A Fence Everyone Knows


Our Large Catechism emphasizes that God placed the 5th Commandment "and the other commandments as a boundary between good and evil" (I, 183). The 5th is a fence everyone knows. People use fences everyone knows to navigate. You know that rock fence at McKinney Falls? Turn right there. Everyone know where the 5th Commandment warns, protects, and guides. Do they?

The Jews of the NT thought it didn't go around enemies. Jesus says, they had been taught " 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemy'" (Mt. 5:43). They had been taught that what was restricted by this fence was killing done by hand. But Jesus says, "Whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment. And whoever says to his brother, 'Raca!' shall be in danger of the council. But whoever says, 'You fool!' shall be in danger of hell fire" (Mt. 5:21-22). We're no better. We think we stay on the right side of this fence by saying please', thank you', being nice to clerks and wait staff, and letting people in line front of us. We think we know right where this 5th Commandment runs; we don't.

We confess in the Large Catechism: "In this commandment we leave our own house and go out among our neighbors to learn how we should conduct ourselves individually toward our fellow man" (I, 180). And that's why this fence disappears into fog. Luther will show us this, but Dos-to-yev-sky brings it home. He has Ivan tell his brother, a monk, "'I could never understand how one can love one's own neighbors. It's just one's neighbors, to my mind, that one can't love, though one might love at a distance. for anyone to love a man, he must be hidden for as soon as he shows his face, love is gone'" (Brothers Karamazov, II, 4, 56). Staying inside my house or as Paul Simon sang, "Hiding in my room, safe within my womb" I have no problem with following this fence line. But outside?

Luther flatly shows me I don't and can't. "Now if you want to see and know who you are, you must not judge yourselves by those whom you love. But judge yourself by your enemies, and you will see who you are. Do you find that you are not in your heart kindly disposed toward them, not kind in conduct, but speak evil of them, failing to help them with your hands, you are a murderer" (Sermons on the Catechism). The truism, from Arab proverbs to Oscar Wilde, is "judge a man by his enemies" meaning by who he opposes or who opposes him, is not Luther's point. Luther's point is heard here: "The question isn't whether you hate. It's Whom do you hate?'. Everybody here hates somebody" (Graff, No Other Name, 122). No, nameless, faceless specters rise before my eyes at this point. No, names, faces, dates, and a bitterness on the tongue does.

We confess that there are 5 forms of killing: by hand, heart, words, signs and gestures, or by aiding and abetting (LC, I, 182). What do you think killing by signs and gestures means? You know, but we think it's a mere vulgarity not a murder. "If looks could kill" the adage goes, but to God that saying is reality. Hateful looks are murder, and if my spiritual guilt was made manifest, there would be a trail of bodies behind me on roads, stores, churches, anywhere there are people. But Luther goes on stretching out the fence of the 5th Commandment till I no longer think I can keep it or even try to but I "turn to stone." That's not just a 1978 ELO song; that's Nabal in the Bible; the law turned his heart to stone and he died (1 Sm. 25:37). That's us too. Hear our Large Catechism: "This commandment teachesthat no one should harm another for any evil deed, no matter how much he deserves it" (I, 186). We're not talking about what government can do or whether you have a right to defend yourself or others, we're talking avenging ourselves or even hating. 1 John 3:15 says, "Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life in him."

And don't think an outward, perfunctory, Eddie Haskell following of this fence line leads to heaven either. "Yes, Mrs. Cleaver; no, Mrs. Cleaver. What a nice dress you have on today." But Haskell-esque performances are the only ones we can do. We can make an outward show, restrain our hands from throwing rocks at our enemies, but the 5th Commandment won't let us stop there. It gets to the heart of the matter. God, says Luther, isn't satisfied when we merely withhold our hand from murder; he demands "'a patient, mild'" heart (Peters, 10 Commandments, 216). Yes, Scripture says Luther, establishes the death sentence over the first step towards murder. Whoever is only angry at his brother is already under God's damnation (Ibid., 227). Elsewhere Luther says our heart is so full of murder we can no more prevent it than we can prevent fire from burning. It's the nature of fire to burn and the nature of sinners to hate (Sermons on Catechism). You're not surprised when a bird takes flight or you see a fish swimming. They do these by nature; we, fallen men, hate by nature.

We think the 5th Commandment is a fence everyone knows and for the most part keeps, by like State Farm, being a good neighbor. But now we see that this 5th Commandment fence gets ever higher, so there is no way over it, and gets ever longer so that there is no way around it, and gets ever clearer. In its polished mirror-like gleam I see myself for the murderer I am. I thought I was just not nice enough, not helpful enough. No, I'm startled awake to realize what Judas will next week. I've murdered by aiding and abetting, by looks, by heart, by words, by gestures. In fact, I don't know, let alone do the 5th Commandment. Mercifully, thankfully, Jesus does and did.

At the beginning of the Passion narrative, before the Holy Spirit tells us that the Devil had put into the heart of Judas to betray Jesus, He tells us Jesus loved His own to the end. Love the one I know for over a year was a devil? Love the one you know would hand you over to your enemies for money? I can't love the person who cuts me off or cuts a line! I don't love the clerk who is polite but inept! Unlike George Jones, death doesn't stop me at last from loving my wife. No, I don't love and then I die. Not Jesus. He loved Judas till the end. Don't think Jesus is an Eddie Haskell like I am. When He calls Judas "Friend", He means it. Even in this moment of betrayal, Judas is still Jesus' friend. I told you: you cut me off or cut my line, and I'm your enemy. Not Jesus. His enemy's ear gets cut off and Jesus stops the uproar to find and reattach it. But Jesus doesn't forget His loved ones either. Facing damnation and death, He takes time to warn Peter about the danger of applying violence in the heat of the moment without the Lord's direction.

You and I think we know this fence line well. We can certainly be hauled before God for our sins against the first 3 Commandments and surely the 6th and 8th through 10th, but the 5th is our strong suit. Maybe a little fence to mend here or there, but no holes. Jesus knows better. He sees the Father handing Him a cup to drink filled with God's wrath against 5th Commandment sins. By nature we hate before we love, before we even think. Hate for our fellow man, especially the ones who do us wrong, doesn't feel out of place in our heart. It feels meet, right, and salutary, but Jesus sees what our sins and sinfulness bring on: a whole cup brimming with God's wrath, judgment, punishment.

There are many paintings of the Gethsemane scene. You who think of your sins against this commandment but lightly nor suppose the evil great spend some time looking at these paintings. See the weight of the agony of the world's sins presses blood from Jesus' pores. See the one with the 3 crosses in the distant; Jesus will soon be nailed to one of them; pinned there by your sins, and He knows it. And see there in the background is me among the 3 sleeping disciples. Our reading doesn't include Luke's note that they were sleeping for sorrow. Jesus is wailing to the Father to be spared, blood is pressed into His sweat, and with John Denver "more than anything else we are sorry for ourselves." But that doesn't stop Jesus from praying that His Father's will not His be done, or an angel from heaven coming to strengthen the Man Jesus for the hell on earth that was about to pounce on Him. Look at this scene. One or more of the disciples did see this, and we all do. How pitiful. Rather than calling on His Father for 72,000 angels to destroy these demonic murderers, He gets one lone angel to strengthen Him to drink the cup of God's wrath, go to hell, and die a damned sinner's death.

Okay, I got this. I'm to stop hurting or harming my neighbor and start helping and supporting him in every physical need. If you leave here with this message, you'll find yourself hung on the fence. The 5th commandment is the fence you think you can clear only to find you can't when you're dangling from one leg. Don't think you can jump this fence. No, it catches all sinners every time. The only question is whether you'll leave here Davids and Pauls or Cains and Judases. Cain ignored the Lord's warning about his murderous heart and gave himself over to it, and after was only concerned that the earthly consequences be mitigated. Judas saw his sin and concluded it was unforgiveable. Both led to their dying: Cain for the rest of his life, Judas suddenly at rope's end. David's and Paul's murders were heinous and protracted, and yet the grace of God found them when they sought Him not.

Both guilt and forgiveness change people. Guilt leads to excuses, despair, a devil-may-care attitude like Cain, and death apart from Jesus. Being forgiven means you don't see you and your sins in the same place anymore because Jesus has carried them away from you. Being forgiven means you see Jesus has drained the cup of wrath your 5th Commandment sins filled, so you can drink His cup of salvation. Being forgiven means you know God has put away your sins like He did that of the murderers David and Paul. Don't you think for the rest of their lives they were tempted to despair every time the 5th Commandment came up? Don't you think others threw it in their faces? Sure, but what they or others thought, didn't count. What God in Christ thought did, and He said, "What sins against the 5th Commandment? I don't see them; I see Jesus." Amen

Rev. Paul R. Harris

Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas

Midweek Lent II (20200304); 5th Commandment, Passion Reading 2