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CAN YOU MAKE PEOPLE BE GOOD?

How powerful is a law? Some think that laws are so powerful they can make people be good. I even watched a legislative session (in Illinois) in which the State Representative insisted that just by passing a law against a certain behavior, people would stop doing it. They didn’t.

In today’s sermon text, an expert in the Torah, the books of Moses, tested Jesus as to what law was the greatest. The implication was that by knowing this law a person could keep it and make up for other failings and become righteous. Jesus responded by pointing to the overarching law of love: “ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the greatest and most important command. 39 The second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commands.”

Though this surely is the greatest command, it is not a path to righteousness for us, for the law has no power to make us good.

Christ is our righteousness!

Sermon for the Eighteenth Sunday after Trinity, October 11, 2020, Pastor Edward Bryant. Faith & Our Savior Lutheran Churches, Medford & Grants Pass, Oregon.

Matthew 22:34–46 (CSB)

34 When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they came together. 35 And one of them, an expert in the law, asked a question to test him: 36 “Teacher, which command in the law is the greatest?”

37 He said to him, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind., 38 This is the greatest and most important command. 39 The second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself., 40 All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commands.”

41 While the Pharisees were together, Jesus questioned them, 42 “What do you think about the Messiah? Whose son is he?”

They replied, “David’s.”

43 He asked them, “How is it then that David, inspired by the Spirit, calls him ‘Lord’:

44 The Lord declared to my Lord,

‘Sit at my right hand

until I put your enemies under your feet’?,,

45 “If David calls him ‘Lord,’ how, then, can he be his son?” 46 No one was able to answer him at all, and from that day no one dared to question him anymore.

Dear fellow redeemed: Matthew was one of the original apostles, as well as the writer of this Gospel. He was Jewish and wrote especially for a Jewish audience, people who had been brought up in the synagogue and knew about the Messiah, the Christ, which are (respectively) the Hebrew and Greek terms for The Anointed One.

He records much of the teaching of Jesus, as in this section of the book that both shows Jesus to be the Divine Messiah and includes what He reveals to us of God.

The Jews are opposed to Him because of their unbelief– their unbelief regarding salvation and their unbelief regarding the Messiah. Jesus had just confounded the Sadducees and their disbelief in the resurrection, and here He proclaims two truths that confound the Pharisees, the first being the law of God, and the second being the nature of the Messiah, our Savior. These are …

TWO TRUTHS ON WHICH SALVATION DEPENDS

  1. The RIGHTEOUSNESS of God
  2. The Righteousness of GOD

 

  1. The RIGHTEOUSNESS of God

You need to know some background about the question that the expert in the law brings to Jesus,  “Teacher, which command in the law is the greatest?” Now, you probably think of “law” as “ten commandments.” But to the Pharisees, “Law” meant the “Torah,” the five books of Moses, and the “command in the law” meant the rules ranging from circumcision to observance of the Sabbath, to dietary laws, to laws pertaining to the temple, and to sacrifices. Implicit in the question is the idea that one who could keep the greatest laws might make up for transgressions against the lesser laws, and so be righteous.

Jesus’ reply was quick and specific: 37 He said to him, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind., 38 This is the greatest and most important command. 39 The second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself., 40 All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commands.”

This is the heart and core of Gods will, love. Love God and love your neighbor. Nothing makes up for this. If you do not love God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and truly love your neighbor, desiring for him/her what you desire for yourself, then no keeping of any other part of the law can make up for it: No “good works,” no special efforts, no sacrifices.

The Lord’s Prophets had dealt with this thinking in the past. The Prophet Hosea went all the way back to the disobedience of Adam to make the point. For I desire faithful love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings. But they, like Adam, have violated the covenant; there they have betrayed me. (Hosea 6:6–7, CSB) Isaiah  begins his book with a whole section on it. Some excerpts: “What are all your sacrifices to me?” asks the Lord. “I have had enough of burnt offerings and rams and the fat of well-fed cattle; I have no desire for the blood of bulls, lambs, or male goats…. “Wash yourselves. Cleanse yourselves. Remove your evil deeds from my sight. Stop doing evil. Learn to do what is good. Pursue justice. Correct the oppressor. Defend the rights of the fatherless. Plead the widow’s cause.” (from Isaiah 1:10-20, CSB)

Hope lies only in the mercy of God, as David expressed in His song of confession, For You do not desire sacrifice, or else I would give it; You do not delight in burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, A broken and a contrite heart— These, O God, You will not despise. (Psalm 51:16–17, NKJV) So also Isaiah expressed the mercy of God, again in chapter 1, . “Come, let’s settle this,” says the Lord. “Though your sins are scarlet, they will be as white as snow; though they are crimson red, they will be like wool.

Yet it is part of our sinful human nature to think that by the law we can become righteous. God’s Law is good because its threats can curb and punish wrong, it can show us our sin, and for those who repent and want to do the right thing, it can be a guide.

But it has no power. You can’t make people want to do good just by telling them. Youngsters the world over have been told to keep their room neat and clean; how has that worked? “Don’t drink and drive. It’s the Law.” Has everyone who has been told that, do that? Of course not.

Righteousness cannot be by the law. “Is the law therefore contrary to God’s promises? Absolutely not! For if the law had been granted with the ability to give life, then righteousness would certainly be on the basis of the law. (Galatians 3:21, CSB)

It is also part of our sinful nature to think that we can create goodness in the world by passing laws. This is a modern form of idolatry. Putting our fear, trust, and even love into government or political heroes rather than fearing God above all.  The best “experts” in the world cannot instill honesty, industry, selflessness, moderation, self-control, and the other virtues in people by their clever laws.

That is not the path to righteousness in the heart or perfection in societies.

2. The Righteousness of GOD

Where, then, is our hope?

Jesus takes the Pharisees away from their consideration of how THEY could find the “greatest command” in the law that would enable them to secure righteousness. As we read Matthew, the shift seems abrupt, and so it might have seemed to the Pharisees, who were still there. 41 While the Pharisees were together, Jesus questioned them, 42 “What do you think about the Messiah? Whose son is he?”

They replied, “David’s.”

That was a question seemingly any Jewish child could answer. The long-expected king would be descended from David, the greatest king. There was a lot of speculation about what this king and kingdom would be like. As in our own day, people brought up their own ideas. (MY Jesus is …)

But Jesus brought them back to Scripture, 43 He asked them, “How is it then that David, inspired by the Spirit, calls him ‘Lord’:

44 The Lord declared to my Lord,

‘Sit at my right hand

until I put your enemies under your feet’?,,

45 “If David calls him ‘Lord,’ how, then, can he be his son?”

This wasn’t idle speculation, it was the INSPIRED word of David, the king and prophet. It was axiomatic that descendants would respect their forebears. But how is this that David calls his own descendant “Lord”? And more, this descendant would sit at the right hand of God and rule over his enemies.

You know why this is, for the one descended of David through Mary is at the same time the only-begotten Son of God. While we must have the RIGHTEOUSNESS of God, if we are to have fellowship with God, it must become ours because of the righteousness of GOD, that is, the righteousness of this Christ, this Messiah. “He made the one who did not know sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:21, CSB) Written over centuries by dozens of inspired prophets, the Scriptures teach this same thing. As Jeremiah put it, speaking of this Christ: “In his days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell securely. This is the name he will be called: The Lord Is Our Righteousness.” (Jeremiah 23:6, CSB)

And He has come to you, as you have come to know Christ, the most wonderful thing of all, as Paul writes, “But everything that was a gain to me, I have considered to be a loss because of Christ. More than that, I also consider everything to be a loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. Because of him I have suffered the loss of all things and consider them as dung, so that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own from the law, but one that is through faith in Christ—the righteousness from God based on faith. (Philippians 3:7–9, CSB)

Love God; love your neighbor. It is the perfect and holy command of our Lord and God. But it is something we cannot do. So there was one anointed, chosen to atone for our sins and to bring the righteousness of God into this world. No wonder David called Him “Lord.” And so too shall we.

AMEN.