The Law in A Nutshell

19th Sunday after Pentecost

Matthew 22:34-43

Jesus’ commentary on the Law sounds so appealingly simple…and yet it is complicated. It’s great that Jesus quotes from Leviticus and Deuteronomy to establish the greatest commandment…but that doesn’t exactly clear things up. What is our Christian relationship to the Law of the Old Testament? Are we not free from the Law by the death of Jesus on the cross? Isn’t that what St. Paul is always going on and on about? Romans 10: “For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.”

Or is it true, as many Christians teach, that we still have to obey the Law. “Yes, Jesus is your Savior, but now you have to make Him your Lord!” And so, what Christ has set us free from, the Church slips in by the back door? And if so, what parts of the Law do we have to obey? The bits about food? The laws about crime and punishment? Or the ones that really get pushed a lot these days: laws about money? Or just the 10 Commandments?

There are, after all, all kinds of commandments. In fact, the rabbinic tradition numbers 613 of them! And what does all that Law say about God? I read a critic’s snarky comment just this week. He asked, “What sort of God can say love your neighbor and at the same time command that anyone who picks up sticks on the Sabbath be executed?” And what about the Gospel? All that Jesus business? The cross, grace, forgiveness, love? I mean, I’ve never seen anyone hold up a sign at a football game with the reference “Matthew 22:37-39” written on it!

C.F.W. Walther, our Synod’s formative theologian, whose Bicentennial we observe this week—Walther put it famously in his classic book called Gesetz und Evangelium [Law and Gospel]: “To rightly distinguish Law and Gospel is the most difficult and highest Christian art… It is taught only by the Holy Spirit in the school of experience.”

The Norwegian novelist, Johan Bojer, makes that point in a story he called, The Great Hunger. In the story it happens that an anti-social newcomer moves into the village and puts a fence around his property with a big sign saying, “Keep Out.” To reinforce his anti-social attitude, he puts a vicious dog inside that fence to keep anyone from climbing over it.

One day, the little daughter of the man’s neighbor reached inside the fence to pet the dog. The dog grabbed her by her arm. He savagely mauled her. The dog killed the little girl.

The townspeople were enraged, and they refused to speak to this cruel recluse. They wouldn’t sell him groceries at the store. When it came time for planting, they wouldn’t sell him seed. The man became destitute and far more isolated than he ever planned!

One day he looked out at his barren fields and saw another man sowing seed there. He ran out to the field and discovered that it was his neighbor, the father of that little girl. “Why are you doing this?” he asked. The father replied, “I am doing this to keep God alive in me.” That’s the Law…Law and Gospel at work.

Yes, the Law declares “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” And 7 of the 10 commandments expand on that. In fact, many of those 613 commandments in the Torah address just that point…loving your neighbor. And that’s exactly what faith does. Faith looks exactly like what Jesus says to the Pharisees: Faith loves God with heart and soul and mind; faith loves ones neighbor as oneself. It’s what faith does, without anyone ever having to teach it the Law. That’s faith!

And it’s the Gospel that gives us such faith. The Gospel sustains faith and nurtures it. Faith comes with Jesus Christ, the crucified and risen Son of David. Faith is born in us in Holy Baptism. Faith is nurtured in us by the preaching and teaching of that Gospel of Christ. Where there is Christ, there is faith! And faith does what Christ does.

But…we baptized, we are also sinners. As Luther said, “The old Adam is a good swimmer.” So where faith is at work, there sin is also at work. “The good that I would, I don’t. The evil I would not, I do.” So the Law of God is there to teach us. No, not to teach faith! Faith doesn’t need the Law, any Law…ever. Because faith is Christ at work in and through us. But sin…oh…our sin must have the Law to control it, to condemn it, to guide it.

That’s what’s going on in Bojer’s story. Yes, the grieving father knows the Law. “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” And in faith he would…except that this man is a father whose little daughter has been viciously killed by this dog of a heartless, cold neighbor. How can he love such a man? He cannot…so God’s Law compels him. The Law compels the darkness within that man to do what he is by nature unwilling to do: to love this neighbor and to sow the needed seed into his field.

Yes, by the Gospel this angry father would know that it is in Jesus Christ alone that he or anyone is saved. But the man’s own dark thoughts, his sin (understandable, yes, but still sin) threatens to crowd that faith right out of him. “I am doing this,” he says, “to keep God alive in me.” He is acting in obedience to the Law, “love your neighbor.” Not to prop up a weakening faith (only the Gospel, only Jesus can prop up faith). He is acting in obedience to the Law to prod his own sinfulness, to beat down that darkness that keeps rising up to threaten his faith.

In his book Law and Gospel, Walther quotes Martin Luther a lot. Luther said, “[Law and Gospel] are two sermons that must be preached simultaneously…for all the Law does is make people thirsty. Only the Gospel satisfies people, makes them cheerful, warms and comforts them [like my Katherine’s fine beer].”

So a Christian, as a saint of God in Christ, doesn’t need to be told to love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind. A Christian, as a new creation in Holy Baptism, doesn’t need to be told to love your neighbor as yourself. In faith that is the very thing that Christians do, because Christ is at work in us.

Ah…but…we Christians are, at the same time, sinners. And while our faith eagerly loves the things of God…sin…our sin whispers, “Aah, you can go to church some other time.” While our faith freely bites its own tongue if necessary toward its neighbor, sin…keeps the fire of gossip and slander burning bright.

So for the Christian who thinks that faith excuses his or her behavior (and these days…well, it’s become embarrassing what is being done for the sake of “love”), the Law is right there to put the smack down to that notion. But for the Christian who has been so smacked, the Gospel is right there to remove the sting. Not excuse, but forgive! That is so easy to say, but as Walther observes, it is life’s experiences that really teach us this Christian art of how Law and Gospel work in us.

Life for us sinner/saints, life has so many ways of making us thirsty for the gifts of Jesus and His Gospel. Life has so many ways of making us thirsty for forgiveness, for eternal life, for salvation. And these gifts are poured into us by Jesus through the Gospel, Baptism, Lord’s Supper. Then those same gifts of love pour out from us in love toward God and toward our neighbor.

And yet…life for us sinner/saints, life also has ways, many ways of making us hard, cold. Love for God and neighbor shrivels up and dies, gets twisted into a perverse sort of love.

So God’s Law must break through those locked doors of our lives, break into those cold, hardened territories, opening a way for the gifts of the Gospel in Christ. Because it’s only the gifts of the Gospel, like Martin Luther’s beer, which warm our cold hearts with faith. The Law commands, but it cannot give. It is the Gospel which gives the faith to act as the Law commands.

Walther’s final point in his book, Law & Gospel, was: “You are not rightly distinguishing Law and Gospel in the Word of God if you do not allow the Gospel to predominate.”

The poet Walt Whitman, a contemporary of Walther’s, wrote: “O ME! O life!… of the questions of these recurring; Of the endless trains of the faithless—of cities fill’d with the foolish; Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)” But Whitman’s answer to his own questions is basically, “try harder.” “That the powerful play goes on, and you will contribute a verse.” The natural thing to do, as Walt Whitman does here, is to answer law with law.

But the poet of the Gospel, our Lord Jesus Christ, having answered the Pharisees about the greatness of Law, goes immediately to the Gospel, to the Son of David, to Himself. And that is the Christian way. Taught by the Law and Life to cry, “What good amid these, O me, O life,” it is the Gospel, it is Jesus who always replies to us, “Come unto Me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden…and I will give you rest.”

Law and Gospel, as different from each other as earth and heaven, as command and promise, as death and life. Yet…in the hands of God the Holy Spirit they work together. Law and Gospel working together intimately in our own hearts, so that in Christ we may truly live.