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“Thought, Word, and Deed”
Matthew 5:20-37


Pastor Kevin Vogts
Holy Cross Lutheran Church
Dakota Dunes, South Dakota
Sixth Sunday After the Epiphany—February 13, 2011

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

During the Epiphany Season this year we have a series of Gospel Readings from Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount, which is beautifully portrayed in the stained-glass window above our altar, that depicts the life of Christ.  The Sermon on the Mount begins with the familiar and inspiring Beatitudes, which we considered in the sermon two weeks ago, on the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.”

Last week, the Gospel Reading for the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany continued with Jesus well-known words about his followers being a salt and light:  “You are the salt of the earth. . . You are the light of the world. . .  let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.”

Today’s Gospel Reading for the Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany is less familiar, and has parts that are hard to understand: “If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.”

In those verses Jesus is speaking in a form of speech called hyperbole, an exaggeration, to emphasize the point that God requires nothing less than perfection.  But, of course, Jesus does not want his followers to literally mutilate ourselves.

On the other hand, it is not just hyperbole when Jesus declares in today’s Gospel Reading that evil thoughts, in and of themselves, are subject to God’s judgment and deserving of damnation: “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. . .  in danger of the fire of hell. . .  You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”

On another occasion the Gospel of John tells us, “Many of his disciples, when they heard this, said, ‘This is a hard saying; who can accept it?’”  Perhaps that is how you feel about this teaching from our Lord, that evil thoughts, in and of themselves, are subject to God’s judgment and deserving of damnation.  “This is a hard saying; who can accept it?”

Because, to us it seems odd to punish people for something they only think, but don’t actually do.  Traditionally, our government prosecutes words and deeds, but not thoughts.  The whole idea of “thought police” is something right out of the novel “1984.”  Some people are concerned that recent “hate crimes” legislation is the first step toward trying to outlaw certain thoughts, which seems so contrary to our basic rights and freedoms.

But, actually, the concept of “thought police,” punishing people on the basis only of what they think, is entirely Scriptural:  “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. . .  in danger of the fire of hell. . .  You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”

The problem is not punishing people on the basis of their thoughts alone, but who is qualified to make such a judgment.  How is the government supposed determine what you are thinking?  It seems arbitrary and unfair.

But, Paul says in Galatians, “God does not judge by external appearance.”  “You make yourselves look good in the eyes of others,” Jesus says, “but God knows your hearts.”

God’s complete knowledge of us, not only of our words and deeds, but also of our thoughts, is a theme running throughout Scripture:

Genesis: “The Lord saw how great man’s wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time.  And the Lord was grieved.”

1st Kings: “[O Lord] deal with each man according to all he does, since you know his heart, for you alone know the hearts of all men.”

1st Chronicles: “For the Lord searches every heart and understands every plan and thought.”

Psalm 44: “God knows the secrets of the heart.”

Psalm 90: “You have set our iniquities before you, our secret sins in the light of your presence.”

Acts: “God knows the human heart.”

Romans: “God searches the heart.”

Hebrews: “Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight.  Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.”

Revelation, “I am he who searches hearts and minds, and I will repay each of you according to your deeds.”

This is why we confessed to God at the beginning of our service today, “We have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed . . .  we justly deserve your present and eternal punishment.”

It is true that in this world there are gradations of sins, according to what we call “civil righteousness.”  If you actually murder someone, the consequences in this world will be much worse than harboring hatred for them in your heart but not actually hurting them.  But, Jesus is God, and he is therefore speaking from God’s perspective when he says, “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. . .  in danger of the fire of hell. . . ”

Because, although there are gradations of sins in this world, according to what we call “civil righteousness,” from God’s perspective, as far as eternal righteousness and salvation is concerned, all sins are equal.  For getting into heaven, hatred in the heart is equal to murder.  Because getting into heaven requires nothing less than complete perfection.

That’s what Jesus means when he says, “For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.  You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. . .  in danger of the fire of hell. . .  You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”

But, who can do that?  Who can go through life without ever being angry, without ever having a lustful thought?  Absolute perfection is impossible for us!  And, that is the point.  None of us is worthy of heaven.  That is why God sent his Son to be your Savior.  Jesus put it this way, “The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Our stained-glass window also depicts how Jesus gave his life as a ransom for you, to pay for your sins, and earn for you eternal life.  As Hebrews says, “He has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself. . . we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.”

Paul says in Romans, “Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God. . .  Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”  As Paul says, in view of God’s mercy, because of his gift of forgiveness to you in his Son, you will strive in response to serve him and please him with your whole life and being.  You will strive to serve him and please him, not only with your words and deeds, but also in your thoughts.  As Paul says in Ephesians, “Put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires, and be renewed in the attitude of your minds.”

There is also a very practical reason, for your own good in this world, why your loving heavenly Father forbids even sinful thoughts.  It is a lie of Satan that sinful thoughts are harmless, as long as you don’t actually do anything about it.

James says, “Each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed.  Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.” God forbids sinful thoughts because they build within us and eventually lead to sinful words and deeds, hurtful to ourselves and others.

Probably the most difficult thing a pastor does is visit people in prison.  I never fully understood the meaning of the verse in Psalm 51, “a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise,” until the first time years ago I visited someone in prison and encountered a truly “broken” individual.  The people that I have visited in prison over the years all once had a comfortable middle-class life like you and me, but, because of their crimes, their lives were shattered, and in some cases everything was lost: home, job, family.  But, think about this: In every case, the path that led them to that point always all started with “just” a thought.  “Each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed.  Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.”

That is why God forbids even sinful thoughts, and puts them on a par with words and deeds.  There’s an old saying that if the salesman can just get his “foot in the door” he’s got you trapped.  That’s what Satan is trying to do with you: If he can just get you to think that sinful thoughts are no big deal, so that you don’t struggle against them, but instead entertain them and let them stay lodged in your mind, then he’s got his Satanic foot in the door of your life.

In contrast, Paul tells the young man Timothy, in a passage that applies to us all no matter what our age, “Flee the evil desires of youth, and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord out of a pure heart.”

“We have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed . . .  we justly deserve your present and eternal punishment.  For the sake of your Son, Jesus Christ, have mercy on us. Forgive us, renew us, and lead us, so that we may delight in your will and walk in your ways to the glory of your holy name. Amen.”

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