a grudge, for Christ has forgiven you.
In Jesus’ Church, you can’t refuse to acknowledge your own sinfulness, and you can’t withhold forgiveness. God resists the proud. If you refuse to repent or you won’t forgive, then your life will be torn apart. As Jesus points out in our text, angry, contentious people eventually face temporal consequences – you’ll spend your life embroiled in disputes like the man in the text, and Jesus says beware lest the one who picks the fight ends up being judged and receiving the punishment. If you are a consistently angry or unforgiving person, not only will life on this earth be full of trouble, but you will face the consequences of eternal punishment in the end. You can’t say you love God and hate your brother. You can’t confess your sins at the beginning of the service, you can’t offer up prayers before the altar and take Holy Communion while refusing to repent or to forgive your brother and actually expect God to forgive you! That’s living in a contradiction, and the forgiveness you receive in church will become meaningless if you harden your heart against God’s word. You will eventually lose your faith.
Now, many people try to avoid humbling themselves before God and their neighbor by changing church membership. They suppose that the different altar with different people around it will be a better place to live out their life. But nothing is further from the truth. People who change their church membership because they can’t bring themselves to love the people at their old church bring their unloving, unforgiving, selfish, sinful old Adam with them to the new church and will only make other people miserable. You can’t escape your sinfulness and other peoples’ sinfulness by fleeing.
You can only deal with it head on through the cross of your Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who loved you and every other sinner and gave Himself up for you and every other sinner, that you and every other sinner might die to sin and live to righteousness. The only way to live in His church is to live in God’s love which is manifested in the cross of Jesus. That means living humbly, knowing that you have been forgiven, and in your humility counting others more significant than yourself and learning to love them and care for them as Jesus loves and cares for you.
When people provoke you to anger, you need to see that your reaction to them is the sin that dwells in you. You are full of sin, not love. It is takes humility to realize that nothing good dwells in you, that you must repent, yes, you must live a life of repentance and crucify the flesh with its sinful desires every day.
But when you see yourself as a sinner, when you see not other people’s flaws but your own sin as the big problem in your life, then you can say with Paul that nothing good dwells within your heart. You can confess that you are chief of sinners. No longer do you say, “Those poor miserable sinners should confess their sins and iniquities,” but, “I a poor miserable sinner confess unto You all my sins and iniquities with which I have ever offended You.” When that confession means something to you, then God’s complete and ungrudging forgiveness on account of Christ’s perfect righteousness is a great comfort to you. If you are humbled by the confession that you are the chief of sinners when you stand before God, then humbling yourself to ask for forgiveness from people you wrong and forgiving those who wrong you becomes possible, and you will learn that asking for and receiving forgiveness becomes the only way you can deal with each other and live in peace.
What Jesus talks about in our text is hard. The full extent of our sinful condition is revealed, and that is humbling – it leaves no room for pride. God’s eternal law condemns our hearts as sinful through and through. But despite this, we do not loose heart, for if our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart. Jesus Christ is the propitiation for our sins, and not ours only, but for the sins of the whole world, even for the sins of those who provoke us. No longer do we live for ourselves, but Christ lives in us. His keeping of the law is counted to us as righteousness, and His death for sin is our death to sin. So, we live forgiven and are eager to forgive. We make peace with one another and grow in love as we are united together in Christ. We make no boast in our flesh, we are not prideful, but our boast and our pride are in the cross of Christ Jesus our LORD, for He alone is our Righteousness.