The great commandment and the great teaching

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Sermon for Trinity 18

1 Corinthians 1:4-9  +  Matthew 22:34-46

Normally I like your attention focused up here at the pulpit, but I won’t mind this morning if you’re glancing down occasionally at the picture on the front of the service folder. It’s a woodcut of Lucas Cranach the Elder’s famous painting entitled Law and Gospel. Cranach was a Reformation-era Lutheran artist. And here in this woodcut you see, side by side, a depiction of the Law that condemns on the left and of the Gospel that saves on the right. Both are teachings of God’s Word, and both must be taught and believed if we are to be saved.

I thought it was especially fitting for today’s Gospel, because you have the Pharisees, on the one hand, focused entirely on the Law side, as if the Gospel side didn’t exist. Jesus, on the other hand, doesn’t deny or minimize the Law side. What He does—He introduces the Gospel side and tries to turn the Pharisees’ attention toward it. They stubbornly refused. May we not be so stubborn.

It was Holy Week when the Pharisees approached Jesus to test Him. A lawyer asked Him, “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?” This is at least the second time a lawyer had asked Jesus this question (you may remember that this question prompted Jesus to tell the Parable of the Good Samaritan), and His answer was the same both times: 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.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.

Love involves more than outward obedience, doesn’t it? Love runs deeper than outward actions. It goes straight to the heart. A child may do all his required chores. But if he does them grudgingly, fearfully, haphazardly, with grumbling or bitterness in his heart, he hasn’t loved his parents yet by doing those chores, has he?

So love for God as the only God, love for God’s name, love for God’s Word is to drive everything we do. It’s supposed to come before work, before family, before boyfriends, girlfriends, husbands and wives, before one’s own children, before happiness, before comfort, before fun, before pleasure, before honor, before life itself. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart

And love for the neighbor—we’ve talked about it before, too… To love the person next to you as if you were looking in the mirror, putting yourself in your neighbor’s situation and talking to your neighbor like you would talk to yourself in that situation, serving him like you would serve yourself. Or, as Jesus says elsewhere, just as you want men to do to you, you also do to them likewise. And not just the neighbor whom you like more than others or with whom you get along better than others, but for each and every neighbor, all the time. See yourself there, and then, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.

Now, what was Jesus saying here? Was He saying that these two commandments trump the Ten Commandments and every other law in the OT? Not at all. As He says, all the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments. All the other commandments offer the details of how God demands to be loved and how God demands that we love our neighbor. It’s no wonder that each of Luther’s explanations of the 10 Commandments begins, “We should fear and love God…”

For example, when God commanded Adam and Eve not to eat from the fruit of that tree in the upper left corner of Cranach’s painting, He wasn’t saying, “Just love me with all your heart! That’s the most important thing! It doesn’t really matter whether you eat from the tree or not.” How absurd! And when Moses gave the Ten Commandments, as you see depicted in the lower left part of the painting—for example, You shall not commit adultery—God wasn’t saying, “Just love your neighbor, and as long as love is the motivation, it doesn’t matter if you commit adultery or not.” Again, how absurd!

And yet that’s what the world would have you believe, that those old commandments are outdated, that we know better today, that we have made such progress that we know how to love better than God does.

No, as St. John puts it so well in his second epistle, “This is love: that we walk according to God’s commandments.”

The Pharisees were always focused on the Law, on the commandment of God, on what we’re supposed to do as human beings. But you see the problem, there in the lower left part of the painting? The Law of love—detailed in the Ten Commandments—actually condemns all men as sinners, as lawbreakers. It accuses us all. It takes its spear and drives us all into the flames of hell. If you would sit down and really think about what it would mean, each and every day, for love to drive every action, every word that comes out of your mouth, every thought and meditation of your heart—first for God and His Word, then for every person around you—you would have to acknowledge two things: God’s Law is truly good, and you are not.

So Jesus agreed with the Pharisees about the importance of the Law and about what the two great commandments are. You shall love God. You shall love your neighbor. “Love” is indeed the first and great commandment given in the entire Old Testament, and also the second. But that doesn’t mean it’s the only or even the great teaching in the Old Testament. In the second part of the Gospel, Jesus presents the great teaching.

After He answers the Pharisee’s question, He asks one of His own: What do you think about the Christ? Whose Son is He? The Son of David. He 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?” And no one was able to answer Him a word, nor from that day on did anyone dare question Him anymore.

See, there is no Christ in the Law side of the picture. Only God, sitting on His judgment seat, declaring the Law, and chasing all men to hell, because all men are sinners. The Law commands. The Law demands. The Law accuses. The Law condemns. Because it’s all based on your behavior.

But the Pharisees knew that God had also promised the Christ in the Old Testament. It’s just that they had shut Him out of the picture. Or maybe they had painted Him into a corner of their own picture, where He was clapping for those who keep the Law and only condemning the lawbreakers. As we’ve seen, there are none who keep the Law so as to be saved by it.

Jesus points to the Christ as the Son of David. The Pharisees agreed with Him. Yes, the Christ is the Son of David! David was the great king of Israel, the father of all the rest of the kings of Judah, the man after God’s own heart. How can David call his Son his “Lord”? They couldn’t answer, because they didn’t understand that the Christ had to be both true man and true God.

That’s what we have in Christ Jesus—true man and true God. That is the great teaching of the Bible, that God didn’t send a Savior into the world who was merely the greatest man who has ever lived. God Himself—the second Person of the holy Trinity—took on human flesh.

And the “why” is just as great. He had to be true man in order to live under the Law. He had to be true man to die under the Law. He had to be true God to keep the Law as the substitute of mankind and to suffer the Law’s condemnation as the sacrificial victim for all mankind. That’s why we sang that hymn right before the sermon, “O dearest Jesus, what law hast Thou broken that such sharp sentence should on Thee be spoken?”

The right side of the painting shows it all. There’s the Christ, on the cross, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. There’s John the Baptist, pointing the poor, condemned sinner to look to Christ and be saved, to be sprinkled with His blood by faith, worked by the Holy Spirit—depicted with the dove. There’s the serpent on the pole in the background, pointing ahead to Christ from the Old Testament. There’s the risen Christ coming out of the tomb, having trampled death and the devil for us. Believe in Him and be saved!

But, you notice in the Gospel, Jesus didn’t tell the Pharisees that they were saved. He didn’t tell them it was all OK. He didn’t forgive them their sins or open the kingdom of heaven to them. Because they still didn’t believe the Gospel. There it was, staring them in the face, and they still wanted to focus only on the Law side, on the great commandment. And so they missed the great teaching, and those who continued in their impenitence remained under God’s condemnation, all the way to hell.

For all that, the Pharisees were in a better position than most of the world today.

The Pharisees, for all their unbelief, still acknowledged many basic things: That God exists. That the true God is the God of the Old Testament, who did all the things He is said to have done there. That there was a real Adam and Eve, who committed real sin by eating from the real fruit of the real tree of knowledge in the real Garden of Eden. That the Old Testament is the Word of God that cannot lie or be false. That God has the authority to make demands of His creatures. That obedience to God’s commands is necessary on the part of us creatures. That there is a real place of torture and torment called hell, where condemned sinners must go at the end of their earthly life, as well as a real place of comfort and joy called heaven, where the blessed of God will go after this earthly life.

Those are all beliefs that most of today’s world rejects. Satan has done all he can to erase those assumptions from the memory and minds of men, to replace them with fiction: with the fiction of evolution, the fiction of a god-less universe, the fiction of the natural goodness of man, with the fiction that man is in control of his own destiny. Today’s world rejects both sides of the Law/Gospel painting.

But you, dear Christians, have been given a tremendous gift: to know both the Law and the Gospel. To know the truth of who God is, of what God commands, and of what God, in His grace, has given to the world in the Person of His Son—the God-Man, the one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself a ransom for all. This is the faith-creating, faith-preserving Gospel. And you know what God still graciously gives in the Gospel, what He gives in Word and Sacrament to all who believe: the forgiveness of sins. Keep the portrait of both Law and Gospel firmly fixed in your minds. The one is the great commandment of God; the other is the great teaching of God. Together, it is the power of God for salvation to all who believe. And God will indeed confirm you in it to the end, that you may be blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

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