Sermon for the Eighteenth Sunday after Trinity

Matthew 22:34-46

If I had a nickel for every church tagline or mission statement that said “love God, love people,” I would be able to end the national coin shortage single-handedly. There is something particularly appealing in Jesus’ response to the lawyer’s question – which is the greatest commandment in the law? Yet the four-word phrase, “love God, love people,” while very catchy and memorable, doesn’t supply much meaning. What gives it broad appeal is that the meaning can be provided by whoever reads it. “Love God, love people” – what god? The god I want to love. What people? The people I want to love. What does love mean? What I want it to mean.

So this four-word phrase is an accurate but very imprecise summation of what Jesus says. For Jesus does not want us to love our own God, our chosen people, and in the way we think is right. He says, precisely, You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.

The meaning of this is spiritually discerned, and not understood by those who do not believe. For one must love the Lord your God, that is one who has already been made your God, whom you fear, love, and trust in above all things. The Lord as your God must already be determined. One cannot will themselves into making the Lord their God the one they love with all their heart and soul and mind. This is what the Pharisees would not understand, for they did not believe.

The Pharisees did love law, to be sure. They were strict in maintaining commandments. They knew most of the answers. They were the most righteous around and everyone knew it. Yet they fell short of even the greatest commandment – you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. The Lord’s requirement is not merely to keep the commandments. It is not merely to do the right thing. It is to do the right thing and have your heart completely in it. This the Pharisees simply did not do. As Jesus said, for example, they would pray on the street corners, not a wicked thing to do, but to be seen by men, which made it sinful. It was not prayer done with the whole heart.

Or, regarding the second-greatest commandment, the Pharisees did not love their neighbors as themselves. They would follow commandments to the exclusion of love. They would say a man could follow the command to honor his father and mother by saying whatever money he would have used to support them in old age is dedicated to God, and therefore he could honor them by not supporting them. Or, as we heard last week from Luke, they would rather the Sabbath be kept without work than a man be healed. The summation of the commandments is love, so wherever the commandment seems to prohibit love, it must be overruled. The Pharisees abandoned love of neighbor for the sake of their commandments.

Let’s not get too far, though, as the problem of our time is often the opposite. We are much more inclined to abandon the commandments for the sake of love. This is not right either. For just as the commandments are summed up in love, so also love is defined by the commandments. We cannot create our own substitute for love, which usually is ‘niceness’ or ‘live and let live,’ and call that following God’s commandments. Jesus says, on these two commandments hang all the law and prophets. These two greatest commandment summarize the goal of the law, but are not a substitute for everything written in the law and the prophets, that is the scriptures. If we need to know what love is, we look to the commandments as written.

Love is honoring and supporting your father and mother, the government, pastors, and all in authority. Love is helping your neighbor in any bodily need. Love is encouraging those men and women who are married and not encouraging extramarital relations of any type. Love is supporting your neighbor in his possessions and income. Love is defending your neighbor’s reputation. Love is doing whatever you can to build up your neighbor, even if you can get away with NOT doing it.

Love and the law are never what we want them to be. There are not determined by us. Even if we think we are being the most loving but are not following God’s commandments, or if we think we are following God’s commandments but have no love in the heart, we are not truly loving and serving God. God desires no self-made service or half-done service. Add to this who the people are we are to love. Not just friends and family we like, not just those we agree with, but even our enemies. To follow the law of love is to encourage even the well-being of our worst neighbors.

The law is to be understood spiritually, it is not given to make sinners right with God. We see then if we really understand the whole law and the extent to which we are to follow it, no one is perfect. No one rightly loves the Lord God with all their heart, mind, and soul. No one loves their neighbor, every neighbor as themselves. Examine yourself against the extent of this commandment and you will find you come up short.

The God who tells you to love by these commandments will not just gloss over their breaking. It would not be love for Him to allow you to turn to other Gods, or to break commandments and hurt your neighbor for your own benefit. You cannot do anything enough to please him, nor can you make your own works to gain any ground. He will not let this sin go unpunished.

Jesus asks the Pharisees about the Christ. Christ means anointed king. The Christ is the one who was coming to save his people. The Pharisees know this, and when Jesus asks them who’s son the Christ is, they say, “The Son of David.” They knew the Christ would be the son of their greatest king. The one who would fight for them and restore their kingdom would be in David’s line, and bring a golden age like David did. Yet they were thinking too small. They were not considering all of scripture. Jesus questions them, essentially saying, “if David speaks by the Spirit of God, so we know he is true, why does he in the psalm call his son his Lord?” The Pharisees are unable to answer this.

The Pharisees do not discern the law or who the Christ is because they do not believe in Jesus. Jesus is the one who is both the Son of David and David’s Lord, for Jesus is both God and man. This is not just trivia, but good news, and good news having to do with the law we know we cannot keep.

Jesus was born the Son of David, of David’s line, of the virgin Mary. He is true man as you and I are, but without sin. He has gone through struggles and temptations as a man, the same ones who go through. Yet he through it all never fell into temptation. He always kept the law, he loved God with all his heart, mind, and soul, and loved his neighbor as himself. This is because he is also true God, just as the Father is God. Therefore He could not sin, and we know that he is true.

Because the Pharisees would not understand Jesus was the Christ, they plotted against him instead and sent him to his death on the cross. But this was part of the Father’s plan too. All the law and prophets, all the Old Testament was leading to this, that Jesus, perfect man and also God would die on the cross in your place. He took the punishment for your sin, because being truly man he could be a substitute. He was able to take the punishment for every single person, because being true God He is infinite.

Our God died and rose from the dead, and has ascended to the right hand of the Father where he, our brother in the flesh, has authority over heaven and earth. Believing in him, he sends his Holy Spirit into our hearts to make us new through the Word and Sacraments. There the new man in us does begin to do what God commands. We begin to love God with all our heart and our neighbor as ourselves. Here in this world we only understand this by faith, we often only see our great weakness. This is why Jesus continues to send us strength and encouragement through Word and Sacrament.

For now we trust that, believing in Christ, we can truly love God and other people in the way God desires. For this it is necessary to remain in God’s Word. One day, we will lose our sinful old Adam and be able to know by sight that we have been made new in the resurrection life, with Jesus our brother, Lord, and King. Amen.

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