(Sermon preached in Beaverton, OR)
Sermon for the Eighteenth Sunday after Trinity
1 Corinthians 1:4-9 + Matthew 22:34-46
Dear saints of God, sanctified through faith in Christ Jesus our Lord: Before this weekend I had only met a few of you. But I know we have much in common, and word of your faith and your perseverance has certainly reached us in Las Cruces. I give thanks to God for this opportunity to speak to you—in person!—in His name, and you should know that the words of St. Paul to the Corinthians in today’s Epistle express my thoughts exactly:
I thank my God always concerning you for the grace of God which was given to you by Christ Jesus, that you were enriched in everything by Him in all utterance and all knowledge.
The fact is, you have been enriched in everything in Christ, in all utterance and all knowledge. Your knowledge and your utterance—your ability to speak the truth clearly— go way beyond that of the smartest atheists on the planet, way beyond famous Bible scholars, way beyond synodical heavy-weights and renowned “Lutheran” theologians here in America. Because you know this basic truth: you know how Christ fits into the Scriptures, into Law and Gospel, into redemption and justification. You know how faith alone in Christ is God’s means of making His righteousness your righteousness, so that you are now no longer under God’s condemnation, but stand righteous before God and will be raised from the dead to spend eternity with Him in His heavenly kingdom.
That faith-knowledge, given to you as a gift of grace by God’s Holy Spirit through the preaching of the Gospel, also goes way beyond the knowledge of the smartest religious people in Jesus’ day. And that brings us directly to today’s Gospel.
The Pharisees and the Sadducees were the popular schools of thought on Scriptural interpretation at the time of Jesus—always competing with one another, reacting to one another, often ridiculing one another. Without getting into too much detail here, both parties got some things right and some things wrong in their interpretation of the Scriptures, and both parties got so bogged down in their own interpretations and philosophies and traditions that they completely mishandled the main teachings of the Old Testament. Rabbinical theology had basically become a two-party system that was hopelessly broken.
One of the main beliefs of the Sadducees was that there will be no resurrection of the dead, no life after death. In the words just before today’s Gospel, Jesus had silenced the Sadducees once and for all, proving them wrong on that point from the Holy Scriptures. As He said, But concerning the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was spoken to you by God, saying, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? God is not the God of the dead, but of the living. It’s one of those Holy Week victories of Jesus that often gets overlooked. He demonstrated to everyone that the Sadducees were not to be trusted, because they didn’t understand the Scriptures, that the Christ Himself must die and rise again.
In today’s Gospel, we see Jesus doing exactly the same thing with the Pharisees.
The Pharisees actually agreed with Jesus on the Scriptural teaching of the resurrection. In fact, the resurrection was critical to Pharisaism. Why work so hard at keeping all the Levitical laws and tithing and all the extra laws they placed around the Scriptural laws as a hedge? So that they would be counted among the worthy in the kingdom of God at the resurrection.
But, while the Pharisees were right about the coming resurrection and the eternal life in the kingdom of God, they demolished the road to get there—faith in Christ! — and rebuilt it with their own works of outward obedience.
We see that right away in the Gospel. They turn, as always, to their tunnel-vision focus on the law. One of them tests Jesus with this question: Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?
Love. Love is the great commandment. Love is the fulfillment of the Law. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ It’s not some mushy, gushy emotional affection that God commands. It’s willing, joyful, heartfelt devotion and commitment, first to God, and then to your neighbor, informed and guided by the Word of God.
Everything else hinges on these two commandments. Love for God and one’s neighbor was to be at the heart of everything for mankind, the motivation behind all works, the very foundation of man’s life on earth. The rest of the laws in the Old Testament were about how people were to love God and their neighbor, whether it was the timeless moral laws that apply to all men, or whether it was the ceremonial and civil laws that applied only to the Jews.
But that’s the opposite of what the Pharisees taught and believed. Love was not their motivation for keeping the Law. They tried to keep the commandments, not out of love for God, but in order to get something from God, in order to earn something for themselves, in order to escape punishment.
Honestly, who can possibly love God and his neighbor so completely that every action, every word, every thought flows from it, all the time, without any thought to oneself, what’s good for me, what feels right to me, what I want to do? The entire history of the world, the entire personal history of every one of us cries out, “No one!” Every law that has ever been broken is evidence that a person didn’t love God enough—wasn’t devoted enough to God—to obey His commandments.
This is what the Pharisees failed to grasp, completely ignored, never understood. That all their tithing, all their extra Sabbath laws, all the attention they paid to the intricacies of Levitical ceremony and instruction, was useless for bringing them into God’s favor, useless for buying them a place in the kingdom of heaven. Because all the while they failed to keep the first two great commandments. None of their outward obedience to the Law flowed from pure love for God and their neighbor. Foolish Pharisees! The law is not your Savior. It is your judge, jury, and executioner, which is why St. Paul writes to the Romans, Therefore by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin.
You have been given this knowledge from above, to know that the chief purpose of the Law is not to tell people what they have to do to be saved or to enter the kingdom of God. It’s there to show you that you fall short of love and therefore deserve the condemnation that the Law pronounces on sinners. It’s there to frighten you to run away, looking for shelter, to seek refuge in the Christ—the only Man who has ever led a perfect life of love, even as the Scriptures testified about Him, that He would be the Lord, Our Righteousness.
Jesus presses that very point with the Pharisees and shuts them up for good with His question. What do you think about the Christ? Whose Son is He? Ah, we know the answer! He is the Son of David! OK, then. 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”?
How can David’s Son be David’s Lord? They were baffled. No idea! All these years they had read that Psalm (and other similar Scriptures) and never comprehended this key teaching about the identity and the mission of the Christ, that He would be true Man, the Son of David, but also the Lord, true God from all eternity, for the purpose of saving sinful mankind from their sins.
This is how Christ fits into the Scriptures: He would be true man, who would live a perfect life of love under the law; and true God, so that He obedience might count for all men. He would be true man, because human death is the wages of sin, and true God, so that He might receive those wages in the place of sinful mankind, so that we might receive the gift of eternal life through faith in Him, the perfect and only intercessor between God and man, Christ Jesus our Lord.
You know that. You have been enriched in everything in Him in all utterance and all knowledge, even as the testimony of Christ was confirmed in you, so that you come short in no gift, eagerly waiting for the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will also confirm you to the end, that you may be blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.
You have been given to know Christ rightly, to know how He fits into the Scriptures and into your justification. Rejoice in that knowledge and hold onto it for dear life, even as you have stood for it and suffered for it already. The Church in any one place may grow or not grow, may thrive or barely hang on. But you are not waiting for the Church to grow and thrive, are you? You are, as Paul says, eagerly waiting for the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is He who will keep you, who will preserve you by His Spirit through Word and Sacrament, who will also confirm you to the end. Remain faithful in hearing His Word and in supporting its proclamation. He will see to it that His Spirit gives the knowledge of Christ to still more people through that proclamation, until His Church is built and you and all His saints stand victorious at the side of David’s Son and David’s Lord, even as His enemies are placed under His feet, including the last enemy, which is death. Amen.