Sometimes the Sermon on the Mount, along with many of Jesus’ commandments, is difficult for Lutheran Christians to reconcile with our theology of salvation. If salvation is by grace alone through faith, why would Jesus have to tell people to do certain things and not do other things to avoid fiery punishment?
The theological treatises on this topic are multiple and lengthy—far beyond my 750ish words per week here. I will make a short argument that there is a classic both/and Lutheran paradox operating here. We are simultaneously 1) completely justified saints, saved from the powers of sin and death by Jesus’ atoning death and resurrection, and 2) sinners in constant need of repentance from our participation in evil, in need of being born again daily. This week’s Scripture readings play out this both/and dynamic.
In a favorite passage from Deuteronomy, Moses gives closing instructions to the Israelites on the cusp of their entry into the promised land. Like any good parent, God-through-Moses outlines behaviors and consequences. If you make good choices and do these things, it will go well for you and for your children; if you make bad choices and do these things, it will go very badly for you and for your children. Therefore, Moses instructs the people to observe God’s call to righteous deeds, to customs and to justice (my translation of mitzvah, chok and mishpat, respectively). He calls on the people to love God with all their heart and walk in God’s ways. But Moses also knows that the people might experience a change of heart and turn from God (spoiler alert: they/we do). God knows this, too, and provides help.
A few verses earlier, God-through-Moses promises to circumcise the hearts of the Israelites and their children, using language that will be repeated in Jeremiah 4:4 and Romans 2:29. God knows that humans can’t love God or neighbor without help. Therefore, God will perform a sort of spiritual surgery to empower the Beloved Community to love God and each other. After God promises to circumcise hearts, however, God reminds the people that obedience is no longer to be regarded as impossible. “This commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. … No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe” (Deuteronomy 30:11, 14). This is a both/and situation—God graciously intervenes and empowers, and God expects loving obedience, walking in the paths that God sets out.
If salvation is by grace alone through faith, why would Jesus have to tell people to do certain things and not do other things to avoid fiery punishment?
Turning to the Gospel, Jesus intensifies several laws from Sinai, reminding his followers that they were not to try to skate by on the bare minimum of righteousness. Instead, his people must excel in avoiding sin because of their love for God and neighbor and inclusion as citizens in God’s kingdom.
Jesus says everyone knows that they shouldn’t kill people, but anyone who insults the humanity and competence of a fellow is liable for judgment and could be tossed into a fiery valley (Matthew 5:21-22). Jesus says everyone knows not to commit adultery, but anyone who lusts after another is in danger of judgment and should take drastic action to avoid acting illicitly on their lust (27-30). He says everyone knows that men who divorce their wives must fully emancipate them legally, but anyone who summarily divorces his wife without cause suborns adultery (31-32). Jesus says everyone knows they shouldn’t make misleading promises, but anyone who needs assuring words to convince others is not a person of integrity (33-37).
Why does Jesus say all this about punishment and intensification of laws? As Nancy Nyland, director for evangelical mission with the Indiana-Kentucky Synod, always asks: “Where is the grace here?”
The grace comes from a section that we often skip over in this passage. Jesus insists that if someone is going to present an offering at the temple and remembers that a human might be angry with them, they should first go and settle things with the human (23-26). Only after that has been settled, should the person come back and interact with God.
What Jesus is saying here is the both/and that we have talked about. God, who is gracious and ready to forgive, will happily wait for humans to be reconciled before receiving an offering. At the very same time, humans need to excel at righteous treatment of one another or risk the consequences. God regards us as saints, even while we sinners still need to repent and make reparations to those whom we have harmed. God’s grace extends to us all, and God’s desire for justice follows close at hand.