The Law, and How to Keep It

Text: Matthew 22:34-46

Our Lutheran Book of Concord says this near the end,

The distinction between the Law and the Gospel is a particularly brilliant light. It serves the purpose of…properly explaining and understanding the Scriptures…We must guard this distinction with special care, so that these two doctrines may not be mixed with each other…When that happens, Christ’s merit is hidden and troubled consciences are robbed of comfort, which they otherwise have in the Holy Gospel when it is preached genuinely and purely.[1]

Today we have another text in which the distinction between the Law and the Gospel brought up and taught to us by our Lord. When questioned by the Pharisees about the Law, Jesus explained the holy and righteous will of God, the actions that all the Commandments are pointed towards: love of God and love of neighbor. As Jesus said, “On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”[2] Our Lord went on to explain the Gospel: that He is both the promised Son of David and David’s Lord, his Redeemer.

The thing about the Law and the Gospel is that you can’t have one without the other. These two teachings must remain and be preached in the Church until Christ returns. If you take away the Law, the Gospel gets turned into a new Law. If you take away the Gospel, then you doom people to eternal condemnation. Therefore, our Lord rightly teaches both the Law and the Gospel in this text. Today we confess that in the Law we are taught God’s holy and righteous will and in the Gospel, we are taught what Christ has done for us.

I.

The text this week takes place during Holy Week, around the Tuesday. Sunday was the Triumphal Entry, and much of the first part of the week Jesus spent teaching in the temple. While He was teaching, the challengers just kept coming. First, it was the chief priests with the elders, then the Pharisees. Then came the Sadducees – who don’t believe in the Resurrection. Then came the Pharisees, again, in our text. Their plan? Get Jesus to trip up and incriminate Himself. So, the text begins, “When the Pharisees heard that [Jesus] had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together. And one of them, a lawyer, asked Him a question to test him. ‘Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?‘”[3]

This was an on-going discussion for the Pharisees. They and their scribes and the rabbis would argue back and forth about which is the greatest commandment. If Jesus said something different than the others generally responded, then they got Him. Jesus won’t be caught in their game. He cuts through the muck and goes right to the heart, as only the author of the Law could. He cites from Deuteronomy 6, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.”[4] As Jesus said, this is the first Commandment. We are to fear, love and trust in God above all things. But, a second goes with it – again from the Old Testament – “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”[5]

These two commandments are the sum of the whole Law. In fact, all Scripture is directed to this end: that we love God and love each other. Sounds pretty simple. But, remember, Jesus is preaching the Law here. He’s speaking to the Pharisees, of whom we’ve had examples over the last number of Sundays: The Pharisee and the Tax Collector or the parable about humility from last week. The Pharisees were known and loved for their outward piety. But in their hearts, they did not love their neighbors and, therefore, did not truly love God. And neither do we.

The great commandment is that we love God with all that we have and are, but do we? To use an illustration from Luther, we would rather have a gold coin in our pocket that we could use to feed our appetites than hear the whole and pure Gospel read. God’s holy and righteous will is that we love our neighbor as ourselves, yet so often – for all we care – our neighbor can take a hike. Like the priest and Levite, we pass by while the Samaritan suffers. Even if we don’t pass by physically, we hold both contempt and apathy in our hearts.

II.

The will of God is given to us in the Law: we are to love Him above all things and our neighbor as ourselves. This is good, right, and true. Jesus says, “On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” And, I think that’s devastating. Because, the whole of Scripture directs us to those two things, and condemns for our failure to do them. This is what the Law does: it shows us what we are to do, and it condemns us when we don’t. Therefore, the Law must not be preached alone. But, after the Law, the Gospel. This is what Jesus does. He has just taught the right understanding of the Law, which is both good and hard for us to hear. In it we hear what we are supposed to do, but that which we fail to do. What we need now is the Gospel.

Jesus preaches the Gospel here in an odd way, by talking about King David. King David, inspired by the Holy Spirit, sang Psalm 110, which says, “The Lord said to my Lord: ‘Sit at My right hand, until I make Your enemies Your footstool.’[6] We know from elsewhere in Scripture that the Messiah would come from the David’s bloodline. This is shown in the genealogies of Matthew and Luke. But, here David – and Jesus by citing it – says that not only would the Messiah be his descendent but also his Lord. And, by “Lord,” he also means “Redeemer.” To redeem someone, in the Scriptural understanding, is to buy someone back from something else. In David’s case and ours, Jesus is our Redeemer and Lord, for He has bought us back from sin, death, and the devil.

“Not with gold or silver, but with His holy, precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death.” Jesus is David’s son and Lord, and ours, by purchasing us out of death by His own suffering and death in our place. But, before He died for us, He kept God’s Law for us. First, He did truly fear, love, and trust in God above all things. Second, He perfectly loved the whole world by dying for the whole world on the cross. By these things Jesus both fulfilled God’s Law in our place, and secured for us the forgiveness of our sins. This is the distinction between the Law and the Gospel: the Law shows us God’s will for us and condemns transgressions against it, the Gospel shows what us Jesus did for us and gives to us.

But, if we cannot do the Law or obtain merit before God by our works, why is the Law still preached? Well, because the Commandments remain holy and righteous and good. They are God’s will for us as Christians. Besides, it is good to not steal or kill or commit adultery. Sometimes we need the reminder. When Jesus was questioned about the Law, He didn’t say we should put it on the shelf and talk about something us. Rather, He taught the Law and then the Gospel. The Gospel is different from the Law in another way, too. The Law doesn’t actually give us the ability to keep it, but the Gospel does. The Gospel doesn’t just tell us we are forgiven, but through being preached it actually does it. The Gospel is the instrument through which the Spirit creates and sustains faith, and through which we are equipped and led to do God’s will, the Commandments.

We won’t keep them perfectly, since we are in the flesh. Now that Christ has atoned for our sins, God our Father no longer looks down at our failures as an angry judge, but, to use Luther again, God looks at us through His fingers. He sees only the righteousness of His own dear Son. For our part, as God’s dear children, we seek to do the will of our Father. The Lutheran Confessions say that the distinction between the Law and the Gospel is a brilliant light and the way to rightly understand Scripture. In our text, Jesus teaches both the Law and the Gospel. In the Law, He shows that God’s holy will is that we love both Him and our neighbor. In the Gospel, Jesus showed that He is both David’s Son and Lord, who has redeemed us all by His perfect life and death.


 

[1] Paul Timothy McCain, ed., Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2005), 552.

[2] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Mt 22:40.

[3] Matt. 22:34-36.

[4] Matt. 22:37.

[5] Matt. 22:39.

[6] Ps. 110:1.

Heavenly Humility

Text: Luke 14:1-11

This week we find ourselves back in St. Luke’s Gospel, with Jesus continuing His journey to Jerusalem, to suffer and die for us. Our text finds our Lord reclining at table in the house of a ruler of the Pharisees. As Jesus traveled spreading the Good News, preaching repentance and the forgiveness of sins, it was His practice to preach also in the synagogues on the Sabbath. Often, someone who heard Him would invite Him over for dinner. Earlier in the Gospel, it was Levi the tax collector. A couple times it was a Pharisee. And now, this time, a ruler of the Pharisees. At first, the Pharisees invited Jesus to see if He was the real deal. But, now, the text says, they were watching Him closely so that they might have something to accuse Him over.

When we heard this text last year, we learned that Jesus used this occasion to again teach the true meaning of the Sabbath. The Sabbath is not about ceasing from all work, but rather that we set aside time each week to hear God’s Word and receive His gifts, so that we might then share that love with those around us. Jesus showed this by healing the man of his affliction. He demonstrated what He had taught elsewhere, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath,” and, as St. Paul says, “The whole Law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’[1]

We turn now to what happened next. As our Lord looked around, He noticed how those who were invited would seat themselves in places of honor – each of them jockeying for the most prestigious seats. Jesus told them a parable to the effect that they ought not to choose places of honor for themselves, but rather live in humility. He summed up the teaching with this key passage, “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”[2] Today, we confess that as our Lord humbled Himself, we also are called to humble ourselves before God and live out that humility in love toward others.

I.

On a first reading of this passage, it’s easy to breeze through and move on. We get that it’s about humility. We get that the guests were wrong to deliberate and choose for themselves the places of honor. The same point was brought up in both of the other texts today, as well. Something we said a few weeks back on Mission Sunday was that all of Scripture is about Jesus. On the road to Emmaus, Jesus went through all the Law, the Prophets, and Psalms and explained that they were about Him. So, I’d like us to consider first how this passage is about Jesus.

You might think that’s silly, since Jesus is the one telling the parable. But, think about it this way: Is Jesus not the image of humility? Is not His whole life one big exercise in humility? In fact, that’s what we call the period from His conception by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary up to His death on the cross – the Humiliation. For, He, being very God of very God, did not rest Himself on His eternal glory, but instead set aside that glory to take on human flesh. It had been the Father’s plan from before the foundation of the world that the Son should be sacrificed as payment for sin. Jesus, Himself being full-God, still did not disobey the Father but humbly submitted to His will. Remember Jesus’ words in the Garden, “Father, if You are willing, remove this cup from Me. Nevertheless, not My will, but Yours, be done.”[3]

At any point along the way, Jesus could’ve demanded the homage of the people. He could’ve decked Himself in gold and glory – but He didn’t. The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve. Isaiah prophesied, “He had no form or majesty that we should look at Him, and no beauty that we should desire Him.” Neither did Jesus have a permanent earthly home, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.”[4] After the miraculous feeding, when people wanted to make Him king by force, Jesus withdrew and would not allow it. Jesus humbled Himself perfectly, even to death on a cross. “Therefore God has highly exalted Him and bestowed on Him the name that is above every name.”[5]

The point of His humiliation was so that He might accomplish the work of salvation for us. Because of the Fall and by our own sinful nature, we are unable to save ourselves. We are incapable of contributing a single thought, word, or deed, to our own salvation. Instead, Jesus did it all. And, He gives His salvation as a gift through faith. He gives salvation to those who humbly confess their sins and look to Him for forgiveness. So that we might confess our sins, He gives us His Law and pastors to preach that Law, so that we might recognize from the Commandments how we have sinned and humbly repent. Through pastors, He also preaches the Gospel, where we learn that though our sins are like scarlet, in His blood we are made white as snow. So that we might this mindset, that we stand as beggars before God, Jesus reminds us, “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.” Remember the tax collector and the Pharisee.

II.

We’ve learned now how this text first applies to Jesus. Jesus is the prime example of humility. He set aside His glory for a time to become the ultimate servant, even unto death. Then, He who humbled Himself was exalted by God the Father when He was raised from the dead and seated at the right hand of the majesty on high. Now, how does this passage concern us? As we’ve discussed already, the goal of this text is that we would learn from it to be humble. First, we are to be humble before God. It’s not because of how good we all are that we gather on Sunday mornings, but because of how sinful we all are. We have all sinned, and do sin continually. Yet, by the Holy Spirit we have been brought to confess our sins and receive forgiveness. Even this very morning. When we see the punishment Christ endured, we know from Scripture that that punishment was the earned reward for our unrighteousness. Therefore, we always pray that God continue to create clean hearts within us.

Second, humility before God is lived out in humility toward others. That was the malfunction of the Pharisees that prompted this teaching from Jesus. The Greek says that they were all choosing for themselves the places of honor. Each person was considering himself in relation to the others, and reaching the conclusion that they were the best, most honorable person in the room and that the others should give place to them. Such happens among us also in our thoughts and our words, when we, too, look around and consider ourselves as of higher standing than everyone else. We forget St. Paul’s words that there is one body and one Spirit, and we were all called to one and the same hope in Christ.

The readings this week direct our minds to the mind of Christ. He didn’t consider His position as God and disregard our lowliness. Instead, He set aside His glory and honor to suffer and die in our place, for our salvation. Though we deserve nothing but wrath and punishment, our sins are forgiven by God’s grace. Therefore, we are called to be humble before God. May our Lord Christ, by the Holy Spirit, grant us always a contrite and willing spirit, that we, too, would consider less of ourselves and more of our neighbors. May the mercy we’ve received also be lived out in humility and love for our neighbor.


[1] Mark 2 and Galatians 5.

[2] Lk. 14:11.

[3] Lk. 22:42.

[4] Is. 53:2 and Matt. 8:20.

[5] Phil. 2:9.