By Jonathan A. Mitchican
Jesus tells us this morning that we’re to love God “with all our heart, with all our soul, and with all our mind,” and that we also have to love our neighbor every bit as much as we love ourselves, meaning that we’re always to put others first, always to care for them, always to think of their needs first and ours second. If we don’t love God with every fiber of our being, all of the time, without wavering, without even a hint of selfishness, than we can’t fulfill the law.
And this idea terrifies the Pharisees, because the Pharisees based their whole lives on the idea that you could earn favor with God by disciplining yourself to do the right thing. They identified over 600 commandments in the law that God had given to Moses, and they were determined to keep every one of them. And it was terribly difficult. But they believed that this was the path to righteousness, and so when they ask Jesus to tell them which commandment in the law is the greatest, they think they’re tricking him, because if he says that no law is greater than any other, they can call him a fool for not being able to answer the question. But if he does pick one of the commandments and says that it’s more important than the others, they can accuse him of blasphemy.
But instead, Jesus says that the whole law is about love, which frightens the heck out of the Pharisees, because if it’s all about love, then there’s really no way for you to earn your salvation, no way for you to alter your behavior and make yourself better. You might be able to train yourself to stop doing certain bad things, to stop cussing or cheating at cards, or chasing girls. You might even be able to force yourself, through sheer will power, to do a few good things, to eat your vegetables and brush your teeth and say your prayers at night. But you can’t make yourself more loving. You can’t eliminate the selfish motivations of your heart. If the standard that God is looking for isn’t good behavior but a pure heart, than we’re all in deep, deep trouble.
Jesus hits the Pharisees with this, and while they’re standing there flummoxed, he proceeds to ask them a question: “What do you think of the Messiah? Whose Son is he?” And they immediately reply, “The Son of David.” Now, in order to understand this, we have to remember a little bit of our biblical history. Many, many centuries before Jesus lived, the Jewish people called upon God to give them a king, and one of the earliest and greatest kings was King David. He was so great, in fact, that God made a promise to him. God promised that from that time on, the King of the Jews would always be a descendent of David, somebody whose bloodline could be traced back to David.
And that worked pretty well for a few generations. But then, about 600 years before Jesus was born, Israel was conquered by the Babylonians. The land was taken, the people were killed or enslaved, and the king was removed from power. The Jewish people were devastated, and they wondered whether God had taken back his promise. But God sent prophets to the people to assure them that he hadn’t forgotten his promise to them, that he would one day raise up a descendent of David who would set the people free and be their king. This one that God would raise up would be the anointed of the Lord. In Hebrew, he would be called the Messiah. In Greek, he would be called the Christ.
Centuries later, at the moment when Jesus and the Pharisees are talking, the Jewish people are still under the rule of a foreign empire, only now it’s the Romans instead of the Babylonians, and the people still await this Messiah, this Christ that God has promised to send to free them. But the Pharisees are baffled about why Jesus is asking about the Messiah right now. After all, their question to Jesus had been about fulfilling the law, about doing what you need to do to get right with God. The Messiah is a military figure. He’s the guy whom God’s going to use to liberate his people from oppression. But he doesn’t have anything to do with fulfilling God’s law. So why is Jesus even bringing him up?
But they play along. Jesus asks them, “Whose son is the Messiah?” And they tell him that the Messiah is the son of David, a descendent of David. It’s a no-brainer. Everybody knows that. But then Jesus quotes from Psalm 110, which King David wrote, in which David describes the Messiah as “my Lord.” And Jesus says, “If David calls the Messiah his Lord, how then can the Messiah be David’s son?” And the Pharisees are dumbfounded. They don’t know how to respond. Because, of course David shouldn’t call the Messiah his “Lord.” The Messiah is supposed to restore David’s throne. The Pharisees believed that the Messiah would be a great man, but just a man. He would be equal to David, not greater.
What the Pharisees don’t realize is that the Messiah, the Christ, is standing right in front of them. Jesus is the Messiah. He is a descendent of David. And he is the one God has sent to liberate his people. But he’s more than that. He’s a man, but he’s far more than a man. He’s also God himself. David calls the Messiah his lord because the Messiah is the Lord God. By asking this question, Jesus is revealing to them and to us that he is God come in the flesh to rescue his people, to set them free from what oppresses them.
But while the people have been thinking all this time that it was the Romans or the Babylonians or some other foreign power that was oppressing them, God knows that the real oppressor is the sinful heart that lives within each and every one of us. It’s sin that cuts us off from God. It’s sin that leads us to despair and eventually to death. The Romans and the Babylonians can harm the people, but it’s sin that truly destroys them, just as it’s sin that truly destroys us. It’s the sinful nature of our hearts that makes us unable to truly love God with every fiber of our being and to truly love our neighbor as ourselves.
Jesus is God. He is the Messiah. And He has come to liberate you, right now, today, to set you free from the shackles of your sinful heart. On your own, you can’t fulfill the law. You can’t love God and other people the way you know you should. But Jesus can. Jesus does. And He doesn’t just want to keep that to Himself. He wants to make it possible for you to love just like He loves. He wants to wash away your sins and purify your heart. And he will do it. All you have to do is trust him.
The Rev. Jonathan Mitchican is chaplain at St. John XXIII College Preparatory School in Katy, Texas.