“If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” 1 John 1:8
Just after the Beatitudes in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus makes an interesting statement: “Do not think I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” He goes on to warn his hearers that if their righteousness and their attention to the Law does not exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees (who were very righteous indeed), they will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Though this is a surprising statement (given what people may have learned about Jesus from Paul and others) it also seems very cut and dry. Jesus appears to be saying that the Law of Moses should govern Christian behavior and that we should abide strictly by its precepts.
In the very next portion of the Sermon on the Mount, however, Jesus indicates that the Law has a much deeper significance than we think it does. He begins by quoting directly from Scripture: “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times (in Exodus 20:13 and Deuteronomy 5:17), ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgement.'” This would have been very familiar to his hearers. But immediately after quoting from the Law of Moses, Jesus says, “But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.” In other words, the Law is not limited to our deeds, it also encompasses our words and even our thoughts! All of a sudden, righteousness is not only a matter of controlling what we do, it is a matter of controlling how we feel. As Jesus expands the definition of sin in this passage, he leaves us wondering how we can abide by this seemingly impossible standard.
Many of us are uncomfortable with the conception of sin that Jesus presents in the Sermon on the Mount. It doesn’t seem fair that we should be held accountable for our fleeting thoughts or our emotional responses to a situation. But notice that Jesus is concerned with how our actions, words, and thoughts impact our perception of other people. If we are angry with our brother or insult our sister, even in our minds, we fail to honor the image of God in our brother and we destroy the relationship we have with our sister. It’s really difficult to call someone an “idiot” behind his or her back without allowing that insult to change the way we relate to that person. Our anger feeds our prejudices and grudges and prevents us from seeing our fellow human beings as children of God. We have all been guilty of this kind of sinfulness at one point or another. If we don’t think we have, then we are deceiving ourselves and wandering away from the truth. But there is no need for us to despair. Remember that it is God who is reconciling us to God and to one another. We are called to acknowledge that we have sinned before God in thought, word, and deed, because it is only by taking this first step that we can reach out for the reconciliation God has offered through Jesus Christ. It is by confessing our sinfulness, by acknowledging our failure to honor the image of God in each other, that we can begin to see all of our fellow human beings as brothers and sisters, as children of God.