There are many things that can make us miserable in our lives. If we eat too much food, we can get indigestion and feel miserable. If we have a bad cold, we might say that we feel “miserable.” If there is a major breakdown in a relationship, between a husband and wife or a parent and child, we feel miserable. If we feel that we are all alone and friendless, we feel miserable. The list could go on and on.
Would the law of God be on the list of things that makes us feel miserable? Or would we say that the 10 Commandments make us feel miserable? Some might say “yes” the law makes me miserable because it cramps my style; it hinders my freedom by telling me what I can and cannot do and that makes me miserable.” This morning we continue our study of the Heidelberg Catechism’s section on our sin and misery. This morning we want to look at the misery in our lives in light of God’s Law. We see that the law points to our sin and highlights our misery but that this is ultimately also part of God’s grace that saves us. Let’s read Matthew 22:23-40.
I. Let’s look first at the conversation with Jesus that we read of in Matthew 22.
Jesus had just silenced the Sadducees with his teaching on the resurrection, which showed that Jesus clearly grasped the teaching of the Scriptures. The Pharisees then get together to conspire against Jesus and try to trap him. They select a legal expert to come and ask Jesus a legal question based on the Old Testament law to try to put him in a position where he couldn’t answer.
It’s important to understand the Jewish understanding and view of the Law. The Pharisees believed that every part of the Law was equally important. While they believed that all the law was equal, they also believed that some parts were more important or weightier than others. For example, it is a far more serious offence to murder someone than it is for someone to boil a goat in his mother’s milk, both prohibited by the law. By asking Jesus what was more important, they are hoping to get Jesus to give an answer that would give them some basis to discredit him. They could show him that He didn’t really understand the essence of the law if He picked the wrong one as the greatest. Moreover, if Jesus pointed to one that was the greatest, they could say that all the laws are equal.
Their attempt to trap Jesus is like the old story of what a young student tried to do when he decided to mock his elderly teacher. He caught a small bird and cupped it in his hands behind his back. He then approached the teacher to try to trick him. He would ask the teacher what he had in his hand. If he answered correctly, he would then ask the teacher if the bird was alive or dead. If the old man said, “Alive,” he would crush the bird. If he answered, “Dead,” he would release the bird. Upon approaching the teacher, the young student said, “What do I have in my hand, old man? The man responded, “A bird, my son.” “Is he alive or dead, old man?” the boy prodded. The teacher replied, “The answer to that question, my son, is in your hands.”
So the lawyer asked him, “What is the greatest commandment in the Law?” and then waited for what he assumed would be Jesus’ wrong and unorthodox answer. But Jesus’ answer is a picture of complete orthodoxy itself! Jesus quotes the Old Testament passages which the Jews viewed as foundational. The first is from Deuteronomy 6:5 – “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God is One and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and strength.” The second verse is Leviticus 19:18 – “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.” The Jewish leaders would have to agree that those texts were foundational. And so Jesus’ answer is purely orthodox; his answer agrees with theirs. These two verses reflect the will of God as taught in all the commandments. So let’s look more closely at what Jesus says that the Law requires.
You must love the Lord, your God with everything you are and all you have. That means that God is the only God for you. For us today, it means we recognize the Lord as God more than our money, our possessions, our job, our husband or our wife. God alone is God in our lives. Moreover, we are to love Him with heart, soul and mind. That means that you love God with every part of your being. You love God with your money, job, emotions, intellect and your gifts. A. W. Tozer said: “We are called to an everlasting preoccupation with God.” Loving God in this way is the first and greatest part.
The second part, Jesus says, is to “love your neighbor as yourself.” When Jesus says, “A second is like it,” he does not mean that it is of lesser importance. In fact, you cannot have one without the other. You can’t truly love your neighbor without loving God. Nor can you truly love God without loving your neighbor. We must love our neighbors as ourselves. Jesus is not teaching self-absorption, but rather a natural caring for ourselves. We naturally feed, protect, care for and respect ourselves. Jesus is saying, “Do the same thing for others as you naturally do for yourself.” And that is difficult to do since we may love God above all, and we certainly do care for ourselves, but often love for others is not realized. Yet it is this important basic concept that Jesus teaches.
In fact, Jesus says, “All the law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” That has always struck me as a peculiar phrase. I remember as a small child hearing this and picturing prophets, literally men, somehow hanging from these two commandments. I couldn’t figure out how a law could “hang” a prophet. Jesus means that all the other commandments depend on or flow from these two. Looking at the bottom line, so to speak, this is what God requires of us. Moreover, the whole law must reflect these two topics.
Paul reflects that kind of thinking in Romans 7 where he says that he felt alive and thriving until he encountered God’s law and then it was like death hit him. Paul writes in effect, “The law came and then I saw sin!” Everything was just fine until I read what God wanted me to do! But Paul realized the Law is not the problem; rather it points out the real problem. The Law of God as summarized by Jesus is like a mirror we look into. If we never look in the mirror we would never see the imperfections. We wouldn’t see the extra chin or the receding hair lines. But when we do look in the mirror all the problems become evident to us. However, that is not the mirror’s fault; it is our own self that we see.
As God’s law comes into our lives, we find out what God wants in our lives and we look into that mirror of God’s law and we see all the ways we do not live up to God’s will. Our sinfulness becomes clear but again it is not the Law’s fault, but our own. The Law tells us how sinful we really are even if we didn’t know it before. Question and Answer 3 says, “How do you come to know your misery?” “The law of God tells me.” And then when we recognize our sin, then we become truly miserable. Why? We not only realize how sinful we are; we also realize that sin separates us from God. We cannot live and have fellowship with God while we are in sin. And then our conscience begins to remind us of how miserable we are. Gradually our sinful condition erodes our lives and we begin to whither up and die.
But it does not end even there for somehow when we see our sin in light of God’s will, the sin leaps to life and actively, knowingly rebels against God. Question and Answer 5 says we have a natural tendency to hate God and my neighbor. If you doubt the truth of this, watch the television and see how people apart from Christ live. Terrorists destroy innocent lives. Human greed is rampant as people cash in on the suffering of others. And we too feel the effects of misery all around us and that all too well. There are marriage problems, personal struggles and profound disappointments. Some of these things bring people to the breaking point. There can be no question that people apart from God are miserable. Now if we were to stop there, there would be no hope. It would like finding out that a disease is killing you, but there is still no cure. But the fact is that there is a cure for our sinful misery. The good news this morning is that the situation is not hopeless!
IV. There is an antidote to misery.
It is to love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and your neighbor as yourself. We can’t even do that on our own but we can believe in Jesus, who is the perfect and only antidote to misery. If we place our faith in Christ, if we trust him fully, though the Holy Spirit, he will enable us to obey His Law and we will begin to be able to do God’s will. And we show love to God by obeying God and his Law.
So how do we respond to the Law? When we hear God’s law, let’s respond with thanksgiving to God. God, in His love has given us a mirror that enables us to see our sinful selves. There can be no real cure until we know how sick and miserable we are. Then let’s eagerly grasp the cure. Believe that Jesus’ death was for us and His death paid the penalty for our sin. Believe that Jesus, in His resurrection, freed us from the power of sin and death. Finally, let’s seek to love God and our neighbors as ourselves. Let’s treat our neighbors as we would wish to be treated with love and respect. We show that love the best by sharing with them the cure that Jesus brings. That is God’s desire and his will for us. Will we make it ours as well?