The Old Testament lesson for today is an emphatic repetition of an earlier passage in Deuteronomy that is based on the Shema, the great trumpet call in Hebrew of, "Hear o Israel," followed by the commandment to a belief in the One God. The words that must be obeyed are: "The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might."
In the chapter for today, the emphasis is on loving and serving God with all our heart and all our soul. These are not casual suggestions or requests. They are commandments of intense urgency with details on behavior that encompass every aspect of living-putting them in the heart and soul, binding them as a sign on the hand, fixing them as an emblem on the forehead, and, above all, teaching them to the children. After such diligent commandments one cannot find excuses for neglect. This is the central message: nothing else matters as much as loving, serving and obeying the One God. This is not something the believer keeps within himself or herself; believers must teach these commandments to their children. And it doesn't stop there. Obedience is a matter of life and death -- if you obey, you are blessed; if you do not obey, you are cursed.
There are hints here that the children of Israel were also required to make an outer show of obedience to the commandment in addition to the interior act of treasuring them in their hearts and souls. They were to write them on the hand, on the forehead, and on their doorposts and gates for others to see.
And the reversal of this outward show into acts of faith that we find in Matthew's Gospel is strong and astonishing. "Not everyone who says to me, Lord, Lord, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven." And here is the crux: Jesus is asking not only for faith, for speaking or shouting words aloud, nor for making an outward show of faith; he is asking us to do the will of the Father.
How many times have we asked, "What does it mean to do the will of God?" To move toward an answer, let us look at what is being rejected by the Lord in this powerful discourse:
- Prophesying in the Lord's name
- Casting out demons
- Doing deeds of power (even in Jesus' name)
All those who take advantage of my name without obeying the will of the Father, he says, will be cast away --"I never knew you."
What a terrifying statement! Look at all the exploitation of the Lord's Name taking place in our world today. Look at the emphasis on the end of days, the fear put in people's minds, the crass use of the conflict in Palestine for the dark purposes of those who abuse biblical prophecies and, in the process, allow victims to be further oppressed.
What is going on here? One needs to read the whole of Matthew 7 to understand that in this great discourse we have many practical applications of the Gospel, and they are all directed toward doing good to others, not to ourselves: We are not to judge others and ignore our own sin; we are to believe God's goodness to us; we are to feed our children with love and to share what is good with them. We are to bear good fruit.
The false prophets are recognized by the bad fruit they bear. Is this "bad fruit" love of money? Of fame? Of ambition? Of using fear tactics to enforce their beliefs on others? Is it making false gods of governments and military power? Is it confusing faith with civil religion? All we have to do is watch television for one day to see that false prophets are proliferating in this country. And many of them think they are speaking in God's name. "I never knew you," Jesus says.
It is all for nothing, he tells us, when obedience to God is lacking. It is like building a gorgeous house without foundations. We all know the danger of building unsafe houses. We have all seen the results in hurricanes and earthquakes.
We move now to the passage in Romans that helps us to further understand both the Old Testament lesson and the Gospel. This is the triumphant theology of St. Paul. This is the famous passage that had so much to do with the Reformation Martin Luther launched. At a time when the church had forgotten God's commandments and was selling indulgences, Luther zeroed in on the question of justification by faith. We cannot buy salvation, he proclaimed, together with St. Paul. For St. Paul the change that Jesus brought in understanding the law was crucial. The great apostle knew from personal struggle and experience that a human being cannot obey the law fully, that the agony resulting from this failure is unbearable. Only through the grace of God in Jesus Christ are we set free from this struggle and this agony. Doing the will of the Father, for St. Paul, meant doing it only through the grace of God in Christ, through the free gift of Jesus' life given for us in utter obedience to God. "All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God."
Under the law, the children of God tried good works of obedience only to fail again and again. Alone, they couldn't do it.
But for the Christian it is different. Faith is what makes obedience possible. Faith like that of Jesus in God the Father is what makes works that justify possible -- the faith that brought Jesus to perfect obedience, "even unto death." And this brings us back to the words of Jesus: "Everyone who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock."
How do we act on his words? He showed us the way:
- In humility
- In mercy
- In searching Scripture not to justify our opinion but to seek the will of the Father
Let us, with the crowds who heard him, be astounded at his teaching and not listen to his words casually. ". . .for he taught them as one having authority. . ." Amen.