In the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Last week we heard Jesus settle a question of the law: “is it lawful to heal on the sabbath day?” Jesus heals the man’s disease, and the apparent disagreement between the 3rd commandment and 5th commandment are reconciled in His own person. Today in the gospel we hear a similar question put to Him. This time is isn’t whether He will pick between the 3rd or 5th commandments, but rather between all of them: “which is the great commandment in the Law?” The biblical greek grammar here suggests that the word ‘commandment’ is more than a “do this” or “don’t do that,” but is a much broader word (εντολή). So they might as well have asked Him: “Which is the greatest teaching [/precept] in the bible?”1
Now everyone in the world has to have some kind of answer to a question like this. Different questions we are asked have different levels of importance. Some questions, it’s easy to have no opinion about: Who will win the high school football game between two small schools in rural Arkanas? What’s the best aftermarket stereo for a ‘97 Honda civic? Those questions only matter for a few people. Yet other questions are of such importance that every human being comes up with an answer in one way or another, whether we’re aware of it or not. One of those is: what’s the best way to live? What should we do? We all have to take action in the world, and every one of our actions interacts somehow with questions of right and wrong.
Proof of this is how people even today invoke language about ethics or right-and-wrong, whether or not they are Christians. Everyone has some kind of morality, even if it isn’t a Christian morality. Morality is a dimension of human life that cannot be ignored. It’s easy to see advertising out there that tries to sell you on something because of its moral qualities. Politicans run on platforms claiming – correctly or incorrectly – that their ideas are morally superior. Even kids squabbling over their toys make moral claims about who had what toy first, ‘that’s not fair!!’ , and so forth. It isn’t only Christians who do this, or religious people who make moral arguments, but everyone, regardless of where they think right and wrong comes from.
Nowadays all sorts of groups get preachy about their chosen ethical actions, and we have to be very careful that we don’t get taken in. Just because someone wants to shame you into acting some way, or just because there’s a claim about right and wrong – that doesn’t mean it’s the truth. As it is written in Colossians 2[:8] “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.”
So credit where credit is due: the Pharisees and scribes at least understand the right and wrong come from God, and is revealed to us in the holy scriptures. That’s the sort of question they put to Jesus. “which one is the great and most important command in the Law,” that is, in the scriptures. The Lord God created the heavens and the earth. He is author and judge and Lord; for any course of action to be right, it must be in harmony with His eternal will to set creation in order. Some of this He has written on our hearts, as it says in Romans chapter 2[:15], but we have His eternal will more fully revealed to us in the Word of the apostles and prophets. For anyone to make a claim to be in the right, the Christian knows that it has to be in harmony with what God has revealed to us.
Jesus doesn’t, by the way, disagree with the Pharisees on this point. He confirms it. What is the greatest commandment of the ten commandments? What’s the greatest ethical command God has given? All of them. We have to receive them all together; we aren’t in a position to pick and chose what we want or don’t want from God’s Law. We can’t excuse ourselves from the rest of the Law because we did the one important thing. The Lord’s claim over us is total: “37 And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. 38 This is the great and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Yet when it comes to “which teaching is most important in the scriptures?” Jesus has more to say. Our fallen race fails at both of these great commands of the Law: we have not loved God with our all, we have not loved our neighbor as ourselves. We have tried to pick and chose, we have tried to use the Law to put others down or puff ourselves up with man-made moralities that haven’t harmonized with God’s eternal will. We are poor miserable sinners. So Jesus shows the greatest teaching of the scriptures: “Jesus asked them a question, 42 saying, “What do you think about the Christ? Whose son is he?””
The word “Christ” means “anointed one,” or the “Messiah” Whom God promised to send to save our fallen race. He is the one Who perfectly keeps the Law for us and for our salvation. Jesus asks them: “Whose son is he?” to get them thinking: Who is it that keeps the Law perfectly and saves us? Is it one of your sons? Of course we are to love as God has commanded. Yet is it a skill of our hands or a word from our mouth that will result in freeing mankind from suffering and death? All too often this is the temptation for those who do not know God.2 There is this claim that if the world will be saved, it must be the result of human action: either waiting for some heroic human being to do everything for us, or demanding concerted, collaborative action on everyone’s part.3 These are high hopes, but Psalm 146[:3] reminds us: “Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation.”
So whose son is the Christ? They say: “The son of David.” They’re not wrong, but they don’t have the full truth yet. David was a great king of old, but he was only human. God promised him in 2nd Samuel 7[:12-13] that the Christ, the king to reign forever, would come from his lineage, just as He had promised to his forefather[s] Abraham and Adam before him. This identifies that the Christ, the savior, would have a human nature.
So Jesus quotes Psalm 110 in order to expand their understanding of this most important teaching of scripture: ““How is it then that David, in the Spirit, calls him Lord, saying, 44 “‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet”’? 45 If then David calls him Lord, how is he his son?”” Parents do not call their children ‘my Lord.’ For David to call one of his descendants ‘my Lord’ shows that there is something more to this promised Christ than the virtues of a mere human being. We are not going to be saved by the continual self-improvement of the human race. Rather, God’s promised savior is true God, the second person of the Holy Trinity. He took on human nature and did his saving work among us as true God and true man. In this sense, “Whose son is He?” should have been something along the lines of “Son of God and Son of David.” The Christ has to be truly human in order that He be able to fulfill the Law as a human being, and to suffer and die in our place on the cross. So also the Christ has to be truly God in order that He be able to fulfill the Law with perfectly godly righteousness, and rise again on the third day.
This is what we confess in the creed that every Sunday, when we say that Jesus Christ is “God of God, light of light, very god of very god.” The Christ is true God and true man at the same time, Who is crucified and died and buried, risen on the third day, and ascended into heaven for us men and our salvation. Our of perfect self-giving Love, He offered Himself up once and for all on the cross, to pay the cost for our transgressions of the Law. Your sins are forgiven. Jesus the Christ – true God and true man – is risen, and by faith in Him you are accounted righteous before God our Father in heaven.
So it is that we continually reference the work of Jesus the Christ. “Who is the Christ, and what has He done” is the center and crucial teaching of the Christian faith. We don’t have to search the scriptures for bible codes or prophecies about the stock market. That’s not the point. The Epistle reading for today emphasizes the word “Christ” several times over. The Old Testament reading repeatedly praises the LORD God for His saving work. So also we, when we bear witness to what God reveals in the scriptures. We can and ought to live in light of what God has revealed to us. We can and ought to shine the Light of God’s Law to a world that is consuming itself with ‘ethical’ mandates of one sort or another. Yet ultimately, as Christians we know the Law is completely fulfilled in the person and work of Jesus the Christ, true God and man. To Christ Jesus be the Glory, now and forever. Amen.
1 The parallel in Mark 12:28 asks about the “first” or “prime” or προτων commandment, hence the ‘greatest’ interpretation here.
2 For example, when I used to be employed at a local coffee shop, one of my zealous environmentalist co-workers regularly bragged about how she was ‘literally saving the world.’
3 It’s not hard to see how we tend to too much of our faith in politicians or political causes, as if this human-generated action would be the source of salvation or rescue for us here on earth.