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What do you say about the Christ? Whose Son is He? (Matthew 22:42)
In the Name + of Jesus. AMEN. In Matthew, the lawyer tries to trick Jesus into voicing an unorthodox view about which of God’s commandments was the greatest. In Mark’s Gospel, he recounts how the scribe (one of the Pharisees) who asks the question has a slightly different program in mind. Having just heard Jesus trounce the Sadducees in an argument about the resurrection at the last day, he seems intent on providing Jesus with an opportunity to make yet another respectably pharisaic pronouncement. In both Gospel accounts, however, Jesus simply answers from Scripture, quoting Deut. 6:4-5 and Lev. 19:18. Love of God, he says, is the first and great commandment; love of neighbor, the second. The response is correct, minimal, and above all, cagey.
The lawyer begins in Luke’s Gospel by standing up and addressing Jesus. “Teacher,” he says, “what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus’ reply, at least at the outset, seems to be every bit as cagey as his reply in Matthew. In the old rabbinic tradition he turns the question back on the questioner. Jesus asks him, “What is written in the law? How do you interpret it?” But, why does Jesus take this approach? Why is he so guarded?
At the beginning of their exchange he detects a certain hostility in the lawyer’s motives. “Behold, a certain lawyer stood up, putting him to the test.” Jesus, of course, has long been aware of the establishment’s hostility toward him. As early as Mark 3:6, the Pharisees and the Herodians were trying to figure out a way to destroy him. Thus, when yet another establishment type asks him a religious question, he responds instinctively with caution.
There is no question that, almost from the first, the religious authorities of the day perceived Jesus’ words and works as a judgment of how they’ve taken care of the revelation of God. It never seems to have occurred to them to write him off as a maverick. They automatically assumed he was a danger and, as early as Mark 3:6, they were forming focus groups to explore the possibility of destroying him.
From our point of view, of course, the scribes and Pharisees are almost characters in a hiss-and-boo melodrama. The moustache-twirling, cloak-and-dagger parts that the Gospel writers assign them seem over-dramatic. But from their own point of view, they were quite correct. Powers that be are always expert sniffers of the wind and testers of the waters. They can spot a threat to their system a mile off. All they need is half a sentence from a professor or the odd gesture from a political figure and their heresy-alarm goes off like a tornado siren.
And Jesus provided them with far more cause for alarm than that. The common people may have been “astonished at his teaching because he taught them as one who had authority and not as the scribes” (Mark 1:22). And the crowds may have been captivated by his healings and titillated by his consorting with tax collectors and sinners. But the experts knew better. He was, pure and simple, a menace. Not only was he shaking the foundations of the Torah, he was also certain to make political trouble and bring down the wrath of Rome on their heads. In other words, he threatened to bring about a judgment they were unable to see as the work of God. To bring about a crisis that would put an end not only to their caretaking of God’s Word but also, as they saw it, the end of God’s Word itself.
Unfortunately, the church, by and large, has always been more receptive to the pharisaical view of things. Christian preachers in particular regularly blow the Gospel of grace clean out of the water with sermons that make reward and punishment, not Jesus’ resurrection with its pardon of all sins, the touchstone of judgment. And Christians generally – every day of the week and twice on Sundays in some cases – hear them gladly. The church has found that plain old hanging-judge sermons sell, but that grace remains a drug on the market. As a preacher, I can with the greatest of ease tell you that God is going to get you, and I can be sure you will believe every word I say. But what I cannot do, without inviting utter disbelief and serious doubts about my sanity, is proclaim that Christ has in fact fulfilled the whole law FOR YOU and taken away all the sins of the world and that he has, accordingly, solved all the problems he and we once had with sin. I cannot tell you, as John does, that he “did not come to judge the world but to save the world” (John 12:47). Nor can I ask you, as Paul does, to believe the logical consequences of that statement that “there is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1). Because if I do, the same old questions will come pouring out: “What about Hitler?” “What about child molesters?” “What about my skunk of a brother-in-law?” Your one pressing worry is always, “What have you done with the hell we know and love?”
When you come at Jesus like the Pharisees, and we all do by and by, then you will get only what so many preachers have gotten. A Messiah playing cops and robbers, a vindictive God bent on putting all the baddies under flat rocks. But come at Christ in the way of grace, in the way of Baptism and His Supper, and the words of a Savior who has just spent months or years making his death and resurrection the primary device of gracious love and you will see something new. You will see Gospel, not law. Good news, not bad. Pardon, not judgement.
In this morning’s reading Jesus is zeroing in on the Pharisees’ desire to establish their own righteousness – to be winners, successful livers of lawful lives – by whittling the law down to the size of their own eyeballs, that are blind to the God, their Savior who is standing right in front of them.
They refuse to see that the way of Jesus leads us to the revelation that sinners are the church’s business, for God’s sake. Literally. So let the scribes and the Pharisees, the phony-baloney, super-righteous, unforgiving scorekeepers who delight in getting everybody’s number take care of any judging that they want to. Judgment now is their cup of tea, and they can poison themselves all they want with it. But let the church which works for a Savior who delights in getting everybody’s name stay a million miles away from it. We are called together this morning by a Lord who came not to judge the world but to save it. Our business should be simply to keep everybody in the net of his kingdom until we are pulled out at the Last Day. Sorting people out is strictly his department, not ours.
And Jesus goes on to imply what Paul was to say later and more fully in his letter to the Roman churches, that if we take our stand on the law we will simply be condemned by the law because no one can ever really keep it. But not to worry, he tells us, because if you take your stand on me, on my cross and blood and death, if you will only believe I am the Christ, the Son of God, who came not to judge but to save, not to examine records but to erase them, not to enforce the charges contained in the law of commandments and ordinances but to nail them all to my cross (Eph. 2:15; Col. 2:14) then you will be out of the court system forever.
Then you will take your stand on the truth about yourself, on the truth that all your works and ways, whatever they were or are, are done in the light of Jesus’ absolving death and resurrection. And that truth, by your simple trust in His word that it is already true, will make you free. Free of all worry and doubt. For it is you he saves, not your lives. It is you he dies for, not your suit of clothes in which you hide from the bare naked truth about yourselves. He does not save you, as the Pharisees thought, as you dress yourselves up at high noon on a good day. He saves you only as you stumble naked and uncombed from a lumpy mattress to cold shower after a long, hard night. That is, we limp in faith from the bed of our death, through the blood of the cross, to the joy of his resurrection. Christ does that FOR YOU. Christ, the Son of God and your Savior today and forever. AMEN.