The 18th Sunday after Trinity
St. Matthew 22:34-46
October 11, 2009 A+D
In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The vanity of the Pharisees puts the Lord to a test. “Pick a commandment, Jesus. Then we will debate it and see how clever you are.” But the Lord does not play along. He has no vanity, nothing to prove; still, it is dangerous to test the Lord. He answers not with a commandment that they might debate or with any attempt to pass the test. He simply responds with a full preaching of the Law. He gives them a perfect summary of all the Law and prophets: Love God and neighbor perfectly.
This ruins the game, destroys the test. They wanted to debate, to be dazzled with rhetoric and quick thinking, maybe even convinced. They wanted to think some deep thoughts. But then as quick as a car skidding on the ice or lightening striking an old, dry building, they were exposed as sinners, they were dying. The greatest commandment is not some clever bit of ethical advice or ceremonial description with pros and cons on each side. It is simply the command to be holy as the Lord is holy, to love God perfectly and fully and neighbor as self.
This preaching is no fun. It is not interesting. It doesn’t enlighten the mind. There just isn’t much to talk about. Besides which, we already knew these things. What this preaching does is expose the heart. These are things we’ve utterly failed to do – even though we’ve known better. There is nothing to learn or discover here except the damning truth that we are evil.
The problem is not that we have sinned, that we have fallen short and sometimes forgotten who we were or failed somehow. The problem is that we cannot and do not keep this commandment at all. We do not ever love God perfectly or our neighbor as ourselves. Ever. We sometimes do some nice things. We sometimes don’t hurt other people. We occasionally refrain from carrying out the evil thoughts in our heads. But we never, never, never, love God with our whole heart. Never. Because we always keep a part of our heart for ourselves. We are always thinking about ourselves, whether or not we’re hungry or cold or bored or what we happens next. We are always looking around to see who is noticing. We want to be sure to get credit.
The problem isn’t the sins we’ve done. The problem is the “sin we are.”*
“A Chinese proverb says: ‘When the wrong man uses the right means, the right means work in the wrong way.’” Our fundamental problem is that we are the wrong man so everything we do is wrong, is broken, is selfish. We sin because we are sinners. It is our most basic definition and identity, our core being. We are rebels against God. We can no more stop sinning than we can force ourselves through will power to keep our hand on a hot stove. We are helpless against ourselves. Our very instincts are self-preserving, selfish, sinful.
Sin is like an infection or cancer. It lodges in our nature. It is born in our genetics. There is no cure. It is with us even when we do good, even when we try to pray or come to Church or keep the Law. Because we are the wrong man, the sinner. Sin cannot be dealt with by fine tuning. It cannot be overcome by good advice or clever thinking. It is not repaired by social engineering.
This is a radically unpopular argument, bad for self-esteem. It is not encouraging and uplifting. It is not praise songs and spiritual mountaintops. It is simply the killing truth of the Law. We are born into the world as selfish little pigs, evil and wicked and self-centered. “The innocence of babies is in the helplessness of their bodies, not in the virtues of their souls. (Augustine via Kreeft)” And the less helpless their bodies become the more evident is their guilt. We all trudge through this world self-absorbed. Our working philosophy is always “I want what I want when I want it”- which is to say, now.”*
This is the anger that overcomes us in traffic. I just want everyone to get out of my way. I am angry because I want to go where I want to go now and I can’t because there are other people in the world and I wish it was all only mine.
Many modern thinking anti-Christians have understand something of this. But they won’t call it sin. They think it is the way that the tooth-and-claw of evolution has designed us. Being evil is a survival device like unto the long neck of a giraffe or the camouflaging spots of a leopard. So if you rape a woman, it is only natural. That is what you are and you are trying to propagate your genetic code for the species. This is what monkeys and crocodiles do. They don’t worry about consent. They take what they want. The best these thinkers can suggest is that we learn to cope, to suppress our baser desires when they threaten social stability, but to give into them when we are alone or with other consenting adults. These are the same people who tell us that Christianity’s talk of “sin” makes them depressed.
In fact, Christianity is far more optimistic than they are. Because Christianity judges evil for what it is, sin for what it is, and seeks not to cure it but to destroy it. Sin can be overcome – just not by us. The reason this view seems depressing is that they don’t see the problem. *No perfectly healthy person walking down the street is thrilled to be offered a heart transplant. But for those who are dying of heart failure, it is a God-send.* The only way the Gospel of Jesus Christ is a message of hope, of joy, of rescue away from evil, even self-evil, is if the diagnosis has first been announced and even suffered.
That is why Our Lord answers the lawyer with the Law. He wants to lawyer to feel the law and despair that He might then heal and restore him. And that is the point of Our Lord’s follow-up question: “What do you think of the Christ? Whose Son is He?” This isn’t a test to see how clever the lawyer is, to see if he knows the Bible, or something they can debate about for fun. It is an invitation. Yes, He is David’s Son but He is also David’s Lord. How is this so? Certainly the lawyer doesn’t deserve this. He had evil intentions. So it is for all of us. We have evil intentions all the time, but the Lord is merciful and has compassion. We complain and hold grudges and make up excuses and try to test the Lord and rather than sending us to Hell for our sins He lays down His life to rescue us and extends His hand in fellowship again.
Our Lord invites the lawyer to contemplate the saving mystery of God becoming Man. From and in that contemplation comes peace and joy, encouragement and hope. Our Lord became Man to take up sin and bear it to death on His cross. He has come to do what we could and would not, what we would never do, and He has done this in perfect love for those who did not love Him. His Kingdom, this holy washing and renewal, the new birth and inheritance of heaven, He bestows for free as that which has already been bought and paid for to those who desire it, who dare to believe it, who hear His Voice and say, “Amen.”
How is it that David’s Lord is also David’s Son? And how is it that God comes to us in bread and wine in His Body and Blood risen from the dead for us to eat and drink, that He joins us to Him in a holy communion? How is it that the Creator becomes of Our Food and Bridegroom? That sinners are declared saints? That He loves us even now in this most intimate way and remembers us in His Kingdom?
All these might be answered with the word “grace,” but they might also be answer with “mercy,” “love,” or even Jesus’ Name. The Gospel isn’t an academic topic for debate. But it does give rise to hymns, to poetry, in heaven and on earth. It does saves lawyers surprised to discover they need saving.
Thanks be to God. Jesus lives.
In +Jesus’ Name.
*Peter Kreeft, Christianity for Modern Pagans: Pascal’s Pensees (Ignatius Press, San Francisco 1993) p. 148. The material between the asterisks is taken, though maybe slightly modified, from Kreeft’s explanation and expansion of Pascal on sin.