a sermon for Desert Mission Anglican Church on October 29, 2017
Passage: Matthew 22:34-46
In 1948, out of the experience of the second World War, the United Nations gathered to consider the most important ethical questions confronting the world at the time. Out of that came a statement called the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
After seeing see so much of the worst of people in war, I think the United Nations may have wanted to cast a vision for what the best of people could look like. For it to have any force, most would have to agree on the content, and most (but not all) did.
Today, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has become a kind of moral standard that is used to keep governments accountable. However, it’s not the only moral standard out there. There is a Muslim statement of human rights in use in other countries. Here in the United States we often appeal to the Constitution.
So, what is the gold standard of morality and ethics? That’s what the Pharisees are asking Jesus in today’s Gospel passage.
All the Pharisees would have agreed that the Torah, or the law contained in the Old Testament, contained essential moral guidance, but there was an ongoing conversation at the time of Jesus’ earthly ministry as to which of the 613 commandments in the Torah were “light” or “heavy,” that is, which more most important, and which were secondary matters.
Thankfully in today’s world, there is a massive amount of agreement across cultures and countries when it comes to some basic issues of morality and ethics, and the Universal Declaration is one example of that. However, there is something deeper at play than the laws, or rules, or proclamations or laws in and of themselves when it comes to establishing an ethical baseline. There something all of that is based on and grounded in.
That something is what, or rather who, you love.
There are some very important commandments in the Torah. I think the command not to murder would have been a good candidate for most important! Or for the Jews, the command to against idols or worshipping another God. But Jesus knows that even those crucial laws are grounded in the orientation of the heart. So he says,
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment.” (Matthew 22:37-38, ESV)
Jesus is saying that the very foundation of every bit of morality and ethics found in the Bible is grounded in the character of God—you must be committed to him first, as Lord of your emotions, your inner life, and your intellect. Out of that commitment to the revealed character of God, you can begin to express the character of God, and that expression is what we understand as good morality and ethics. This is why the second commandment is so closely linked to the first. Jesus said,
“…[the] second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:39, ESV)
Jesus was asked for one command, but gives two. The idea’s that they’re so closely related that they might as well be one. You can’t really have one without the other.
Sidenote: today is Reformation Sunday, and many churches are celebrating the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. So, in honor of Reformation Day, I want to share the thoughts of the great reformer Martin Luther on this. Since God can never need anything as God, the only way we can truly serve him is by serving others. He said,
“Even the preaching of His glory and our praising and thanking Him take place on earth in order that our neighbours may be converted and brought to God thereby.”
Because God loves the whole world, every person he has created, and you love God, then you have a basis, motivation, and obligation to love your neighbor. The first commandment to love God is the foundation, the second commandment to love people is how to put that foundation into practice.
It’s been said that that Church is the only society on earth that exists for the benefit of non-members. We see that so clearly here, don’t we?
Love God, love people.
Now, Jesus’ answer probably wouldn’t have been controversial in any way. After all, what he identifies as the greatest commandment was recited by the Jews in a daily prayer, called the Shema. Yet the way he answers, by bringing these two commandments about love of God and neighbor together, communicates with authority that obedience isn’t about blind adherence to set a rules, no matter how right or good those rules are. Jesus is saying even if you formally adhere to the rules and know the rules, you’ll get it wrong if your heart isn’t first formed in love.
That’s what the religious rulers around Jesus kept missing.
After he answers the Pharisees on this, Jesus turns the tables to ask a question of his own:
“What do you think about the Christ? Whose son is he?”
They said to him, “The son of David.”” (Matthew 22:42, ESV)
The Pharisees are right, of course. The prophecies do talk about the Messiah as a Son of David, but they also speak of him as the Son of God (II Samuel 7:12-14). Jesus presses them on this, saying,
“He said to them, “How is it then that David, in the Spirit, calls him Lord, saying… If then David calls him Lord, how is he his son?”” (Matthew 22:43–45, ESV) (See Psalm 22)
The Pharisees can’t answer or perhaps are unwilling to answer because of the implications. Jesus is—I think—implying that the Messiah, whoever he is, would be the one that would be Lord, even over the inspired authors of the Bible, so would be able to answer with authority the kind of questions that the Pharisee and Sadducees had been asking about the Scriptures. Of course that’s exactly what Jesus himself has been doing. If they concede in the moment that the Messiah would have that kind of authority…they could be admitting that Jesus is the Messiah and has authority over them!
The Good News here is that ever so subtly, we see the Lordship of Christ over all things, including the fabric of the law, morality, and ethics coming to surface. And of course Jesus is the Messiah, and he will fulfill all the Messianic prophecies, including suffering and dying for all of us that fall short morally and ethically. Of course he would rise again to new life and share that life with us so we can process of reorienting our hearts toward God. (Psalm 22).
So a questions that comes up in all this is, can you still be moral and ethical if you don’t believe in the Bible or God?
Of course. You might have an internal sense of what is right, but not know the reason it’s right. You can totally be an atheist and be a very moral person, but you will lack a proper foundation.
Even Christians can fall into doing the right thing without the right foundation, which has two results:
First, you will be relying on your own energy and efforts for your personal morality and ethics. You will be operating on will-power instead of acting out of love for God and neighbor, which means you can only hold out so long before you are exhausted and burnt out and begin to compromise on what is right.
Second, when challenges come against your moral standards and ethical system, you’ll bend and ultimately break, because you don’t have any kind of deep support upholding the system.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights begins this way:
…recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world…
Amen, right!? As Christians we can all uphold this statement, no problem. But notice the assumption there. All members of the human family have inherent dignity and inalienable rights. Why? The statement doesn’t give an explicit answer, but the implied answer, is “because we said so.”
That’s a problem. If one group can get together in 1948 and say something is morally true and ethically binding just because they say so, then any other group or government could do that in 2017!
The fact is that nothing in this world in inherently valuable in ways that we can perceive. Objects only have value subjectively, based on what we will pay for them.
The new iPhone X comes out next month, and it’s going to cost a thousand dollars, and thousands (probably millions) of people will pay for it. In a context like hours, an iPhone is worth a lot. But if I was stranded on a deserted island with no cell service, I’d pay a lot more for clean water or low-tech short wave radio than an iPhone.
Without a grounding in God, how do we know that each human being on this planet, no matter their ethnicity, size, intelligence, or physical capability is inherently worthy of dignity and rights? The answer is we simply can’t.
If the assumption is that we are all only a collection of atoms, whirling through space on a rock with no reason for existence apart from random chance, then there is nothing to ground the idea of inherent human worth. Ethics becomes a matter of convenience, a matter of limiting suffering perhaps, but with no grounding in God there is no basis for equality, so the abuse of good ethical systems is only a matter of time.
If we turn to the revealed character of God in the Bible, however, we find that in his creative love, God makes every human being (not just some) in his very image. This is what gives every human being equal dignity.
The revealed character of God in the Bible is that he loves the world so much, he would enter into it, and give himself wholly to it by freely laying down his life for all people! In the cosmic economy, people are worth the very life of God in the flesh.
“He himself is the sacrifice that atones for our sins—and not only our sins but the sins of all the world.” (1 John 2:2, NLT)
This is what gives all people inherent worth.
We know this not because we’re super smart or figured it out, but because God has graciously revealed it to us in his word. We live it out not because we can in our own inherent virtue, but only because we are graciously empowered by the Holy Spirit.
It’s all because of Jesus that we can know God and love God, and it’s in the name of Jesus and with his help that we love our neighbor. It’s all because of Jesus that you can know with certainty that you aren’t just dust in the wind. You are beloved by God, made in his image, and bought with his blood. Amen.
 Allison, D. C. (2001). Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost, Year A. In R. E. Van Harn (Ed.), The lectionary commentary: theological exegesis for Sunday’s texts, volume three (pp. 134–135). Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.