Sermon audio here.
Today’s text shows us two approaches to religion that couldn’t be any more different. There are man’s religious priorities, which we see in the question the lawyer posed to Jesus, and then there are God’s priorities, which we see in the question our Lord put to the Pharisees.
The religion of man revolves around the question, “What should I do.” Or, as the lawyer asked our Lord, “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” He wanted to know how to appease God. This is the main concern of all man-made religion.
The lawyer also intends this question as a trap for our Lord. The lawyer asked Jesus this question, as our text says, “to test Him.” It was a pretty good test: scribes had endless debates about ranking the commandments, and nobody had come up with an answer that satisfied everyone yet.
Plus, our Lord had just silenced the Sadducees, with whom the Pharisees were also in constant conflict. So the Pharisees must have seen this as a golden opportunity. This was their chance to triumph where their rival Sadducees failed, and also to accuse Jesus at the same time, killing two birds with one stone.
But ultimately it’s a bad question—at least the way the Pharisees intended it—because they were looking to pit the commandments against each other. If they knew which one was the most important, they could focus all of their efforts on keeping that one and let the others go by the wayside.
The other problem with this question is even if you get the right answer, it condemns you. Knowing that you should be a perfect doesn’t make you perfect, and that’s exactly what the commandments demand. You can’t encounter our Lord without going away hurt. If His Law doesn’t crush you and bring you to repentance now, you’ll suffer later, and it won’t end.[i] There’s no comfort in knowing what God wants you to do, because you haven’t done it. Repent.
Our Lord’s answer is brilliant. He manages to give an answer without pitting the commandments against each another. He says the great and first commandment is to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. And then He adds a second commandment, which is like it: love your neighbor as yourself.
So really, you can sum up all of the commandments in a single word: love. All Ten Commandments have this in common. Sometimes people try to find loopholes in the commandments. Since there’s only ten, the thinking goes, surely there are sins the commandments don’t address. But that isn’t true. In fact, all we really need is the First Commandment—you shall have no other gods. That covers everything.
If you had no other gods, if you loved the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, you would always do what pleases Him. For example, there’s no commandment that explicitly says, “You shall not lie.” But Satan’s the father of lies, and it doesn’t please God when you act like Satan. Plus, if you understand the commandments rightly, lying is dealt with thoroughly in the second table of the Law even though it’s not mentioned explicitly.
We don’t like that we can’t meet God’s standards. When pitting the commandments against each other doesn’t work, we try to lower the bar. We think if we only try our best, that has to be good enough and God will be happy with that. But He isn’t. If it were, our Lord would not have needed to suffer and die. If your best is good enough, then Jesus died in vain.
When it comes to the Commandments, there’s no wiggle room. God doesn’t say, “Do your best to love God and love your neighbor.” He’s painfully specific. He says, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” And when it comes to your neighbor, it’s not just “try your best”, but “love your neighbor as yourself.”
When the main question is “what should I do”, you always end up with bad religion. It makes religion all about us rather than Christ. False religion promises good things to good people. The problem is, there are no good people (Rom. 3:12; Mark 10:8), and really bad things sometimes happen to those who belong to Christ. Good things to good people isn’t grace, it’s works righteousness.
This is what reincarnation teaches. If you do good things, you’ll come back as something better in the next life, or if you do bad things, you’ll come back as something worse. Islam is all about appeasing Allah. Works righteousness gives us suicide bombers. They’re true believers who are willing to make the ultimate sacrifice in the hope of an eternal reward from their false god. That’s what the religion of the law gets you.
But not even Christianity is immune to commandment-driven religion. Listen in vain for any preaching of the cross or repentance in the sermons of Joel Osteen and those like him. It’s all about doing your best, living your best life now.
Past bestsellers like The Purpose Driven Life are entirely law-driven, and most of what fills the shelves of Christian bookstores today are variations on this same theme. Or look at the pope. He’s so concerned with social justice—the problems in the world and the good things we should be doing to fix them—that he never really gets around to preaching the Gospel.[ii]
Today’s text shows that our questions and priorities are different from God’s. We’re constantly asking questions about what we should do, what we’ve done to deserve whatever bad thing has happened to us, or what we can do to fix it. How often have you been tempted to try and bargain with God, promising Him you’ll do this or that if He only gives you what you want?
Not even Luther was immune to this kind of bargaining. He once famously promised St. Anne he’d drop out of law school become a monk if only she saw him safely through a violent thunderstorm. He survived and made good on his promise.
God’s questions are of a different sort altogether. For Him, the main question isn’t “what should you do”, but “what do you believe?” So our Lord asked the Pharisees, “Who do you think about the Christ? Whose Son is He?”
Just a few chapters ago our Lord asked Peter, “Who do you say that I am?” It’s a question that appears again and again in the Gospels. Our Lord keeps bringing us back to this question because it’s the most important question ever asked. Your eternal welfare depends on this question, but you’re constantly making other things your priority.
What do you think about the Christ? There’s nothing more important for you to consider, nothing more important for a pastor to preach in a sermon. St. Paul once summarized the content of the Gospel by saying, “We preach Christ crucified.” If sermons and congregations are to be truly Christian, the central message must always be Christ and Him crucified.
That’s not to say we shouldn’t hear about God’s Commandments. The Law is not only good, it’s necessary. Christ doesn’t ignore the question about the Law; He just doesn’t want that to be the main thing. Where questions about the law are asked and the Gospel doesn’t follow, you’re either left as a self-righteous Pharisee, or, if you’re honest, in total despair because you know you haven’t even come close to keeping it.
This is why Jesus keeps coming back to the Gospel about who He is. Your default mode is to keep falling back on yourself, but Christ wants you to rely on Him instead.
How often have funerals been about something other than Jesus? Instead of mourning, the bereaved often make herculean efforts to convince themselves that so-and-so was a good person. Funerals these days often amount to little more than a depressing recitation of the dead person’s greatest hits. It’s no wonder people don’t want to have funerals!
But when they’re about Christ, funerals are anything but depressing. Comfort for the bereaved is found in the proclamation of Jesus’ victory over the grave, that Christ is risen. When funerals are done right, you’d not only want to have one for yourself, you’d be over at Foran or Hallowell and James trying to buy season tickets! Funeral services would be standing room only and Wrigley Field would be a ghost town. If you had any regret at all, it would only be that you couldn’t live to see your own. There’s nothing more comforting or uplifting in the world than a genuinely Christian funeral.
But the sinful human flesh always cooperates with Satan in constantly wanting to move past Christ and the cross. I’ve heard people say, “We already know all about Jesus, pastor. Let’s move on to something else. Why do we need to keep hearing about our sin and Jesus’ death on the cross? It’s boring to hear the same old thing over and over again.”
But the Gospel isn’t boring. Anyone who thinks that doesn’t get it. The Gospel is like having a terminal diagnosis and being told they just found the cure for your disease. The Gospel is sort of like that, but so much better. Even if they had that miracle drug, you’d still eventually die.
But the Gospel is the eternal cure for death. It’s the final remedy for all that plagues you. The Gospel satisfies longings you may not have even known you had. The Lord points you to the Medicine of Immortality, His very own Body and Blood. As He says, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise Him up on the Last Day,” (John 6:54).
You can’t know the Gospel well enough. That’s the problem—we think we do. If you did, your faith would be perfect and you’d never sin. This is why you need to keep hearing the Gospel and receiving the Sacrament week after week. You never move beyond needing forgiveness, and that forgiveness is always and only in Christ.
The Christian life is one of daily contrition and repentance. You never get to the point where you stop sinning or don’t need forgiveness on this side of glory. Christ forgives your sin and gives you His Holy Spirit so that you might resist evil, live a holy life, and repent when you fail.
So our Lord directs the Pharisees back to Him, asking, “What do you think about the Christ? Whose Son is He?” The answer, of course, is David’s Son, but the interesting thing is that in the psalm, David calls his unborn Son Lord and worships Him.
This highlights for us that Christ is not only the Son of David, who, as True Man, took your place and suffered under the Law, but also that He is True God, begotten of the Father from eternity. As God, He was able to satisfy the requirements of the Law—an eternity of suffering hell—in a mere three hours on the cross, and not for one person only, but for the sin of the whole world.[iii]
Christ doesn’t lower the bar on God’s commandments in the least. He does what you couldn’t. He doesn’t leave you in a bad religion with and angry God that you could never appease. He has borne your griefs and carried your sorrows. He was crushed for your iniquities. Upon Him was the chastisement that brought you peace, and with His stripes, you are healed.
Soli Deo Gloria
[i] Insight from David Petersen’s 2015 Issues, Etc. interview on Trinity 18.
[ii] To be sure, Roman Catholic doctrine is inherently works-righteous even apart from the social justice question. Christ’s sacrifice on the cross is not taught as being all-sufficient for our redemption; our works of love must be added.
[iii] Petersen, ibid.
+Rev. Eric Andersen
St. Matthew 22:34–46
The Eighteenth Sunday after Trinity: “Bad Religion”
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