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The Greatest Commandment and the One Who Has Kept It (Matthew 22.34-46)

The Sunday of the Examination of the Scribes and the Pharisees

Michael Tide – Trinity XVIII

“The Greatest Commandment and the One Who Has Kept It”
Philip Meyer, Pastor Emeritus

Matthew 22.34-46

08 October 2023



Our Gospel reading is set on Tuesday of Holy Week. The Sadducees and Pharisees, the two main religious parties of the Jews had tried repeatedly to trap Jesus with questions by which they could bring him to trial and convict him of something worthy of death.

The Pharisees came up to bat first, to use a baseball metaphor. It had to do with paying taxes to Caesar. Deftly Jesus answered that there are duties to Caesar and duties to God. They are not the same. The Pharisees heard the answer and marveled at how deftly Jesus had escaped their net.

Next came the Sadducees who witnessed the crushing defeat of the Pharisee’s plot. The Sadducees denied the resurrection of the body so they came up with a clever riddle that they thought no one could answer. Putting forth something they denied—the resurrection of the dead—they asked Jesus about a seven-times married widow. Who would be her husband in heaven? Jesus chided them for their lack of knowledge of the Scriptures. The dead do in fact rise bodily on the last day but there is no marriage in heaven. Jesus’ last word sealed their defeat:

31 And as for the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was said to you by God: 32 ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not God of the dead, but of the living.” [Matt. 22.32]

The Pharisees concocted a new plan of attack. They chose one of their group, a scribe or legal expert in the Torah to ask a question which would surely baffle Jesus.

“Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?”

They wanted Jesus to choose to the most important commandment in the Torah.

This, of course, was a trick question because the Pharisees had developed a system of 613 laws in addition to the Ten Commandments, the same number of Hebrew letters in the Decalog, 365 of them having negative commands, 248 having positive commands. For example, they said that a son could get out of caring for his elderly parents by saying that his money had been dedicated to God [Mark 7.11]. It was a hypocritical way of dealing with their greed. The Pharisees had to come up with new laws to account for new situations. It’s kind of like the Amish who forbid all modern conveniences such as a telephone but allow for the use of a fax machine. So, this meant that all 613 laws had equal value even if they were contradictory. They asked Jesus to choose which one was most important. They thought that they had indeed trapped him.

But not so! Jesus quoted the great Shema of Deuteronomy 6.5:

“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.

To this commandment Jesus added a second. One must love his neighbor like himself. And there we have it. So, all of the ordinances about sacrifices, dietary dos and don’ts, fringes on garments, ablutions, and a host of other things, don’t really matter. What matters most is that big commandment to “fear, love, and trust in God above all things, “ as we learned it from Luther’s Small Catechism. God only! Not God alongside of other things. Loving God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” and your neighbor like yourself comprise the entirety of the Two Tables of the Law. In fact, the whole Law of God depends on these two commandments, said Jesus.

It’s very simple, is it not? When the rich young man asked Jesus what he needed to do to inherit eternal life, Jesus answered simply, “If you would enter life, keep the commandments.” [Matt. 19.17] All Ten Commandments.

So, how is that going for you? I know it doesn’t go well for me when I look into that First Commandment. I’m not able to do it. The Pharisees who tried so very hard get an A for effort but an F- for results. For all their efforts they were hypocritical beyond credibility as we hear in the entire next chapter. He spoke seven “Woes,” warnings, to them. Jesus exposed their hypocrisy and failure to keep the most important commandment of all. Total failure. As Texas cowboys might say, “they’re all hat and no cattle.” Empty suits. Hypocrites.

But that’s the story of each one of us, too, isn’t it? You and I don’t fare any better and we aren’t even dealing with 613 meaningless additions to the one great commandment. It’s very simple, is it not? Yet, our failures are countless.

How serious is God about us keeping the commandments? One’s thoughts are sin even if people do not regard them as sin. It goes to the very slightest sin. Our Lutheran Confessions use a Latin term countless times: Lex semper accusat—”The Law always accuses.” The Law demands perfection and will not allow for even the smallest failure.

Unfortunately, most people don’t take God’s warnings seriously, not even clergy. They don’t believe that God means it when he demands perfection. Luther complained about the preachers in his day who coddled their hearers by saying:

“Even if you do not keep the commandments to love God and your neighbor—yes, even if you are an adulterer—that does not hurt you; if only you believe, then you will be saved.”

Luther responds:

No, dear man, that will not work, and you will not possess the kingdom of heaven. It must happen that you keep the commandments and love God and your neighbor.” [Luther’s Works, AE 79.173].

Is this not an indictment of our age, where good is called evil and evil is called good, where sexual sins in particular are brushed aside as of no consequence? Isaiah wrote:

Woe to those who call evil good

and good evil,

who put darkness for light

and light for darkness,

who put bitter for sweet

and sweet for bitter!

21  Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes,

and shrewd in their own sight! [Isaiah 5.20-21]

If I do not keep the Law as God demands, that is, perfectly, I am damned. God agrees with this and confirms it in his Word. The Law offers no advice other than this: You must keep it perfectly if you want to be saved by it. The history of the world shows that man does not take God’s threats seriously even though the proof is presented daily because every man, woman, and child in this world dies. If one could keep the Law as God demands there would be no death.

The Law tells us what will happen if we continue to hold on to the insane idea that he doesn’t mean what he says and that we can make up for what is lacking. If you look at a serial killer and think that he has more to make up than you who have never done such things, you are dead wrong. It doesn’t matter how numerous your sins are, you still haven’t kept that chief commandment to love God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind, to say nothing about loving your neighbor perfectly. In short, it is impossible for any of us to meet the standard because of the sin that lives in us. We are all infected with a 100% fatal disease that we cannot cure no matter how hard we try.

After he answered the Pharisees Jesus asked them a question:

“What do you think about the Christ? Whose son is he?”

His listeners were quick to answer, “The son of David.” They believed that David would have a descendant who would fix things, but only in an earthly way. Jesus called the religious leaders “blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!” [Matt. 23.24]

Then Jesus posed the question that ended the discussion:

“If then David calls him Lord, how is he his son?” [Matt. 22.45]

Clearly the religious leaders rejected Christ as God’s remedy for sin. They could not boast about anything because all their attempts to keep the Law were failures. The prophets had long foretold that the Christ was coming who would restore mankind to the Father by forgiving their sins through the innocent life, suffering, and death of his only-begotten Son. Jesus came to fulfill the whole will and Law of God on behalf of the whole world. Jesus loved the Father perfectly and obeyed when mankind did not. He took the enormity of the world’s sins onto himself and made an atonement by his own precious blood. Thus, Jesus alone fulfilled the Law for us and brought God’s grace to humanity. Thus, we stand protected by the innocent blood of Christ. He has paid the full penalty for the sin of the world by his death. God forgives everything for his sake, not for the sake of our deeds or merit.

Jesus is David’s greater Son and Lord. Jesus was appealing to these Pharisees to believe in him as God’s perfect sacrifice for sin. It is the same appeal that is made every Sunday from this pulpit. It is the plea to repent and flee to Christ who has made full atonement for your sins.

Our risen Lord sent his Holy Spirit so that we may begin to keep his Commandment as he wants. Daily we fail. Yet, return to your Lord in repentance, trusting that he has shouldered all your burdens and sins and has made an end of them. Live in your Baptism! What is more, Christ feeds you with the medicine of immortality, his body and blood, to assure you of that forgiveness he has earned. A beginning has been made which will be completed in your resurrection from the dead on the day our Lord returns in glory. On that day you will see God face to face because the Father will see only the righteousness of Christ covering your sin.

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.