The Eighteenth Sunday after Trinity| Rev. Rolf D. Preus| October 19, 2003| Matthew 22:34-4
Today’s Gospel reading provides us with the summary of the two main teachings of the Holy Scriptures: the law and the gospel. The law teaches us how we must live. The gospel teaches us what we must believe. The law tells us about our obligations to God. The gospel tells us of God’s gracious promises to us. The law promises us a good life here on earth if we only obey it. The gospel promises us eternal life in heaven if we only believe it. God gave the law through Moses in the Ten Commandments. Jesus Christ, David’s son and David’s Lord, has brought us the gospel. There is no more important knowledge in the world than the knowledge of the law and the gospel.
Law and gospel are constantly being confused. The most common way is to teach the law as the way to gain eternal life. This was the teaching of the Pharisees who tested Jesus. They resented Jesus because He had frequently criticized their legalistic teaching. A legalist is someone who thinks that outwardly obeying the rules is the same as obeying God. He also thinks that obeying God is how we get God to accept us and love us. Most religious people are legalists. In fact, all religions (except for Christianity) are essentially legalistic. They teach that the law is our guide to heaven. They teach that we become good by obeying the right rules. Religions have different rules and they argue over whose rules are better. It was that kind of argument into which the lawyer in our text wanted to draw Jesus. But Jesus did not pick one rule among several hundred as the greatest of them all. He summed up all the law in two simple commands: “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind,” and, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus concluded by saying that the entire law of the Old Testament depended on these two commandments.
Jesus Himself exemplified the requirements of this law by the life He lived. He loved the Lord, His God, with all His heart, with all His soul, and with all His mind. This was obvious throughout His life. He devoted Himself to the study of God’s word even as a young boy. He resisted the temptations of the devil. He submitted to the will of His Father, even when it required Him to suffer the shame of crucifixion and the guilt of bearing the sin of the whole world. He never flinched from loving God above all things, regardless of the price this would require Him to pay. And though He was slandered, mocked, and abused in the cruelest way by men, Jesus never responded to evil with evil. He did not curse anyone. He blessed them instead. He prayed for those who treated him viciously and maliciously.
No one ever loved as this man loved. He understood legalism for what it is. It is an evasion of the duty to love. That’s all it’s ever been. It is one thing to promote obeying rules as a means of keeping order, establishing peace, and enabling people to get along together. It is quite another thing to promote obeying the rules as the way of making a sinner into a saint. Even if we outwardly conformed to every rule it would not change what we are. Being a sinner isn’t simply a matter of doing things. It’s a matter of being something. You don’t become a sinner when you sin. You sin because you’re a sinner and you are doing what comes naturally to you.
Why do people have other gods before the one and only God? Because they are idolaters. Why do people misuse God’s name? Because they are blasphemers. Why do people neglect attending church? Because they despise God and His word. Why do people disobey their parents and others in authority? Because they are lawless. Why do people hurt neighbors? Because they are murderers. Why do people lust after those to whom they are not married? Because they are adulterers. Why do people covet and envy? Because they are thieves. Why do people repeat harmful stories that hurt the reputations of others? Because they are liars and slanderers.
But religious folks who worship at the altar of their own righteousness can’t tolerate hearing news like this. What did you call me? Are you calling me an idolater, a blasphemer, a despiser of God, lawless, a murderer, an adulterer, a thief, and a liar? Who are you to call me such things? God is the One who makes this accusation, and He levels it against the whole world. The heart of the accusation is the simple and damning declaration that we have not loved God above all things and we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. Jesus shows us the life we must live and we haven’t lived it. Regardless of how many rules we’ve followed, we haven’t loved as God’s law requires and for that we have forfeited our lives.
When we look beyond obeying rules and consider what God’s law really requires of us we are forced to confront this deep, unfathomable darkness in our souls, this wickedness inside of us, what the Bible calls sin. It is on the inside. It is in how we think and feel. It is on the outside. It is in how we talk and live. It permeates our entire being. It hates God. It loves self. It doesn’t want to do anything for God; it wants only to live for self. This sinful being, what the Bible often calls the flesh, can obey rules. That’s easy. But he cannot love. So he must be crushed and the law of perfect love must do the crushing. To learn that you don’t even love the One to whom you owe everything good that you have or are or could ever hope to be is not a pleasant lesson. This is why so few ever learn it. The gate to heaven is very narrow. We must first learn to despair of ourselves. Only then will we care to learn about Jesus Christ.
The legalists wanted to talk about following rules, but such talk leads nowhere. This is why, after answering the lawyer’s question, Jesus responded with one of His own: “What do you think about the Christ? Whose Son is He?” They wanted to talk about religious rules. Jesus wanted to talk about real theology. Theology is God-talk. What is God-talk talk about? Obeying the right rules? No, that’s man-talk. Theology is always talk about Christ. If it isn’t about Christ, it is beside the point and, in the end, useless. If you don’t care about Christ – knowing who He is and what He has done and how He comes into your life – you don’t really care about God. You only think you do. Dissecting rules in order to figure out who is better than who isn’t engaging in theology at all. This isn’t God-talk. This is running away from God talk. God is the topic of theology. If not, we are worshipping only ourselves. Jesus wants to talk theology with us. That means we must consider the question Jesus asked the lawyer: “What do you think about the Christ? Whose Son is He?”
“They said to Him, ‘The Son of David.’” That was perfectly true. The Christ was of the royal line of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Judah, Jesse, and David. But more than that, the Christ was David’s Lord. Jesus said to them, “How then does David in the Spirit call Him ‘Lord,’ saying: ‘The LORD said to my Lord, “Sit at My right hand, Till I make Your enemies Your footstool”’? If David then calls Him ‘Lord,’ how is He his Son?” They could not answer such a question for the very simple reason that it could not be answered. You tell me. How can David’s Son be David’s Lord? How can a man born nearly a thousand years after David was born be David’s Creator? The Lord God is born of a woman? How can this be? He alone, of all men ever born of a woman, loves with the purity that God’s law required. He is the pure and holy man. He is the only perfectly good man. He loves in the face of hatred, and His love never yields to hatred. It never decreases. In fact, the more hatred heaped upon this man, the more His love is revealed. Who is this Son of David? Who is this Christ? He is the Lord God who loves us sinners with an undying and almighty love.
He came into the world to bring honor to the pure law of love that all of us dishonored. Only Christ, the Son of David, loved as the law required. The love God requires must be willing to suffer. It is never content merely to do. It must also be done to. It must put up with everything our intolerant flesh refuses to put up with. It must bear up under the sins of others. Jesus did more than bear up under them. He actually bore them. He didn’t come into this world in order to give us rules by which we could evade the law of love. He came to live the life of love for us in every thought, every word, and every deed. He did what He required us to do but which we could not and would not do. All theology, all God-talk, must be talk about this Jesus, David’s Son and David’s Lord, because only Jesus brings us into fellowship with God’s pure love.
God sees us for what we are. The very things the law reveals about our sinful hearts – the things we cannot tolerate hearing because we are so shamed by what we hear – God sees. He sees what is deeply offensive to Him, but He loves us in spite of what He sees. He takes the sin He sees in us, and he puts that same sin on the innocent head of His holy Son. He places all of our guilt firmly upon Jesus. Jesus, in filial love for His Father that is deeper than our feeble minds can understand, bears, endures, and suffers for that guilt until it is completely gone. His love swallows up our lovelessness and washes away all our sin. Then He sends His Holy Spirit into our hearts to kill our legalistic flesh every day, working in our hearts, souls, and minds that love which is from God alone.
Who is Christ, and what is he to you? This is the theological question that everyone must answer. The question is not who has the best rules for religious living. The only important theological question is always the question about Christ. He, who humbled himself to the death of the cross, although he was and remains the Creator and Judge of all people, loves you and brings God’s love to you. This love enables you to love God and to love your neighbor. It turns selfishness into generosity and bitterness into mercy. It destroys daily the legalistic flesh inside of us all. It is a love that changes us, giving us the desire to do anything and everything we can for the One who has deigned to love us in our wretched, sinful, loveless, blindness and who has elevated us to heaven itself.
To the legalist, every theological discussion is essentially self centered as he seeks to gain God’s favor by obeying man-made rules. To the Christian, every theological discussion is centered in Christ who has gained for us God’s favor by obeying the law of love. The legalist stands over God’s law to replace it with rules by which to show he has mastered it. The Christian stands under God’s law, crying out for mercy and forgiveness because he knows he stands condemned for his lovelessness. God, for Christ’s sake, hears the cry of his child who admits his failure to love. God absolves him. God forgives him. God takes him out from under the burden of the law’s judgment and gives him the treasure of Christ. This is why we want to hear this gospel more than we want anything else in all the world. And we know, as God’s own children, that he will always give it to us.