A HIGHER RIGHTEOUSNESS Matthew 22:34-40 October 30, 2011
I guess you could say it all started with Stephen, the young follower of Jesus who went on and on about Jesus being God’s Messiah. Even when the Jewish authorities became alarmed, he kept saying how the Jews had always rejected God when God reached out to them: stoning the prophets persecuting those sent to them by God even rejecting Moses by erecting a golden calf out in the wilderness. And, now, they had rejected Jesus, God’s chosen one. But what did it in for Stephen was when he said in front of all Jerusalem, that the Jewish bodies may be circumcised but their hearts are not.. That yes, they had the perfect law of God, but no, they did not follow it. Instead, they twisted it to serve their own purposes – and thereby rejected it. That’s all it took. Stephen – the passionate young man with eyes full of heaven. Stephen was taken outside the walls of Jerusalem and stoned to death. And not only Stephen, but on that very day, every person who believed or was suspected to believe that Jesus was the Christ was subject to persecution and arrest. Christians fled Jerusalem – on foot – on the backs of donkeys – taking everything they had and relocating to nearby cities like Damascus and Antioch, trying to lose themselves in the crowd. But the Jewish authorities went after them. Saul, the Pharisee was the worst one, bursting in the people’s houses – dragging whole families back to Jerusalem in chains, to stand trial. But then Saul had a dramatic change of heart when Jesus, Himself, appeared to him. Saul, the fierce persecutor of Christians became foremost among them. He agreed with everything Stephen had said and elaborated even more. “It doesn’t matter whether you are circumcised or not”, he told the new Gentile Christians. “What matters is what is in your heart.” “If you do all the right things with your hands, but you have no faith – no love in your hearts – you have absolutely nothing.” And Paul didn’t say it just in Jerusalem. He said it all over the entire Roman Empire. And everywhere he went, the Jews rose up against him, because they believed the law was their salvation. “It’s not”, Paul said. “What saves you – what reconciles you to God – is your faith.” Forget circumcision. Forget washing your hands five different ways before meals. Forget not boiling a calf in its mother’s milk. What makes you righteous, is your faith, your changed heart, your changed life. Now understand: A person of faith will lead a godly life, putting off works of the darkness: anger, hatred, jealousy, sexual immorality, drunkenness – putting on the Fruits of the Spirit – patience peace, kindness, generosity, love. But even so it is our faith, not our obedience to the law of Moses that makes us righteous before God.
The Jews always listened to Paul and sometimes agreed until he got to the part about the law not making us righteous – especially because that meant uncircumcised Gentiles would be righteous. And they rose up in anger, flogged him, stoned him, ran him out of town. The only thing that saved him was that he was a Roman citizen. So they couldn’t kill him. But eventually things got bad enough he appealed to go to Rome to stand trial and he died while he was there – still preaching, I’m sure, salvation by faith in Jesus Christ to his last breath. And then a writer by the name of Matthew picked up a pen and began to write. It was about thirty years after the death of Christ. Those who had known Him personally were dying out. Paul, if not already dead, was imprisoned in Rome and Matthew knew things needed to be written down for future generations to have a first hand account of Jesus. And he had a specific issue to address. All four gospel writers wrote for the same reason – to share Jesus, but each had a specific issue in mind: Mark wrote originally to encourage the Christians being put to death in Rome. Luke wrote to explain Jesus to the Roman world – the Gentiles. Matthew wrote to the Jewish Christians – to encourage them in their relationship to the Jews. “There are some things you need to remember”, Matthew whispers to the Jewish-Christians from the words of his gospel. “Remember”, Jesus said, “I do not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it” (Matthew 5:17) “Remember”, Jesus said, “the law says this, but I take it one step further: the law says Do Not Murder. I say do not be angry or even insult your brother.” “The law says ‘An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth’, but I say when someone hits you on the right cheek, turn to them the other as well.” “The law says ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy’. I say ‘Love even your enemies’.
“Remember”, Matthew whispers to the Jewish-Christians, “remember what He, Himself said.” Remember Jesus let His disciples gather grain to eat on the Sabbath and did not make them purify themselves in the Jewish way before eating. When the Pharisees asked him why he broke the law, He quoted Isaiah> “This people honors Me with their lips, but their hearts are far from Me.” (Matt. 15:8) And remember how Jesus called the Pharisees “white washed tombs – beautiful on the outside – but dead on the inside - on the outside appearing to be righteous, but on the inside, in their hearts, full of lawlessness and hypocrisy. (Matt:23:27-28)” “And above all remember this: Remember”, Jesus said, “the greatest commandment in the law is” “You shall love the Lord, your God with all your heart, soul and mind and the second is like it. You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
“Remember”, Matthew says to Jewish-Christians, “it maters not if you wash your hands five times in perfect form in accordance with the tradition of the law. If there is no love in your heart for God or for neighbor, for all the law and the prophets boil down to this: Love God. Love your neighbor.”
“Remember”, Matthew says to us. “If a man is a perfect model citizen, it matters not, if the reason he is because he wants a good reputation so people will do business with him and he can get rich. No, the drunk laying in the street is closer to the Kingdom of God, if he truly loves his neighbor and does everything he can to help out those who are in need, because our piety matters not if we do not act, because we Love God and we Love Our Neighbor.
Everything Stephen tried to say before he died. Everything Paul tried to say before he died, Matthew says right here in his gospel: Jesus came straight from the heart of God to save us – to atone for our brokenness and to teach us that the way home to God in this life and in the life to come is to Love God, and love your neighbor. On these two commandments Christians base our whole lives.
Clarence Jordan, founder of Koinoma Farm was hated and persecuted in the 1960’s because he believed and acted on racial equality. His children were ostracized and scorned in school because they too treated all races equally. But Clarence reports the burden of loving neighbor became almost too heavy to bear the day his daughter came home from high school bruised and bleeding from abuse by her classmates. Clarence Jordan picked up his hat and started for the door. “Where you going, Daddy?” “Going to stop being a Christian for ten minutes, long enough to teach some high school students a lesson.” “No, Daddy. Stop. You can’t do that. You can’t stop being a Christian for ten minutes.” “And she was right”, Clarence later wrote. The Second Commandment exists to make sure we keep the First Commandment. If we love our neighbor, we also love God. A seminary professor of mine told of a wise old theology professor who had taught theology or the study of love for God for many years. And he often started theology class about God with a greeting: “Good morning, how are the prostitutes?” Not to make a judgment on the morals of Seminarians, but to make the point that love of God means concern for the poor, the down trodden, the sinful, and yes, the prostitutes. The Second Commandment exists to make sure we keep the first. If we love God we also love our neighbor You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind. And you shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.
My daughter is taking an introductory philosophy class in college this semester, which makes for some lively conversations with Preacher Mom. “OK, Mom, tonight we had this debate about medical treatment for paranoid schizophrenic mentally ill who refuse medical treatment. Is it their right to refuse or our right to make them receive treatment and how do you know what is the right thing to do?” “OK, Mom, tonight we discussed whether there are some cases where it is OK for a therapist not to disclose to law enforcement that a patient is a child abuser. Some people in the class said yes, some said no. I think no. But how can we know for sure what is the right thing to do? What is moral? What is ethical.?”
My answer to my precious daughter is a bit shocking. We don’t know for sure. As a matter of fact, we can’t know. You see, we are imperfect people living in an imperfect world, therefore we cannot have perfect knowledge of good and evil. (Remember Adam and Eve and a certain snake?) But we can know this: If I fight as hard as I can to put down my greed, my desire for power, my arrogance, selfishness, then I am faced with a hard situation and I make a moral decision – an ethical decision, based on all the scenic knowledge of my mind, all the compassion and empathy and love of neighbor of my heart – and all the obedience and worship of God of my soul. Then whatever decision I make is faithful and according to Stephen, to Paul, and to Jesus, that is all that matters. What matters is not so much the outcome of our decisions as much as our faithfulness when we make those decisions – not what we did – but why we did it. - our faithfulness to the Ultimate Commands of love God and love your neighbor.
“You have the law”, Stephen cried out. “But you twist it to serve your own selfish ends. You don’t keep it” “You can do all the right things”, Paul wrote, “but if you do not have a heart changed by love, you have nothing.” And Jesus cae in the fullness of time and said to us” This is the basis upon which I instruct you to live all of your lives – Love the Lord Your God, With all your heart, With all your soul, And with all your mind, And love your neighbor as yourself.
On these two commandments hang all the law and all the prophets.
Thanks be to God this Lord’s Day, Amen