Odd, isn’t it, that the giving of the Ten Commandments should be our first reading this week, when the Supreme Court issued a decision that has much of the nation talking about them! But I suspect that our God isn’t too interested in whether statuary with the Ten
Commandments or paper copies are allowed in front of or inside our court buildings and other public places. What He’s concerned about is whether these commandments actually describe our hearts, our words, our actions.
That’s what Jesus was driving at in today’s Gospel when He said that our righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees. They were big on the Ten Commandments. One might almost say that they majored in them -- and not just the Ten Commandments, but ALL
the commands contained in the Books of Moses. But they didn’t understand the Commandments the way God intended: they never moved from the letter of the law to the spirit of the law.
Our Lord shows us in today’s Gospel that it simply is not enough to know what the Ten Commandments are (though, I’d not be surprised if many of those who are outraged at our Supreme Court could actually say the Commandments!). And it is not enough to keep them
externally, so that you could say: “Well, I’ve never killed anyone, have I?” Jesus drives deeper: Anger in the heart is a kind of killing. Unkind words on the lips are a kind of killing.
Think about our Lord’s arrest. The Pharisees and company did not stop the injustice being perpetrated against Him. They actually added and abetted it. Their hearts were filled with anger over the things He had said, words of truth that exposed the barrenness of
their inner life. So, they were glad when He was sentenced to death, and yet to “keep the Law” and be able to eat the Passover purely, they wouldn’t even step inside the Praetorium where He was condemned. You see, that would make them “unclean!” And yet they’d
say that they never killed. It was after all the Romans who flogged and then executed Him.
Do you see how the Lord’s words just cut through their show, their pretenses? Just like they cut through ours. For how often do we justify anger? How often do we justify the words we say that cut and wound and leave others bleeding inside? Jesus serves us notice that
even if no one else sees this murder, God sees. And He tells us that we need a better righteousness than that.
But where are we to get such a righteousness? Where are we to get a heart that is so filled with love, so bent on reconciliation, that we will not insult those who insult us, but return blessing upon them? Where are we to get a heart to loving that instead of rejoicing at
the misfortunes of those who treat us poorly, we grieve for them? Where are we to get a heart that endures all manner of unjust and cruel treatment without becoming embittered and hard? A heart that goes on loving - no matter what?
Where but from Jesus? For is it not His heart that I have just described? And how He imparts that heart to us, St. Paul told us in our Second reading today. Listen again: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ were baptized into His death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death in order that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life...We know that our old self was crucified with Him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin.... So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus!”
Which is all to say that Baptism is about exchanging one heart for another. The old self is the way St. Paul describes the heart that seeks revenge and that in anger guards its own rights and judges and condemns others. That’s the self that was nailed to the Cross with Jesus so that it could die there once and for all! Then the new self is the very heart of Jesus Christ Himself: the heart that renounces revenge and anger and judgment, and instead seeks to bless and love and forgive. That’s the heart, that God created in you when He joined you to Jesus in your Baptism.
Now, the job is to live in that Baptism! Luther was right that it’s a life-long task. For that old self continually tries to resurrect himself and get control of you, and drag you back into his old, bitter and angry ways. He tries to convince you that he’s not dead and gone, but alive and well. Your great task as Christians is to believe what the Apostle declares about him: that he’s nailed to the tree with Jesus and that the new life, the new heart of Jesus, is
what guides and governs your thoughts, your words, and your actions - the exceeding righteousness that is Jesus Himself!
Our Lord knows how we weary in this battle; how easy it is for us to just give up and go back to the old ways He died to deliver us from. And so in His great compassion, He provides us not only Baptism, but also other precious remedies. He gives us the gift of His Supper to
strengthen us with His own divine might! What power there is in the Body and Blood that overcame sin, death and the devil! And He gives that to us to be our very life in the Holy Eucharist.
And for the times when we feel our failure most keenly, when we cry out in agony over falling into sin and letting the old self get the upper hand and lead us into unkind words and thoughts and deeds, He provides the priceless gift of Absolution. He sends to you a called
and ordained servant to speak the Word that destroys the power of Your sin, the word of forgiveness that wipes it out. For this is the secret of the Christian life: there is no sin more powerful than the Savior’s forgiveness! Nothing breaks the power of sin in our lives like confessing it to Christ and letting Him speak a personal word of pardon over it - that not only wipes away the guilt of sin but it cripples sin’s power in our lives!
So putting up the Ten Commandments in public places, my friends, will never achieve the kind of righteousness God is after. He wants them not to be outside us, but inside us! He wills them to describe our innermost thoughts, all our words, and all our deeds. And now you know how this possible!
May Christ our Savior grant us to live in our Baptism every day of our lives that by His grace through Holy Absolution and the most blessed Eucharist we may attain to His glorious kingdom.