Saturday, October 18, 2008

Sermon on Matthew 22:34-46 for the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost. "All the Law and the Prophets hang on Love."

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. The sermon text is from Matthew 22, an interchange between the Pharisees and Jesus, where they attempt to “stump” Him with a difficult question. He answers wisely and then turns the tables on them, asking a question that stumps them. In this dialogue, we will see how the two great commandments to love are fulfilled. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

At the start of today’s lesson, the Pharisees are impressed that Jesus had just silenced their theological adversaries the Sadducees. Jesus had just refuted them on the matter of the resurrection from the dead—something that they didn’t believe in, but He convincingly established. Now the Pharisees decide to test their luck in “stumping” Jesus, thinking that they’ve got a winner. An expert in the law, who would have been a well-studied scribe, throws this question at Jesus: “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” His question already reflects something of his character as a Pharisee, as they had lengthy disputes over which commandments were the most important, which were higher than the others, and how many commandments there were. Often Jesus found fault with the questions asked of Him, and either redirected them or turned the questions on their head. But here Jesus validates the question by giving a straightforward answer, nonetheless one which astonished the Jews for its wisdom. This question got to the heart of the matter, even if the expert in the law was intending to test Jesus by trapping Him in His words.

Rather than choosing a specific commandment as most important, Jesus instead summarizes all of the 10 Commandments into two statements. He quotes from Deuteronomy 6:5 as the greatest commandment: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” Jesus places this commandment as the first and greatest of the commandments—a point that the Pharisees surely couldn’t disagree. The second commandment like it, He quotes from Leviticus 19:18, in today’s Old Testament reading. “Love your neighbor as yourself.” For as often as people malign the Old Testament, we might be surprised to find both of these commands first there, and then on Jesus’ lips. Jesus had basically just summarized the 10 Commandments into what we often call the “Two Tables of the Law.”

The first table of the Law is the commandments regarding God. Typically numbered the first three, they are: “You shall have no other gods before me; You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God; and Remember the Sabbath Day by keeping it holy.” These commands relate to the sole worship of God alone, excluding all idolatry and graven images; the proper use of God’s holy name; and the proper way to fear and love God in worship. All of these three commands and every other command regarding God is summed up in that first and greatest commandment: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” It’s absolute and unconditional love of God, in heart, soul, and mind. No aspect of our existence can be withheld or exempted from loving God. This is the first table of the Law.

The second table of the Law is the commandments regarding your neighbor. Typically numbered four through ten, they are: “Honor your father and mother; You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not bear false testimony against your neighbor; You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.” While the first table concerns our relationship in the vertical dimension toward God, the second table governs our relationships in the horizontal dimension towards our fellow human beings. Obedience to parents and authorities, safeguarding the life and health of our neighbor, safeguarding the sexual purity of our neighbor and the marriage relationship, safeguarding our neighbor’s property, reputation, and even safeguarding against greed that would tempt us to plot to get our neighbor’s inheritance or possessions. These are perfectly summed up as “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love for our neighbor would not transgress any of these commands. This is the second table of the Law.

We can’t be sure how the ten commandments were split on the two stone tablets God gave to Moses, but it’s helpful to think of the one tablet containing the first table of the law—commandments about God, and the second tablet containing the second table of the law—commandments about our neighbor. For all of our life is contained and summed up in these two dimensions—vertically toward God, and horizontally toward each other. But Jesus takes this truth further than just being the greatest commandment in the Law—He goes on to say that “All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” The Law and Prophets was a common shorthand way to refer to what we now call the Old Testament. The Law is the first five books of Moses: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy. The Prophets represent the rest of the books of the Old Testament. Perhaps we don’t recognize the magnitude of this statement: that the whole teaching and content of the Law and Prophets depends on these two commandments of love—to Love God and Love your neighbor. Everything taught from Moses to Malachi, from the Psalms of David to the exalted prophecies of Isaiah, is expressed in these two commandments of Love. All of the Law and the Prophets hang on Love.

So now for a moment of self-examination. How do we measure up to these commands? Have we loved the Lord with all our heart, all our soul, and all our mind? Have we loved our neighbor as ourselves? First consider what it means to love God with all our heart. If we love Him with all our heart, we should willingly and without reservation do everything that He commands. Such a person can pray: “O God, what you will, is my will; whether it be to die, live, be poor, be sick, saved, or condemned—I will suffer it all gladly, for I love you with my whole heart”. If someone says they love another with all their heart, they mean that they give their love unreservedly and without condition—that no matter what they would still love them. Second, consider what it means to love God with all our soul. “This is to love with one’s whole, inmost heart, spirit, and one’s whole life.” That our whole life is committed to joyful and devoted love to God. Such a person could pray, “My life is in your hands,” or even “Into your hands I commit my spirit.” Such a person would lay down their life for the one they loved. Third, consider what it means to love God with all our mind. This is to surrender ourselves to God with our whole mind, being “transformed by the renewing of our mind.” It’s to have the wisdom of knowing that God’s ways are higher than our ways, and to love and praise them even when we don’t understand. To consciously and with full agreement love and believe in God. Such a person would be filled with the wisdom and understanding that begins with the fear of the Lord.

I think if we honestly examine ourselves, none of us will be able to claim that we love God with all our heart, soul, and mind. Our sinful life doesn’t reflect an ongoing agreement to and obedience of God’s will. We don’t love God with all our soul, as we divide our attention and devotion to Him with other pleasures, other ideas, and most of all a greater love of self. And our mind isn’t clearly and intently focused on God, but we doubt, get distracted from truth, or use our mind to excuse or defend our sin. No, we don’t love God with all our heart, soul, and mind.

But what about loving our neighbor as ourselves? The Old Testament reading gives some practical examples of what it means to love our neighbor as ourselves. We shouldn’t pervert justice or show favoritism and partiality, based on whether someone is rich or poor. We must not play favorites in our business affairs, our participation in civil service, or even in our social relationships—we’re to exercise fairness in all things. We’re not to spread slander or gossip. Such an easy thing! It hardly crosses our minds how often we’re gossiping. “Did you hear what she said?” “I heard that…” “Can you believe what he was telling me about…” “That woman is such a…” “That is so typical of him…” This is not loving our neighbor as ourselves. Do we guard our neighbor’s life, and make sure not to endanger it in any way? We’re not even to harbor hatred or resentment against a person. We’re to rebuke our neighbor frankly if they’re caught in obvious sin, so that we don’t share in their guilt. If we stand idly by while our neighbor is being harmed, we’re guilty of neglecting to protect their life. Finally, we must not seek revenge or hold grudges.

How are we measuring up so far? Are we all convinced that we have kept the simple but great commandments to Love God and Love our neighbor as ourselves? Obviously not. And now we’re in a predicament. We stand judged as guilty before the Law, having failed in keeping the greatest commandments, that sum up all of God’s Old Testament teaching. The Law and the Prophets cannot hang or depend on us. Rather we find ourselves hung by the Law. And as the writer to the Hebrews reminds us, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:31). We find ourselves just as much silenced by Jesus’ words as the Pharisees and Sadducees. The Law of God is having its proper effect on us, as the book of Romans declares: “Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin” (Rom. 3:19-20). The Law stops our mouth and holds us accountable to God—because by works of the law we can’t be justified before God. So we’re left silenced—muzzled by the Law, as it brings us knowledge of our sin.

Once silenced by the Law, we can receive the saving message of the Gospel. It’s Jesus who turns the attention of both the Pharisees and us to the Christ, the Son of David. For in Him is the resolution of our predicament. Jesus stumps the Pharisees with His own questions about who the Christ is, and why David, the Great King of the Golden Age of Israel, would address the Christ, one of his descendants, as Lord. Why would a king, the highest earthly ruler, address any of his descendants—like a great grandson or great-great grandson, etc—with the honorific title of Lord? What Jesus exposed with His question was that they were perfectly willing to accept the promised Christ’s humanity as a Son of David, but were unwilling to realize His divinity. They could not accept Jesus as the Christ who is both divine and human.

Yet Jesus stood among them, as the Christ, the Son of the Living God, and the fulfillment of God’s promises in the Old Testament. They knew to expect the Christ, foretold in the Old Testament. But they didn’t realize that He would be the one to perfectly live according to God’s Law. They didn’t realize that here standing among them was the solution to their predicament of the Law—theirs and our failure to Love God with all our heart, soul, and mind, and our neighbor as ourselves. All the Law and the Prophets hang on Love. And Jesus the Christ, was the one and only person to walk that way of love perfectly and completely.

He alone, among mankind, loved God with all His heart, unreservedly giving Himself to the Father’s will, no matter what His circumstances. He showed this unconditional commitment to the Father’s will when He prayed in the Garden, “Father, not my will but your will be done.” He alone loved God with all His soul, with a joyful love and devotion to God that led Him to sacrifice His own life for the very one’s He loved: “Greater love has no man than this, that He lay down His life for His friend.” Jesus laid down His life for you and I at the cross. And He loved God with all His soul, as He spoke those dying words, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” Entrusting His soul to the one He loved, even at the moment of greatest forsakenness at the cross, Jesus showed His ultimate and perfect love of God. He alone among mankind loved God with all His mind, delighting in the truth of God’s Word and commandments. He delighted in the wisdom of God rather than men, showing no favoritism or partiality toward men. He grew in knowledge and stature before the Lord, because He feared and loved God with all His mind, which is the beginning of all wisdom. His perfect walk in love extended out to His neighbor in every circumstance. Considering others more important than Himself, He humbled Himself to become a servant to others—healing the sick, comforting the distressed and guilt-ridden, washing the feet of His disciples.

This perfect love and obedience of Jesus to the greatest of the commandments, led Him to the cross, where He laid down His perfect life for humanity. Led by God’s plan and purpose, step-by-step fulfilling the prophecies spoken of the Christ in the Old Testament, He was led to that gory tree. There He hung upon that tree, becoming accursed under the Law we failed to keep. There He hung on the tree, the One promised by the Prophets. To us who are broken and silenced beneath the Law, Jesus was born under that same Law, so that He could live and obey it perfectly. And as He hung on that tree, the heavy weight of the Law and the Prophets hung on Him. For all the Law and the Prophets hang on Love. He was and is and ever shall be that perfect Love. For God is Love. And in His hanging, dying, bleeding death, the Law and Prophets were finally fulfilled. The only one on whom all the Law and Prophets could depend. He is the solution to our predicament. By fulfilling the Law and Prophets in our place, God’s will was perfectly satisfied, for you. Now the peace of God which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, unto life everlasting. Amen.

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