Trinity 18 Sermon, 2017
Rev. Benjamin Tyler Holt
Today’s Gospel reading takes place in the temple during Holy Week. As Jesus journeys closer to his death, the people have become sharply divided into two groups.
There are those who love Jesus and hang on His words and believe He’s more than a mere mortal.
And there are those who hate Jesus and despise His words and refuse to believe that He’s anything more than a man.
Those who love Jesus waved palm branches and spread their cloaks on the road.
Those who hate Jesus lamented, “Look, the world has gone after him” (cf. John 12:19).
Those who love Jesus came to Jesus in the temple to be healed, and the children cried out, “Hosanna to the son of David!”
And those who hate Jesus were indignant.
Those who love Jesus “heard him gladly,” as it says in Mark 12. And those who hate him “plotted how to entangle him in his words,” as it says in Matthew 22.
Today’s Gospel lesson is one where the Pharisees conspire against Jesus.
Right before this Jesus had a conversation with the Sadducees, who questioned Him in no friendly terms about the resurrection. Jesus had silenced them, and the Pharisees figured they’d give it another go. So it says, “one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him,” a question about the Law of Moses, the Torah, the first five books of the Bible: “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?”
We know he asked this to test Jesus. Somehow, the lawyer was hoping Jesus would hang Himself with His own words. But that’s not the way the conversation went.
You can’t talk with Jesus about his own Torah and escape unscathed.
You want to talk commandments? Jesus can talk commandments. Which is the great commandment in the Law?
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment” (Matthew 22:37-38). Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 6:5, a very familiar passage for any Jew, and—as answers go—it’s perfect. No one could argue against Him.
But Jesus doesn’t stop with this great, first commandment.
The Pharisees had convinced themselves that they did love the Lord, as they should, according to the Law.
It really is as if they say, “We have the right clothing. We pray, we fast, we tithe. We love the Lord.”
But then Jesus continues, “And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39).
It’s easy to say you love God.
Love of God happens with the heart and soul and mind—things people can’t see.
But you don’t love your neighbor with your heart and soul and mind.
You love your neighbor with your hands and feet and lips, with your words and deeds.
The Pharisees couldn’t fool anyone into thinking they’d kept this commandment. It was obvious to all the people that not a single Pharisee loved anyone but himself.
And the reason they were breaking this second commandment was because they were, in fact, breaking the first.
Instead of using their words and deeds for their neighbors, the Pharisees were using their words and deeds to get something from God. But that first and great commandment isn’t about loving the Lord your God with all your works, as if God needs your works.
Rather, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart.” Loving the Lord with all your heart means believing His Word, trusting Him, not seeking security or salvation from anyone but Him. Those are the sort of things that the heart should do. Yet, as Jesus says of the Pharisees in Matthew 15, “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me.”
There are two possible responses to hearing the two commandments that Jesus speaks. You can stand with the Pharisees and join in their unbelief and hatred of God’s Word.
That is, you can lie to yourself and say, “I love the Lord like I should,” meanwhile acting selfishly toward your neighbor, doing “good” works for all the wrong reasons.
Or, you can stand with the tax collectors and prostitutes and confess, “My heart has not been completely faithful to the Lord, neither have I loved my neighbor as I should.”
You’ve gone after other gods, trusted other things, favored your opinion over God’s Word. You’ve misused your words and deeds, seeking your own selfish purposes instead of the good of others.
Now, the lawyer asked about God’s commandments, and Jesus told him about God’s commandments.
But Jesus wants us to know God’s promises as well.
So Jesus asks His own question, not about what man must give to God, but about what God is giving to man. He asks, “What do you think about the Christ? Whose son is he?” (Matthew 22:42). He asks about the promised Messiah who will come to save God’s people.
And the Pharisees know the answer, “The son of David” (Matthew 22:42), a descendant of that great king of Israel.
And they’re right. Well, they’re not incorrect.
Not completely incorrect.
Well, their answer is just incomplete.
Their answer is very much in line with their view of God’s commandments and their view of themselves.
The Pharisees don’t think they’re that bad, not as bad as you are, you know, and completing God’s commandments, in their minds, are certainly in the realm of possibility.
But Jesus shows the Pharisees that their answer is lacking.
The Christ is descended from David—but He’s also something more than that.
In Psalm 110:1, which Jesus quotes to the Pharisees, David calls the Christ his Lord, “The Lord said to my Lord, Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet.”
People don’t call their descendants their lords. People call their descendants their children or offspring.
But here David, the greatest king who ever ruled God’s people, calls the Christ who was to descend from him “Lord.” And not only was the Christ to be greater than David, He was to sit at the right hand of God Himself. Jesus brings up this verse to make the point: Not only is the Christ the son of David. The Christ is also the Son of God.
This is why the Pharisees are so wrong.
For them, the Christ doesn’t need to be anything more than a human being who’ll establish an earthly kingdom, save them from their earthly enemies, and make life easy.
Unfortunately, Christ is still proclaimed this way today among those who understand neither the high requirements of God’s commandments nor the depths of their own sins.
God With Us, God in the flesh, the blood of God, that’s what it takes to purchase us away from sin, death, and satan.
And if this is the sort of Christ that Jesus is—and He is that Christ—then it’s clear that Jesus didn’t come to establish an earthly kingdom and give us an easy life and a good time.
If Jesus is fully man and fully God, then He came to rule over far greater things than the things of earth.
He came to conquer sin and death and the devil and hell—things that we brought on ourselves because we didn’t do God’s commandments.
If you want to stand with the Pharisees and say, “Oh, I can do the Law, well enough, anyway,” if you want to take that stance then you get to become one of those enemies forced down into eternal torment under Christ the Lord’s feet.
But if God’s commandments reveal your sins to you and make you alarmed at what you deserve, well then Christ comes to you with this promise:
Jesus is your valiant king, not fighting against you, but fighting for you.
He’s no mere human king like David. Jesus the king is the God-man, divine and human: the son of David who has your flesh and can act in your place, and the Son of God who has all authority in heaven and on earth.
Jesus left the Pharisees dumbfounded. “From that day no one dared to ask him any more questions” (Matthew 22:46).
But the sinners continued to watch and listen. They watched their Christ suffer. They watched their Christ die. And if this Christ had been nothing more than another one of us, none of it would’ve mattered.
But because Jesus is fully man and fully God, His death was not merely man giving his life for man, which would’ve done nothing.
Jesus’ death was God giving His life for man, and that accomplished all we need for our forgiveness, life, and salvation.
At the cross, sin, death, the devil, and hell came against the son of David. “An easy target,” they must’ve thought. “Just another man to kill and condemn.”
“Just another man,” they said, and that was their fatal mistake. Because that wasn’t just the son of David hanging on the cross. It was the Son of God.
Sin and death and the devil and hell had always succeeded, they had always won.
But not this time.
This time they realized, to their great shame and everlasting defeat, “in Christ the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily” (Colossians 2:9).
For sin, death, the devil, and hell, there was no escape.
None of your sins survived to be held against you on the Last Day. Your death has been put to death in the shedding of God’s blood and your union to Christ in Holy Baptism.
The devil has been captured and bound, held as Jesus’ prisoner and awaiting his final judgment.
Hell has been told that it can’t have you.
All of your enemies were either slain or mortally wounded on Mount Golgotha, while the God-man who was crucified is alive and well to this day and to all eternity.
Jesus asked, “Whose son is the Christ?” not because He wanted to present you with more commandments, but because He wanted to present you with Himself as your Savior.
So what do we learn from today’s Gospel lesson?
Two main things.
First, we learn the very high requirement of God’s holy commands. As Christians, we understand that God has given His commandments for our good, we desire to live according to them, and we greatly benefit when, by His grace, we even begin to keep them.
But we also understand, the greatest service of God’s commands is that they constantly show us our need for a Savior.
God’s commandments teach us our need for Christ.
Which leads to the second thing we learn.
When we flee to Christ for refuge, we don’t find a mere mortal, we find God in human flesh.
This is how He gives himself to us week after week at the altar. Sure, the bread looks about as impressive as Jesus did on Good Friday, but that doesn’t change the fact that the living Christ gives you the same divine flesh that conquered sin and death and the devil and hell on the cross.
It’s easy to stand with the Pharisees, belittling God’s commandments, thinking lightly of our sins.
That’s much easier than to stand before the altar of God as a sinner.
But this is our confidence as sinners—we have the Christ, Jesus, the God-man, who lives and reigns with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
More than that, we know this Christ to be our Savior.
In Jesus’ name, Amen!