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A Matter of the Heart

February 13th 2011 by Joel Schultz

To those who would seek to be righteous by their outward deeds, Jesus raises the bar of God's commandments, so that we recognize that we are sinful and in need of a Savior.

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Epiphany 6A – “A Matter of the Heart” –

Matthew 5:21-37 – February 13, 2011 Well, tomorrow is Valentine’s Day – a day devoted to matters of the heart. Gentlemen, have you prepared anything special for you wife, fiancé, girlfriend? …. (As your pastor, I recommend you have only one of those!)…... Maybe some flowers, candy, a Valentine cards, gifts, or a romantic dinner out? These things are all meant to profess what is in one’s heart toward another person – to show love, honor, and commitment.

Our relationship with God is very much a matter of the heart also—not the romantic valentine heart, but the spiritual heart that makes you His or not His. Again, for the third of five straight Sundays this Epiphany season, Christ is revealed through His teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. In the Beatitudes, Jesus was revealed as the giver of great blessings. Last week, Jesus was revealed as the One who fulfilled the Law in our place. This week the focus is on a proper, spiritual understanding of God’s Commandments. Jesus is opening up the true meaning of the Law, against those who distort it.

In our text today, Jesus is responding to people who felt a right relationship with God was a matter of etiquette or rules or behavior, outward things. He teaches us instead that true righteousness is in the heart. And we heard last Sunday that Christ demands a pure heart. The Pharisees and teachers of the Law were commonly regarded as examples of righteousness. They believed that God should be fully satisfied with their personal righteousness and that their place in the Kingdom of God was secure.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus was addressing a culture that based its view of righteousness on outward actions—much as ours does. So to make it easy to outwardly follow God’s commands and be outwardly righteous, the Pharisees and teachers of the Law reduced the law to a list of dos and don’ts that could be kept and thus make one righteous before God.

But Jesus said, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (5:20). If you want to use the system of the Pharisees to be righteous before God then you must out do them by keeping the Law perfectly. And in our text today, Jesus shows that the commandments are not kept simply through outward actions but rather in the heart.

To help His hearer understand the difference, Jesus uses the example of 3 commandments – the 5th: You shall not murder, the 6th: You shall not commit adultery, and the 8th: You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.

According to the Pharisees, they could keep the 5th commandment simply by refraining from committing the outward act of murder. But Jesus says the heart of the commandment is what’s in the heart. The commandment is broken by one’s words and thoughts. None of us/ most of us have ever killed anyone, but how perfectly do we love? How easily do we become selfishly angry, do we insult, do we hold grudges? These are just as sinful as taking a life. It’s a matter of the heart.

According to the Pharisees, they could keep the 6th Commandment simply by refraining from the act of adultery and if you want to divorce, by doing it legally. But, again, Jesus says the heart of the commandment is what’s in the heart. It’s not just affairs, but affairs of the heart that are sinful—wandering eyes, lustful thoughts, sexual desires, and divorce. These are just as sinful as open acts of adultery, because they’re examples of not loving our spouses from the heart. God’s will is that His people exhibit sexual purity in inner thought as well as outward deed.

Finally, the 8th Commandment…. The Pharisees had developed an elaborate code determining that some oaths you really had to keep, while others you could let slide. Their purpose was to give a way to avoid telling the whole truth, to avoid being bound by their word, and to allow deceit. All the time giving a solemn outward appearance while lying in the heart. Again, Jesus says the heart of the commandment is what’s in the heart. Any lie is sinful, whether it’s given the pretense of an oath or not. Taking an oath can’t make a deceiving heart pure. Deceiving hearts – that is what Jesus is saying we have. How easily do we speak falsely or lie? About situations or other people?

We must be more righteous than just an outward keeping of the Law. True righteousness must be in the heart. When the heart is pure, it will never produce selfish anger, insults, grudges, lust, divorce, lies. How well have we done with that? If we are honest, lousy!—because our hearts are not pure!

My guess is that it did not seem fair to the people listening to Jesus, and it may not seem fair to us either. We can keep from killing or having affairs – those big sins Josh mentioned in last weeks message – but we can’t always control all those little sins that pop out of the heart like the ones Jesus gives as examples in today’s text.

The heart always slips—generates selfish thoughts, lets our tempers snap or words slip out. And, hey, our eyes are open—temptation just jumps in! Surely we can’t be responsible for that. Well, Jesus says we are responsible.

“If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell” (v 29–30).

Jesus isn’t saying we should literally blind or maim ourselves. He’s saying, “Stop making excuses!” It’s not eyes or hands that make you sin. It’s the heart that causes sin. To be righteous, the heart has to be repaired. Even the smallest sin proves our hearts aren’t pure, and Jesus demands a pure heart.

The physical heart is perhaps the most valuable organ in the body. One of the things I seem to vist people in the hospital for most is heart trouble. In fact, one of our members, Rod Kelleher is in the hospital with some heart troubles. What I find amazing is how much medical technology can do to fix troubled hearts. In fact if the heart is bad enough a person can even get a new heart.

The bad news Jesus points out in today’s text is that we have troubled hearts. But the good news is that Christ gives us new hearts – pure hearts. They are hearts cleansed by His blood as John proclaims: “The blood of Jesus [God’s] Son cleanses us from all sin” (1Jn 1:7). The blood of Jesus, shed on the cross purifies every heart. The blood of Christ flowing through the spiritual heart makes it righteous – that gives us a right standing before God.

It’s the same blood we receive in Holy Communion as Jesus comes to us with His true body and blood for our forgiveness. It is through the blood of Jesus that our sins are washed away—big outward ones and small ones in the heart—they are all washed away. Jesus’ blood has paid for every murder and every harsh, angry word, every insult and held grudge, every affair and every divorce, every look that was a little too long and every lustful thought, every perjury and every promise we broke. Christ’s blood gives us righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees because He forgives our sins, makes our hearts clean and declares us to be righteous in God’s sight.

But God does not leave the heart simply cleansed. Jesus sends the Holy Spirit to transform our hearts. David prayed, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me” (Ps 51:10). When we believe in Jesus, a radical change occurs: the Holy Spirit creates a new heart, a new spirit in us. And the new heart really is righteous and pure, even though it’s living alongside what remains of our old sinful one.

The same Spirit then enables our new hearts to produce pure actions. The sinful nature continues to sin. But the new heart does love my neighbor, honors my spouse, treats others with honesty and integrity. And this righteousness comes from the heart. Everything the new heart produces is from faith in Christ. That is the one pure motivation. That motivation makes the simplest act more righteous than all the external righteousness of the Pharisees.

To be sure we will still struggle with heart trouble in this life and that is why we need a Savior – everyday – so that we might confess our sins, receive forgiveness which daily cleanses our hearts, and then receive the strength to gladly do what God commands.

Our righteousness before God is always a matter of the heart. And by his blood and his Spirit, Christ has resolved that matter—in our hearts.


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