Twenty-fourth Sunday in Pentecost or Reformation Sunday
Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18
1 Thessalonians 2:1-8
Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly.
Reformation Day is on October 31st, but we celebrate together on the Sunday that falls immediately before October 31st. So, on this upcoming Sunday, many churches will remember the bold action of Martin Luther, who in 1517 posted ninety-five theses on the door of Wittenberg Church. We are just nine years from the 500th anniversary of this great and world changing event. Around the world Lutherans are preparing to remember and celebrate Luther’s life, ministry and faith. While preparing for our celebration, we are also in conversation with our brothers and sisters in Christ from whom we have been divided for so long. There are issues dividing us, and there is no reason to set them aside. But we are also bound together by the Holy Spirit and the common faith we have in Jesus Christ.
Luther was a priest and a teacher, burdened heavily by his calling. He feared sin and he feared that his own sinfulness was greater than the mercy and grace of God. He did not see how he could be forgiven and spent hours in confession. Luther was at the point of despair when he sought solace from God's word and his confessor. Johann von Staupitz, tired of Luther's lengthy confessions, reminded Luther of the Gospel of grace: that Christ for the forgiveness of our sins. He died that we might be freed from the guilt and shame of our failure and to restore us to God. Luther grasped this grace when he read Romans 3 with new eyes, “But now apart from the law a righteousness of God hath been manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets; even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ unto all them that believe.” He realized that it is by faith we are saved, not by works. Jesus completed the work of justification on the cross.
Martin Luther realized that his works would never save him, that an eternity in heaven is dependent entirely on the grace of God. In faith we cry out to the God who saves. In that faith we have hope and the freedom to live in His grace.
This revelation spurred Luther to reform the Church. The theses were written to open debate between scholars about the abuses in the Church at that time. This began a reform movement that sought to restore the Church the Christ built. Luther, other reformers and those who followed them were fighting against a body that had lost touch with God’s grace. Religion was much like it was in the day of Jesus Christ, with leaders determined to keep or enhance their positions and power. It was a religion that burdened God’s people with Law, losing touch with the center of God’s salvation: the cross. They sold indulgences to raise funds to build a massive new church building in Rome and they did this by feeding the fears of hell that were held by the people. They made the people believe that the only way they would make it to heaven was to pay for it. They even offered salvation for those who had already died: they could pay to free their loved ones who were wallowing in purgatory.
Luther seemed to have found the very meaning of the passage from John: that when we are saved we are made free to live the Gospel of Jesus Christ in the world. For him freedom was not to do whatever we wanted to do, it was freedom to be as God created us to be. He never sought division, he sought change. Unfortunately, just like the religious leaders in Jesus' day, the religious leaders in Luther's day had no room for God's word in their lives. And so began the building of walls between Christians that has lasted more than five hundred years. Yet, even as Luther was willing to risk division by speaking forth God’s grace, he longed that the Church would remain whole. We continue to live in the freedom, reaching out to our brothers and sisters in Christ, so that someday the Church will be healed and made whole once again.
If we look at the scriptures for the twenty-fourth Sunday in Pentecost, we can see that in a sense Jesus was also a reformer. God’s people had lost sight of His will and their purpose in this world. Jesus taught in the synagogues and temple so that the people might see God more clearly and recognize the fulfillment of His promises in the person of Jesus Christ.
We think of the religious leaders of Jesus’ day as being wholly against Jesus. We do know that from the earliest days of Jesus’ ministry, the temple leaders schemed to be rid of the man who threatened their position with the Romans and with the Jewish people. But we also hear stories about leaders who were not so quick to judge. They wanted to hear what Jesus said. A few even believed.
It is not surprising that the leaders would come to Jesus with questions. They were testing Him and we want to condemn them for doing so. Yet, in these days nearing the presidential election in the United States, is it not our responsibility to test those who wish to lead us? Today’s question is just one in a series of tests by the religious leaders, but it is helpful to put it in the larger context of Jesus’ life and ministry.
According to Matthew, Jesus had already entered triumphantly into Jerusalem (Matthew 21). He has been to the temple courts and disrupted the sale of sacrificial offerings and money changing. His authority has been questioned and He has already hinted at His true nature and purpose as the Messiah sent by God to save Israel. Despite His amazing works, there were some who doubted Jesus. His words did not fit their understanding. His actions seemed real, but also contradictory and blasphemous. Throughout the stories, there were a few who seemed willing to give Jesus the chance, but fear held them back. It is very human to be concerned with our own position and future. Jesus exposed them and jeopardized their livelihood. It is no wonder that they wanted to test Him.
We should test those who want to be our leaders, asking the tough questions, and Jesus never minded the hard questions. He did not fall for the traps, however. The scriptures are clear that some of the leaders wanted to trap Jesus so that they could destroy His ministry, and possibly destroy Him. The question about taxes was certainly designed to trap Him: they thought that they could turn Jesus over as the scapegoat in their fears about the Romans and the people of Israel. If they could trap Him, they would no longer have to fear that He would destroy them.
Yet, in this passage, the Pharisees asked, “Which is the greatest commandment?” Is this not an excellent question to ask a man who was “campaigning” to be the spiritual leader of God’s special people? Since the Law is so important to the Jews, it would help to know what Jesus thought was the most important law. Jesus answered well. “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.” He pulled that phrase out of the Shema, the Jewish prayer regularly said by the people. It tied their common confession with the first commandment given to them by God. And, by loving God with the whole self, God’s people will be obedient to all that God has said and commanded because love for God is manifested in holiness.
Jesus added a second command, also an excellent answer. It comes from Leviticus 19:18 and takes love for God a step further. All of creation, including our neighbors no matter who they are, are an extension of God’s love. When we love our neighbor, we are like God, loving all that He created. Our love for God can be manifested in a religious life, but God calls us to manifest our love for Him by loving others. Love for neighbor can be tangible, while love for God can be only spiritual. The life of faith is not merely a spiritual existence, but is very much an earthbound experience in which God’s love flows outward to the world.
The second commandment points back to the Law found in the books of Moses. In Leviticus 19, God tells Moses how His people can live as He calls them to live: as holy people. He calls them to be holy because He is holy. The chapter includes a list of commandments, rules to follow to manifest that holy life. The rules show a connection between holiness and the separation of God’s people from the things that are profane. Holy people respect mother, father and honor God by keeping the Sabbath. Holy people do not turn to idols. They follow prescribed ritual properly, and leave some of the harvest for the poor and the foreigners. They do not lie, steal, cheat or defraud their neighbors. They pay their debts. They treat the disabled with respect and consideration. Holy people treat their neighbors not only as they wish to be treated, but as they treat themselves. Holy people put others first.
Our scriptures do not include those commandments, but then begins at verse 15. “Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly.” I think this is, perhaps, where we have lost our way when it comes to living the life of holiness we are called to live. How did it start? I do not know. It is a vicious circle that human nature travels. We show favoritism to the rich and then the pendulum swings to the opposite extreme where we show partiality to the poor. We always manage to find a way to make our understanding follow Biblical precepts, and yet we never seem to find the real path God has called us to live.
I heard a story this week about a man in Florida that owned a trailer that was vacant, so he offered it to a couple who had become homeless due to a hurricane. Soon after moving in, the couple decided to sue the Good Samaritan to gain possession of the trailer. The couple is legally considered squatters, so according to Florida law, so the man can not evict them. He tried to turn off the electricity, for which they were not paying, but they borrowed a child to live with them and because of a state law meant to protect the welfare of children, he was required to keep the electricity turned on. So, something that started as an act of compassion has turned into an act of injustice.
The religious leaders could not argue with Jesus’ statement, although Jesus’ words were a condemnation of their own lives and ministries. Did they love God with their whole beings or did they love themselves and their position? Jesus immediately went to the root of their problem by turning the conversation around. “What think ye of the Christ? whose son is he?” They had a good answer, “The son of David.” That’s the promise, the fulfillment of which they were waiting to see.
But Jesus answered their haughtiness with scripture. He wondered how it could be a son of David since David Himself called the Messiah his Lord. Jesus was bringing their earthly understanding of their hope to a spiritual place—the Messiah would not be a king like they expect, but would be something much more. So, while the Pharisees expected the Messiah to be an earthly king to rule over the Law, Jesus turned their hopes upside down and begged them to look to Him. This exchanged finally silenced them. It also set their hearts in stone as they determined the need to be rid of Jesus by whatever means necessary.
There is no doubt that there are homeless and hungry people who need our help and God has called us through faith to act as His hands to provide mercy and justice to those who are suffering in our world today. Unfortunately, the stories of those abusing the systems meant to protect make so many who want to be Good Samaritans hesitant out of fear that their kindness will be turned against them. It is also unfortunate that many people think justice means that the little guy wins and the big guy loses.
It isn’t always easy to know what is right and what is wrong. Was Robin Hood right to steal from the rich to give to the poor? Is it good to trap our leaders with manipulating questions to ensure that those who do not meet our approval never make it to the top? Do the ends justify the means? What is just in our world today? How do we guarantee justice? How do we get that pendulum to stop swinging to the extremes and find the place where there is justice for everyone?
In the epistle for this week, we hear about another group of destructive leaders. Paul traveled extensively, planting churches in many cities. He always moved on to a new place, but he never left the congregations that were gathering and growing in his wake. He had friends who visited, and he even returned occasionally as his scheduled permitted. He wrote letters to the congregations, helping them to grow but also to stand firm. Yet, there was always someone following right behind Paul, hoping to convince the new Christians to their way of thinking, to turn them to a different sort of Gospel. Paul had to defend himself and the Gospel He shared with the people in Thessalonica because there were many trying to destroy him and his ministry.
But Paul didn’t just lay the Gospel on the new Christian congregations and then abandon them to their own means of growing in faith. He didn’t leave them to be confused by false gospels or assertive leaders. He nurtured the people, kept them accountable, rebuked their sin and corrected their error. He praised their faith and encouraged them to bear good fruit. He thanked them for their work for Christ, for the Church and for him.
We are encouraged to do the same. Our task is not just to take the Gospel to all nations, but to also teach the baptized to obey all that Christ commanded (Matthew 28.) We should not give them only a word, but our whole selves. We are called to love them, not just with a call to believe but with an invitation into a relationship with Christ, His Church and us. Part of that nurturing includes learning together how to ensure justice in our world, to keep our leaders in check and to provide for the needs of the less fortunate. Martin Luther sought to reform the Church, to bring her back to the place God created her to be. But he did not work only within the bounds of the Church. He worked in the world, to ensure a better life for the Christians in his community. Faith manifested not only in a religious life, but also in a life where all things were done by faith, in faith, with faith. And when the choices were hard, Martin Luther knew that God’s forgiveness couldn’t be won or lost. It was free by God’s grace.
The psalmist writes, “Blessed is the man…” This is sometimes translated “Happy are they…” This is a beatitude, or as some like to call them “blessed attitudes.” We are more familiar with the beatitudes found in Matthew 5 and Luke 6, but this like them, an attitude that brings happiness. We generally think of happiness in terms that can be expressed with a ‘smiley face,’ a manifestation of good feelings about life. Yet, the most common understanding of the word ‘happy’ according to Merriam-Webster’s diction is “favored by luck or fortune.” That’s blessedness. In the case of the beatitudes, the favor comes from something more true than luck or fortune; the favor comes from God. When God blesses, we have reason to be happy.
In this beatitude, the happy ones are the person who do not walk in the counsel of the wicked, or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of scoffers. Walk, stand or sit, the blessed one is the person who drinks in the Word of God, meditating on the scriptures like a tree that stands next to a stream drinks in the passing water.
There is something to the progression of these actions. As we walk in counsel we order our life according to what we have heard. As we stand in that message we position ourselves with it. As we sit we settle into the position we have chosen. When walking we can change our path. When standing we can turn around. When sitting, we are set in our ways. So, it is important to find the right direction while we are walking so that we won’t settle into the wrong ways.
Jesus encountered people who were set in their ways. It was too late to change the course of their faith. If we follow the continuing story next week (although it is All Saints Sunday), we will see Jesus point to their hypocrisy. He tells the disciples, “Do what they say, but not what they do.” That is an all too valuable lesson for us to learn in this day when politicians are expected to lie and justice means destroying one person to ensure the comfort of another. Paul realized as he went about his ministry that it was important to keep up with the new believers as they were learning what it meant to be a Christian in the world. He wrote to them as they were still walking, trying to keep them on the right path. For some congregations it was harder. The Corinthians were already standing still. Other congregations were sitting down, unwilling to listen and change.
The same is true today. God has called us as Christians to follow the right path. When we love the Lord, we live according to His promises and obey His commands. When we obey God’s Word, in the name of Jesus, then goodness and mercy will shine through our lives, and the fruit of His Spirit will be produced abundantly. The more we study the scriptures and live in God’s Word, the better equipped we are to share Christ with those we meet. Blessed are those who meditate on God’s Word, drawing ever closer to our Lord Jesus Christ where we live as people who are blessed, happy. And then Christ will shine out of our lives into the world that others might be blessed, happy. And the world will know true justice, because we will be living God’s plan.
Things were not perfect in the days of Martin Luther. While he did promote justice in some areas of the community, he was also less than just in others. The world is not black and white as we would like it to be, there are many shades of gray. There is often a very fuzzy line between what is right and what is wrong. We find ourselves in this day and age asking some very difficult questions. Are the things we call sinful really sin? How do we live out our faith in a world that seems so different than the one in which Jesus walked? How do we overcome so much injustice? Do the ends justify the means? What if we are wrong?
The only thing we can do is to live by faith. Martin Luther once said, “Sin boldly.” Now, he did not mean that we should go out and purposely do what we know is wrong. But we live in a world full of grays. Sometimes the things we have to do will not be perfect. We’ll fail. We’ll choose the wrong cause. We’ll vote for the wrong president. We’ll follow the wrong doctrine. But when we do sin, Luther says, “Sin boldly” but hear the rest of what Luther said, “...but believe more boldly still.” Walk in faith, stand in faith and sit in faith, knowing that God’s grace is real and that His promises are true. Christ ensured our forgiveness so that one day we will join with all Christ’s Church to enjoy the eternal feast that waits. And then we will be truly blessed.
A WORD FOR TODAY
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