Counsel or Commandment?

Epiphany 6 Sunday

Matthew 5:21

“You have heard that it was said to those of old, “You shall not kill, but he who kills will be liable of judgment.”

Here Christ now takes up some of the Ten Commandments to explain them correctly and shows how they, the Pharisees and scribes, taught and interpreted their meaning to reach no further than the bare words read, namely, concerning outward works. First, in the Fifth Commandment, they looked no farther than the word “kill,” saying that it means to kill someone with one’s hands, as if nothing else were prohibited here…This is also how the holiness of our papists is like who have thoroughly mastered this chapter. And lest their holiness be rebuked and lest they be bound by Christ, they nicely helped out Christ by drawing out of Christ’s teaching here twelve evangelical counsels, claiming that Christ did not command these things as necessary but left it up to everybody’s own choice, that it would be a good advice for those who wanted to earn something above and beyond everybody else; that it was a teaching beyond what was required, a teaching one may well do without. But if you wonder why they refashioned Christ’s commandments into such counsels or how they prove it, they say: “Look, if one were to take Christ at his word, it would be too burdensome for Christendom”…Indeed, what a fine reason and great burden that a Christian should be kind to his neighbor and not leave him stuck in his need, as he would want that neighbor do for him. And because they think it is too difficult, it must mean that it is not commanded but is left to everyone’s choice to do it. But those who do not want to, or are unable to, do it, should not be burdened by it. This is how Christ is to be taught a lesson and how his Word is changed into something that we like. But Christ will not be deceived in this way. He also will not change his judgment that he set forth previously: If you do not have a better righteousness, heaven will be closed to you and you are condemned so that even, as he says later, someone who says to his brother, “You fool,” is liable of hellish fire. From this you can tell whether Christ meant this as a counsel or commandment…It is true, it does say, “You shall not kill,”…but do you think that Moses only speaks of the hand…? What does “you” mean? Not only your hand, foot, tongue, or any other individual member, but everything you are in body and soul. It is just as if I told someone: “You should not do this,” I do not talk to the hand, but to the entire person. In fact, even if I said,“Your hand should not do this,” I do not mean the hand by itself, but the entire human being whose hand it is. For the hand would not do anything by itself if the whole body with all its members did not do its part. This is why “You shall not kill” means: However many members you have, however many ways you find to kill–whether it is by hand, tongue, heart, or signs and gestures, looking angrily, begrudging life with the eyes or ears when you do not like to hear people talk well of your neighbor–all this means to “kill.” For there the heart and everything about you is minded as if he is dead already. And even if the hand holds still, the tongue is silent, eyes and ears keep to themselves, the heart is already full of murder and killing.

St. Louis ed., 7:428-432.

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