The Finger of God Portrays Hearts
Even if you don't know the name of this painting you've heard it scream. It's "The Scream" painted by expressionist painter Edvard Munch. It shows a man holding his head in his hands with mouth and eyes wide open. The use the painter makes of color, lines, and shading express deep emotion. You hear the poor soul screaming. With the 9th and 10th Commandments, the finger of God would portray the depths of our fallen-ness to the point that we scream.
Unfortunately, I'm no painter expressionist or otherwise. People think their hearts are just fine. O their life may be screwed up here or there, but there heart "is in the right place." The most irredeemable life is salvaged by simply saying, "He has a good heart." People may let out a scream of angst, of terror, of mourning when they see the sins of their life, but their hearts? They're big, gentle, soft, etc.
For over 20 years, I puzzled over why when I taught the 9th and 10th Commandments, I wasn't able to portray the horribleness of the fallen heart. Though Jesus says, "Out of the heart proceeds all that defiles man, all the sins of man, all the filth of man," I didn't even hear myself scream when I taught these last two commandments. And that is the purpose of them: to show church going people, the handful that still come to Lenten services, how wretched, fallen, and worthy of The Scream they are. But I failed, and about 3 years ago I realized why.
I'd been painting with the wrong color. "Thou shalt not covet," I taught, and went on to explain that "covet" was any sinful desire. Not just kids but adults were unresponsive. That's because "covet" can be used in a positive way. It's like a cartoon I saw. The pastor is saying to a member, "It's a tricky theological point. You say you covet your neighbor's humility?" I can say, "I covet your shotgun, your 4 wheel drive, your deck, your Cuban cigar," and we will probably both smile. But I wouldn't say and you wouldn't smile if I said, "I lusted" for anything of yours.
I'd painted with the color "covet" because I read Romans 7:7 as modern translations have it: "I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, "Do not covet." One day I realized that whenever I read the Greek I translated "lust." See the change in color? "I wouldn't have known what lusting was if the law had not said, "Do not lust." You don't have a sinful sense attached to the color covet, you do to lust. But this isn't the sexual lust of the 6th, the greedy lust of the 7th, the lust to be free of authority in the 4th, for revenge in the 5th, or the lust to soil your neighbor's reputation in the 8th. The 9th and 10th deal with the fount of all sin, the lustful heart that makes your mouth water; that empty, aching burn for more, better, different than you have. And seeing this you should hold your head in your hands, open your eyes and mouth wide, and scream.
These last 2 Commandments portray what we are at heart. They do for us what the Picture of Dorian Gray did for him. All the nobleman's shameful acts didn't show up in his ever youthful face but on the portrait of himself he kept locked away. Only when he looks at it does he see what he really is. In the 19th century, it was thought proper to lock this sort of baseness away. In this dawning of the 21st century lusting is paraded. No better example is Homer Simpson with his salivating, guttural lusting after food or beer. We're all Homer Simpson's at heart. We laugh at our lusting rather than turn away in disgust as Dorian Gray did. I think he was closer to The Scream than us.
The 9th and 10th portray our drooling, lusting hearts by a double whammy. First the 9th forbids the tiniest "hankering after something." "Thou shalt not lust after thy neighbor's house." Just that one thing more; that small wish, that first step. It says don't even go there. The 10th says, "Thou shalt not cause thyself, help thyself to lust" and then runs off a list of 5 things and culminates with "or anything that belongs to thy neighbor." Our lusts are stacked up in our hearts like so many cans in a supermarket display. When one can goes they all come cascading down, and what do you do when that happens? You scream.
You're not screaming? That's because you don't see what those falling cans are a metaphor for. Paul did in Romans 7. He said, "I would not have known what lusting was if the law had not said, Do not lust.' But sin, using this commandment, produced in me every kind of lust.Sin sprang to life and I died." Here a lust, there a lust, everywhere a lust, lust. That's how the finger of God portrays our hearts and all those lusts produce death. Dying people often scream.
Who screams in our text? Who screams, "My God, my God why have you forsaken Me?" The One who never had a lust in His heart. The spotless Lamb of God. Jesus is a painting of what we should be. See on the cross how He resists lusting after revenge? With a Word He could have smoked His ridiculers. See on the cross how He resists lusting after numbers? All He had to do was come down showing them the Christ they wanted and they would've thronged Him. See on the cross how he resists the lust of family? His mother's heart was breaking. How many people lust for their family to the point they alter their faith?
Jesus knows the mouthwatering, heart palpitating, urging of lust, yet remains firm, and even has proper desires. In the midst of inhuman pain and divine damnation, Jesus looks out for the welfare of His mother. How often we forget the needs of our loved ones when we're suffering even mild or just irritating pain. Not Jesus. He didn't neglect His physical or His spiritual duties. In the last extremes of death, He desires the salvation of a guilty thief whom only hours before had joined in ridiculing Him.
When we see Jesus on the cross, we correctly see Him bearing our sins, but we incorrectly think He suffers as we would. The Father indeed treats Him as guilty of the black stream of lust following out of our hearts, but Jesus suffers fully conscience of being totally innocent. That's why He screams, "My God why have you forsaken Me?" You could never scream that because you know you deserve to be thus forsaken.
Jesus didn't; yet He was. You would die of shame if even one lust of your heart were laid bare before the world. Jesus is nailed naked to the cross to bear that shame. The brutality of your own lusts even bothers you sometime. Jesus suffered the brutality such lusts deserve. And since lusts are about those around you, you deserve to be punished in a public manner. Jesus was.
He was punished before men and God for not just your uncountable lusts but for the lusts of the whole world. Jesus can't put His hands to His face and scream because they are nailed to a cross, but scream He does. And you should hear it, and you should scream too because the finger of God portrays your heart in the 9th and 10th Commandments as hopelessly mired in the lusts that damned Jesus. In Commandments 1-8, you can fool yourself into thinking you can keep them, but in the last two you see you can do nothing but sin. Your heart is squeezed till is screams, "O wretched man that I am who will deliver me from these lusts."
Hear Jesus' scream louder than yours. He screams in a way you'll never have to. Never will God forsake you for the lusts you can't stop multiplying in your heart because He already forsook Jesus for them. There upon the cross extended is the answer to the lusts that seem to master you. Paul makes dealing with lust a math problem. He says simply, "Count yourself dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus." The Greek word "count" is from the realm of math. Lust is not a feeling or a thinking problem; it's a math one.
Count your body as dead to sin as Jesus on the cross. No doubt to the soldiers there that Jesus was really dead. Jesus didn't swoon, didn't fake it. He was stone cold dead. In Romans 6 Paul says by Baptism we were joined to the death of Christ so "that our old self was crucified with Him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin." Not only don't dead men tell no tales; they don't lust either. Put a weight on a dead body and it doesn't feel it. A dead body feels no lust. Count, as in a math problem, yourself dead to lust.
But there's more here than a dead Jesus. The same Jesus that screamed, "My God why have you forsaken Me," also prayed in an equally loud voice, "Father, into Your hands I commit My Spirit." It's a double math problem. Don't just do half the problem. Don't just count yourself dead to lust. Count yourself alive unto God. Your Baptism didn't just join you to the death of Jesus but to His risen life. The risen Jesus was done with sin, death and the devil. He wasn't chased by them, overwhelmed by them, or under them, and neither are you.
This is where we all stumble and fall. We don't count as children do but as adults. You ask a child to count blocks and he or she sets each one aside one at a time not thinking of any one but that one. Adults count one at time till they remember the others they have or haven't counted and so forget. Interestingly you will rarely hear a child scream in frustration when counting blocks, but I've screamed after repeatedly trying to count something.
Because lusts are a constant companion, we end up loosing count. We go back to counting lusts rather than what God tells us to count. We are to count ourselves dead to lust not because we don't feel them or have them but because in Jesus they aren't counted against us. We are to count ourselves alive unto God not because we sense no death-producing lusts in our hearts but because for Jesus' sake God counts us alive. What God counts is what matters. He bids us go by His counting not ours. He counts the scream from Calvary as satisfying His wrath against our lusts and counts that when Jesus entrusted His Spirit to Him ours went to. Even though we can't separate our spirit from our lusts, we are to count that God can for Jesus' sake. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Midweek VI (20080312); 9th & 10th Commandments, 6th Passion Reading