Tuesday, February 18, 2014
Jesus adds insult to injury to righteousness from the law. . .
We have been making our way through Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount from Matthew’s Gospel. Last week we ended with Jesus insisting that unless our righteousness exceeded the scribes and the Pharisees (professional do-gooders) we cannot enter the Kingdom. Judging from the outside of their lives, these were the best of the best and Jesus insists that this is the bare minimum righteousness necessary to earn God’s approval. Now Jesus goes one step further and insists that not only external righteousness but the purity of heart and thought is required. Jesus adds insult to injury to a people who found external righteousness hard enough.
Phaedress, a first century author, came up with the expression “insult to injury” in a fable about a man who swatted a fly only to hit himself in the head. Insult to injury is exactly what Jesus does. Though we make mountains out of molehills and cause ourselves big problems for no reason, Jesus cuts to the core of it all. Though we dismiss real mountains, fail to act, and then cry out when we must suffer the consequences, Jesus warns us with blunt words.
The truth is we are always making big things little and little things big. But Jesus refuses to let repentance be about behavior and insists a new heart is required. The Law is not satisfied by trying a little harder to be holy and neither is the Law simply about external behavior. Today, before the backdrop of this unchanging standard of the Law, Jesus frames His whole redemptive work.
We waste our time being more concerned about hurt feelings or bruised egos instead of the sin which kills. Offense has come to mean hurt feelings instead of the stumbling that causes death. It is too easy to be concerned about our comfort level more than our salvation. But not Jesus. Our Lord loves us enough to speak to us words we would rather not hear and to address us with a call to repentance that means total rebirth.
We are subject to judgment. Not only our deeds but also the hidden thoughts of the mind and desires of the heart are under our Lord's scrutiny. God is not content to survey the external of our lives; even our motives and hearts are searched. How easy it is to make faith about surface issues instead of what is underneath it all. Here Jesus contrasts the distorted righteousness of behavior alone with the internal righteousness God requires of the heart and mind.
You say this... says the Lord. But I say... With these words Jesus refuses to let us hide behind out patent excuses, our hurt feelings, and our bruised egos. The stakes are too high. It is about life and death. Sin is the issue. Not whether you are happy or comfortable or fulfilled or have all you desire. Repentance is not about trying harder but the acknowledgment of sin that has you dead in your trespasses and no amount of redecorating can fix what this sin has done.
Death is the consequence of sin. Not an unhappy or an unfulfilled life. Not whether or not life is easy or fair. Our lives are hollow and empty not because we are not happy but because death waits for us and we cannot do anything about it. Jesus is blunt. There is no refuge in your external works or in the intention of your heart. You have no righteousness to wear in the closet of your thoughts, words, and deeds. That is the insult to injury in Jesus’ words.
But Jesus is not here to threaten. He frames His whole purpose against the dead end path of the Law and its inability to produce righteousness in us. We need something more. We need what only Christ can give. We need to the blood that cleanses us from sin, the death that gives life, and the life that death cannot overcome. We need the new clothing of Christ’s righteousness and the promise of grace on which to hang our hopes of redemption.
If you were dying, would you want to know it? There may be some of us who prefer not to know, living the lie that everything will be okay. Most of us would want to know, would want the chance to live a different life. Jesus confronts us with the dead end of the Law in order to point us to the way of life that He has come to bestow. Choose life, says the Old Testament lesson. The Spirit opens our eyes to the dead end of works so that He might awaken in us the faith to trust and see in Christ the one and only path of life.
Jesus tells us the straight up truth. You cannot go on living as if nothing was wrong and everything was okay. This is the full force of the Law with all its bite. But unless you hear this, the Gospel means nothing. Only the dying seek life, only the sick need healing, and only the lost pray for redemption. That is what frames our Lord's call to repent – His love for us. This is why He refuses to let us live the comfortable lie that everything will be okay.
Appearances do not count. Sin counts. Death counts. Yet these are not the only things that count. Jesus counts. His life given in death for us is stronger than sin and its claim of death. Jesus has healing for those cut to the quick before the Lord. Jesus has forgiveness for the guilty. Jesus has life for those caught in sin's death. The only way we can take seriously what Christ has done, is to take seriously where we stand before the Law. If repentance is born of fear alone, it is a dead end. But if repentance is born of faith in Christ, confidence in the mercy of God, by the death that gives us life and the life that gives us heaven, then Spirit will bring forth the fruit of repentance in our lives.
Brothers and sisters, the sad truth is that too much of what passes for Christian preaching and teaching merely redecorates the outside of a person’s life. We do not need empty words and pious platitudes about trying harder. We need radical grace. We need redemption for us lost and dying sinners. We need a righteousness worth wearing from Christ. We need the work of the Spirit to amend our sinful lives and keep us steadfast in this hope.
Every time you look into the mirror of the commandments, you see staring back at you the dead end of works and earned salvation. But that very same mirror points you to the wounds of Christ wherein we see healing, forgiveness, and life. This is what we see in baptism, what feeds and nourishes us at the Holy Communion, and what forgives and restores us sinners from our sins.
Some see repentance as that once in a lifetime transformation of conversion. Our Lord refuses to let us forget what we see in the mirror of the Law and so shapes our lives by a daily confession and repentance in which we kept from the empty promise of our works and sustained in the grace of Christ where redemption alone is found. Without the Lord we are the walking dead. But it does not end there. In Christ we have been forgiven, we have been made alive, and we have been set apart as the people of His promise to show forth the glory of His mercy in the world.
Hurt feelings and bruised egos must be cast aside because the stakes of it all are far too high. Thanks be to God that Jesus confronts us with the emptiness of a hope built upon works. Let us with the same love speak truthfully to those still in the shadows of sin and in the darkness of death. The real insult to injury would be to know the truth and refuse to speak it, to know what is life in Christ, and not proclaim it. Sure, some words are hard to hear. But unless we hear the hard truth about the failure of an external righteousness to save, we cannot appreciate the full measure of the gift that Christ gives us in His own righteousness, clothed in us by baptism and lived by faith.
May God give us ears to hear! Amen.