There’s no point dancing around it: these are hard words from Jesus. They sound like “Law,” a rather tough category. I said last week, usually if Christians are in the news talking about God’s Law, they’re bullying someone with the Law, usually someone dark, gay, or female. So, we don’t like the Law. And we Lutherans are programed to know the Law cannot justify you; only the Gospel can. The thing is, the Law is good news to someone. If you are someone who has had promises broken, a command from Jesus, not to swear in any way that you could weasel out of the promise, is vindication. If you’ve been sexually harassed or sexually assaulted, a command from Jesus, that if a man cannot control himself around women it’s the man’s fault, is vindication. If you are someone who’s been a target of anger and slander for no good reason, a command from Jesus, saying that those slandering you are liable to judgment, is vindication. Our relationship with the Law is more complicated than we usually make it sound.
We Lutherans have often oversimplified the Law and Gospel dynamic. Law is bad, Gospel is good. Law is Old Testament, Gospel is New Testament. We Lutherans know the passages, variations on, “We hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” And Paul is 100% correct when he writes this, and Luther is 100% correct when he throws this in the faces of the imperial theologians. What sometimes happens is that we assume the law therefore has no function, has been superseded, etc. But it was precisely this assumption that the reformers attacked.
For the reformers, for a lot of medieval theologians, and for us here today, Law and Gospel. The law has two functions. The restrains us from AND by the power of the holy spirit convicts us of sin, it exposes that we’re messed up. Duly convicted, we (again, by the power of the Holy Spirit) turn to Christ. The guy seems to have an in, being God and all. The Holy Spirit makes Christ our righteousness. Christ replaces our mess with his being a proper human being who is also God. The sin still happened. The scars are still there. But the sin is dead on a cross, and Christ is alive in us. That’s the most basic Lutheran belief in brief.
When push came to shove and the German emperor demanded the Lutherans explain themselves in 1530, they did. The imperial theologians shot back that works were indispensable. This sounds familiar to Lutherans and probably most protestants. The head of the Lutheran delegation, Philip Melanchthon, responded, “You guys don’t seem to understand what we’re talking about.” The main theological function of the law is to convict us of sin, or, in my terms, show us how messed up we are. But you guys have turned it into a bunch of things we can do to impress God. Without the Holy Spirit using the Law to name and convict sin, none of it works. We don’t think there’s anything messed up (even though everything is messed up), and we don’t really care if Christ does anything. The fact that 469 years later Lutherans and Roman Catholics admitted they agreed all along on justification shows Melanchthon was right: you guys aren’t listening. Well, it’s important we listen today. Today’s gospel texts give good illustrations.
I think this is clearest in what’s maybe the hardest one for us to hear: divorce and remarriage is adultery. Divorce law in Jesus’ day is androcentric. Marriage only ends if the husband wants that. The Law provides some protection for women, but it favors the guy. The Law also allows remarriage. So, what is Jesus doing claiming remarriage is adultery? He is forcing us to acknowledge the pain of a divorce. The marriage and its dissolution are real. Divorce is not weaseling out of things as though those years of life did not happen. Damage is done. Wounds run deep. Scars last forever. We cannot faithfully pretend everything is all right. The divorce may be the best thing we ever did; it’s still messed up. We still need God. And especially in a world like Jesus’, where divorce is entirely at the man’s whim and can be—I kid you not—because wifey cooked something he didn’t like, it would be easy for a man with a divorce to think he got out of something scot free, no consequences, moreover he’s awesome for getting out of this mess on his own.
That is lack of Law, absence of Law. Not only no concern for the other, but no concept that something was wrong. There can be no gospel for this man because he does not think anything is messed up, he does not think he needs God. Marriage law is different for us today, but divorce is still a mess. We try to pretend everything is fine. No, it’s not. It really hurts. And we cannot even begin to know the goodness of God in all of it if we keep pretending everything is fine.
Jesus is doing this with all the commandments he mentions. He is saying, No, everything is not fine. Jesus says if you even look at a woman with lust you’ve committed adultery. Women were property of men. Rape, assault, harassment, were shameful, but women bore the shame. Guys could usually buy their way out of trouble. Jesus is unusual, but not alone, in saying, “Hey, dude, this is your fault. Not hers.” You can hear it. I just cannot control myself when I see an attractive woman. Then don’t look. I cannot help myself. Oh, well, then, let’s gouge out your eyes. This is your problem, not theirs. Again, the man is pretending nothing is wrong. There are no consequences. He’s hurting a woman and he is not going to know the goodness of God because he is pretending this is fine.
Jesus says if you publicly insult someone you as good as kill them. The point of the commandment “do not kill” is to uphold life. Public insult, slander, relentless anger: these things mess up life. Jesus depicts a scenario when the insulted has had enough and is dragging you to court. You’ve been pretending everything is okay, but man when the Sanhedrin declares you guilty, that’s final. Jesus says just say yes or no, don’t swear on anything. Swearing on something always gives you a way to slither out. “You swore on your grandmother’s ashes.” Yes, but I meant my other grandma, who wasn’t cremated, so, technically, it’s not binding. And the point is we do things like this all the time. We try to pretend everything is great. And it’s not.
One way or another we need Jesus Christ all the time. Because problems like the ones Jesus mentions in the Sermon on the Mount are rooted in us not letting God be God. We think we are God, or we think that there is no God, or we think that there’s no need for God unless things get dreadful. That produces “works righteousness” in those who care to look righteous in the eyes of others or of God. The Law cannot justify us. It convicts us. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus reminds us—in words hard to hear—that Sin is there, and that the Law functions to name it. To name it precisely so we can let God be God.
This past week there was news about blasting done in Arizona to make way for the Wall. Blasting included a sacred burial ground for the Tohono O’Odham Nation, a Native American nation. It reminded me of a conversation my first day as a pastor. We met this guy, friend of a member, who got talking and revealed one of his parents was Native American. As he talked, he got angry. Not at us for being white or for asking. Just, you could tell there was a wound. And I remember he said, “Do you know which treaties the US broke with the Indians? Every single one.” And I freely admit I don’t think of this much. It’s not as prevalent an issue to me as the way blacks have been and still are treated in Valparaiso, or the way immigrants are treated, or the way our community pretends everything’s cool with the LGBT but we might have to spray paint your house. But I live in a state called “Indiana” where there are no Indian reservations. Every time we have sworn to the Indians, “This is it,” it has not been. We can pretend it’s okay, but it’s messed up.
The way forward is neither to pretend everything is okay, nor to pander a little a mollify whoever finds that mollifying. The Holy Spirit is offering Christ’s righteousness. And that’s as good as it gets. Christ gets the whole I’m human, you’re God thing. No one else gets it. He does. He is perfectly human. And, just for good measure, he’s entirely God. You want good standing with God, can’t beat God’s own standing with God. The first step toward that is acknowledging, “We need that. We’re messed up.” In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus reminds us—in words hard to hear—that Sin is there, and that the Law functions to name it precisely so we can let God be our God.