In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Ghost.
Today’s gospel occurs in the context of Holy Week, likely on Tuesday. Jesus has entered Jerusalem for His final Passover where He would be its fulfillment, the last Lamb that would ever need to meet its bloody end for the forgiveness of sins. By this point the tension between Jesus and the Pharisees was palpable. They were eager to be rid of Him, and so tried to get Him to speak heresy. They figured that, if they could just ask Him some loaded questions and get Him to talk aimlessly He might wander into something deserving of death. So, shortly before the exchange we just heard, the Pharisees plotted how they might entangle Jesus in His talk and asked Him the question about paying taxes (Mt. 22:15-22). After He silences them, He takes on the Sadducees in their denial of the resurrection of the dead (Mt. 22:23-33). Jesus silencing the Sadducees was no surprise to the Pharisees, because they saw the Sadducees as inferior. Now the Pharisees decide to take one last stab at the matter, figuring they will trap Jesus in heresy at last.
So one of the Pharisees, a lawyer, asked Jesus the kind of questions the Pharisees liked to discuss. They lived for religious debates over matters of minutia like ranking all 613 commandments of the Torah in order from greatest to least. Jesus answers that question with something every good Jew knew by heart. He says that the greatest commandment is part of the Shema, the daily creed recited by the Jews: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength” (Dt. 6:4-5). Then He quickly follows it up with “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
By this, Jesus shows that the Law is not an abstraction. There is no such thing as a nebulous love of God. It is as Holy Scripture teaches time and time again: if you want to show that you love God, show it by loving your neighbor by keeping the second table of the Law, the Commandments that address our horizontal relationships with one another. St. John summed it up the best in His Epistle: “If someone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen? And this commandment we have from Him: that he who loves God must love his brother also” (1 Jn. 4:20-21).
God’s Law is holy and it is good. But it condemns. The Pharisees did not walk away unscathed by that preaching of the Law and neither do we. We do not have this kind of perfect love of God or neighbor, especially the neighbors we dislike and would rather not have as neighbors. We cannot pat ourselves on the back for being good, God-loving Christians if we are not letting that love shine forth in how we treat those around us. Hatred, apathy, refusal to aid, and the like towards our neighbor is hatred, apathy, and all the rest towards God: “Inasmuch as you did it to the least of one of these My brethren, you did it to Me” (Mt. 25:40).
Jesus leaves us where the Law always leaves us: dead and in need of a Savior. Which is precisely why Jesus then asks His question of the Pharisees concerning the Messiah. In a quick reading, the Gospel is easily missed in this question. But if you consider the deeper meaning of the first verse of Psalm 110, which Jesus quotes to the Pharisees, you understand where Jesus is coming from. The Messiah is both Man—of the house and lineage of David—and God—David’s Lord. What Jesus is doing is teaching the importance that He, the Messiah, is fully God and fully Man.
This is the Two Natures in Christ. And while it’s easy to get lost in the systematic theology side of this doctrine that Jesus teaches about Himself, it’s important to know. Without Jesus being fully God and fully Man, there is no forgiveness of sins. The setting of Holy Week, just days before Jesus’ crucifixion, adds to the richness of this doctrine. If Jesus was not God and Man, what He was about to do on Friday would be of no avail. He must be fully man, so that a man fully obeyed God’s holy Law, both in the letter and the spirit, down to the very last detail, so that there was a life to give up and blood to shed. But if Jesus were only a man that somehow managed to avoid all sin, His death would only be good as a substitute for one person. He needed to be fully Divine to give life, to execute all judgment, to have all authority in heaven and on earth, to cleanse from sin, to overcome the wrath of God, to overcome death, to crush the Serpent’s head, and to restore righteousness, life, and salvation. These are divine gifts that can only come from God Himself (FC SD VIII 55). In short, Jesus tells the Pharisees and He tells you that there is no hope for you to be freed from the Law except through Him, God in the flesh, the One who has come for your salvation.
Jesus is the One foretold by ancient seers, the One whom the Father has given to vanquish grim death for you. He has lived a sinless life because you cannot, but instead of leaving you in your sin, He has forgiven you for all of it. He forgives you when you do not love God with your whole heart, soul, and strength. He forgives you when you do not love your neighbor as yourself. He has taken all of your sin upon Himself and given you His righteousness in exchange. You do not need to fear God’s wrath, but instead get to rejoice in His love that has opened heaven to you for the sake of His Son.
And while you continue in this life He gives you His Holy Spirit who causes you to know and love God more, and to love your neighbor more fully. He directs and rules your heart to do the things that please God, your good works as evidence of the saving faith He has worked in you. And when you fail, the Holy Spirit directs you back to this place, to the Word and the Sacraments as reminders and givers of all that Christ has accomplished on your behalf. Here the Holy Spirit gives you glimpses of heaven, reminding you that one day you will leave behind all of the sin and sadness of this world. And He reminds you that because your Savior is fully God and fully Man and has ascended to heaven with His human body, your body will ascend as well at the Resurrection of the Dead on the Last Day where you will reap the fullness of heaven.
Though the Pharisees may have willingly missed the point Jesus was trying to give by His teaching, instead loving to read ways into the Law to justify themselves, the Holy Spirit has revealed to you that Jesus has come, as God in the flesh, to bear your sin and be your Savior. You do not need to justify yourself, because Jesus has done it for you, and because He has done all things for your salvation you will join those who cry “Holy, Holy, Holy” to the Trinity for all eternity.
The peace of God which passeth all understanding keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.
Sermons from Mount Olive
Mount Olive follows the historic one-year lectionary (series of readings).