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Thursday, October 1, 2015

"What is the great commandment in the Law"

The Rev’d Stephen E. Stults
St. Paul’s Anglican Church
18th Sunday after Trinity 2015

(Mat 22:35)  Then one of them, which was a lawyer, asked him a question, tempting him, and saying, Master, which is the great commandment in the law?

This passage of Matthew from today’s Gospel is one of the pivotal moments in the New Testament and, even for the entire Christian faith. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, in what Jesus says, he upsets the entire religious system of the ancient world.  Second, he gives us testimony as to who He really is.

In the story, Christ was “tempted” by a lawyer. The Pharisees were playing their deadly game with Him, so they might accuse him.  They made the study of legal minutiae their life’s work, so we presume they were trying to get Jesus to emphasize one part of the Law over another., This would leave him open to a theological charge that Jesus was denigrating one section of the law, while exalting another, or that he was invalidating the Law altogether.

This is a trap which Jesus deftly sidesteps, while profoundly altering their understanding of the Law. In his reply to the lawyer, He completely alters the way Man looks to God and the way God appears to Man. How?

The answer lies in the question of the lawyer itself.  He asks, “Master, what is the great commandment in the Law?”  On the surface, it sounds like an honest question.  Yet, the word in the Greek is (peirazo {pi-rad'-zo}) meaning “to test one maliciously, craftily; to put to the proof his feelings or judgments, or to try or test one's faith, virtue, character, by enticement to sin.” [1] It is translated in the Authorized Version as “tempted”. 

It also shows the understanding of the ancient Jewish mind, in regards to Deity.  What was the basis of the Law? How did Man relate to God? We know that it was based on obeying the precepts of the Law and included frequent sacrifice. One became righteous by doing, by acting, and by performing.  In short, one became righteous because of what one did, not because of what one was. Righteousness and salvation were based on works. One built, through “sweat equity”, one’s own personal house of salvation in the ancient world.

The problem is, as St. Paul reminds over and over again, is that such a house is built on sand. No one is justified by his works because, despite our best efforts, we run into our own sinfulness again and again.  Recall St. Paul’s cry of frustration from Romans 7:24:  “O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” This cry comes at the end of a long discussion of his desire to do what is right, as well as his utter inability to do so.  Despite the fact that the World desperately wants to believe the heart of man is basically good, we know that it is just not so.  History belies that wish with complete consistency.

Works are not the answer.  There is not one commandment in the Mosaic Law that Man can do to save himself.  His work and effort come to naught because salvation does not come from works. Instead, Christ sums up the law by saying that man can do one thing: he can love. Simply, 1) love God with your whole being: with all of your heart, with all of your mind and with all of your soul; and 2) love your neighbor as yourself.  In beautiful brevity, Jesus “boils down” the hundreds of legalistic commandments developed by the Scribes and Pharisees to two short commandments: love God and love your neighbor. 

This was so radical that it must have shaken the Pharisees to their very roots.  Their whole belief system was threatened.  Now, man need no longer to looks fearfully to the heavens to placate the Deity through legalistic obedience and sacrifice. Now, because of Christ, things were changed. Now man was called upon to love his God with his entire being and to love his neighbor as himself. Man was called upon to open himself to the possibility of an infinite Love. Man’s understanding of God, through Christ, had been altered irrevocably. Love is the answer for man’s salvation, not his own feeble works.

Lest any of us think this is simply a platitude, let us remind ourselves what life in the ancient world was like. It did not run on love, but on raw power, merciless military might, the subjugation of entire peoples, and ruthless exploitation. Let us say that the ancient world machine moved on the pitiless lubricant of human misery.  To top it off, it was ruled by Law, stern and foreboding.

Now, comes Jesus Christ with this radical statement: Love God with all of your heart, soul and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself. For those who heard Christ in the past, are hearing Him in the present, and will hear Him in the future, things will never be the same.  A new law has come to town.
 The other important point in this passage of Scripture is that Jesus testifies to Himself as the completion of the Law and Covenants in an indirect, yet forceful way.

Jesus turns the tables on the Pharisees by asking them a question: (Mat 22:42) “What think ye of Christ? whose son is he?”  Their answer is instructive, as they respond, “The Son of David.” It is correct, being taken out of the Prophets.  Yet, Jesus shows their incomplete understanding of the Messiah when He says,

(Mat 22:43-45) “He saith unto them, How then doth David in spirit call him Lord, saying, The LORD said unto my Lord, Sit thou on my right hand, till I make thine enemies thy footstool? If David then call him Lord, how is he his son?”

What Our Lord is talking about here is the miracle that is Himself.  He is referring to that once-in-history happening when God took on manhood.  Thus, Jesus is the son of David in the flesh, as he is of the house and lineage of David. Yet, he is also God, whom David in spirit and in devotion calls Lord.  Jesus Christ is where God and Man co-inhere perfectly in one Person, without mixture or confusion
This perfect God-Man came to save us from our fallen-ness so we may be united with Him forever in bliss.
This Christ is not only the complete revelation of the Law; he is also the complete and final covenant with Man.

Col 1:18-19  sums it up And he is the head of the body, the church: who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead; that in all things he might have the preeminence. For it pleased the Father that in him should all fulness dwell;”

This is what Christ was telling the Pharisees.  Evidently, they got the message, if not to the point of belief, at least to the point where they realized that further debate was pointless.  The Gospel tells us: (Mat 22:46) “And no man was able to answer him a word, neither durst any man from that day forth ask him any more questions.”

So it is when the arrogance of man meets the infinitude of God.

Instead of faithless questions, may we ever offer endless praise to Jesus Christ, our only Lord and Savior.

(Jud 1:25)  To the only wise God our Saviour, be glory and majesty, dominion and power, both now and ever. Amen.

[1] Bibleworks, Matt. 22:35, Strong’s notes.