Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father,
and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
“This is the Gospel of the Lord.” We all heard Pastor Nuckols declare that a short time
ago, following the reading from the 7th chapter of St. Mark. And we
all responded by saying, “Praise to you, O Christ.”
This is the Gospel of the Lord, huh? Is it, really?
Maybe it’s just me, or maybe I’m having a bad week, but I’ve gotta tell ya: I
didn’t see a whole lot of Gospel in those 13 verses. Do you? I’m open to
As many of you know, the proper distinction of Law and
Gospel is a very fundamental—though extremely difficult—practical component of
Christian theology. The professors spend a lot of time drilling it into our
heads at the seminary. They try to make us understand—just as Pastor Nuckols
and I, as your teachers in the faith, try to make you
understand—that almost all heresies and other errors in Christian doctrine
arise out of an improper understanding or an erroneous application of Law and
We must always try to keep straight that whatever God
does on behalf of His creation—giving life, sustaining life, redeeming us in
Christ, giving us faith, sanctifying us through the Holy Spirit, and giving us
salvation and heaven—is Gospel. On the other hand, whatever we are
required by the Scriptures to do—and what we continually and miserably fail
to do, and the consequences of such failure—is Law.
Confusing the two and applying them at the wrong time
and to the wrong individual can result in comfortable sinners getting even more
comfortable in their sin, and terrified sinners becoming even more terrified.
This will leave both of these unfortunate sorts of souls under the judgment of
God, and condemned to hell instead of being properly moved to repentance and
saving faith. You can see, then, how critically important it is to properly
distinguish Law and Gospel.
No one’s perfect at it, of course. Martin Luther
himself stated it was the most difficult skill for any pastor to develop. He went
so far as to express a willingness to confer a doctorate in theology to anyone
who could do it consistently and well. Conscientious pastors, especially good Lutheran
pastors, do attempt to clearly proclaim Law and Gospel to their flocks and also
to those in their daily interactions with whom they have opportunities to share
Other religious leaders—sometimes those erroneously
trained, or who are inattentive, or who intentionally proclaim a faith which
differs from that which God has given us through the prophets, apostles, and
evangelists—can and do often proclaim a different sort of message. One which
promises that terrific results will be yours here on earth and later in heaven,
if only you will do this or that, in such and such a way. In this, they give
many people false confidence and false hope that they’ve managed to mark off
all the necessary boxes on their checklist. In this, they also give despair
and terror to many others who realize that they haven’t been able to meet the
stringent requirements that they are told God expects of them.
But that, dear friends, is not the Gospel. Yes, it
may sound easier and more attractive to our ears to have some sort of specific
tasks to do or rules to follow to ensure salvation, especially if following their
plan also promises health, wealth, harmony, and happiness.
We all find those things attractive, certainly. It sounds
like good news, a brighter future, a hopeful end result. But it’s not the
Gospel—it’s simply another tantalizing temptation among many that the devil,
the world, and our own sinful flesh dangle before us. They hope that we’ll
bite down fast and hard before we notice the sharp, barbed hook underneath that
will tear open our souls and leave us hanging apart from the life-giving water
of our baptism, gasping in fear and pain as our breath slowly leaves us.
So… what do we see in the Gospel lesson this
morning, in those 13 verses from St. Mark’s account of the life and ministry of
Mark begins by setting the scene, describing who is
present and what is observed: Pharisees and teachers of the law had come from Jerusalem, the center of the nation’s religious and political life, to the area around the
Sea of Galilee where Jesus was teaching and healing.
It was a journey of no more than 100 miles—for us, no
farther than a quick jaunt up to Waco or down to San Antonio.
But in those days, on hot, dusty, rough roads—probably
on foot or perhaps riding on an animal—it was an arduous and taxing journey.
Yet, so impressive and amazing were the stories about Jesus which had reached
the capital that these leaders had no choice but to investigate. This unauthorized
rabbi’s teachings could be turning Jewish religious life literally on its collective
ears, as people heard His words and re-considered what it truly meant to follow
And what do they see upon their arrival? That some of
His followers were not following the ceremonial rules set forth for the washing
of hands before eating! Mind you, nobody in those days had any inkling about
germs or the spread of disease by micro-organisms. The washing of hands was
primarily for appearances and for piety, not for good hygiene and health.
A very good idea, we now know, but by no means a
certainty in those days.
Instead of approaching the individual disciples who
were observed eating with unclean hands, they follow the cultural norms of the
day and bring the issue to the leader of the group, Jesus. They confront Jesus
about this violation, challenging Him with a question: “Why don’t your
disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their
food with ‘unclean’ hands?”
Basically, they were calling into question Jesus’
knowledge of the Jewish rules and regulations, or His ability and inclination
to teach these rules to His followers, or His authority to enforce such
observances upon them. The implication was clear: You’re not a real
rabbi, Jesus! If you were, this sort of thing wouldn’t be going on within your
sight! You’d make those people shape up, or you’d drive them out of your group
for not following the rules!
Seeing into their hearts and knowing what they were
driving at, Jesus comes back with an answer from the Holy Scriptures. His
pull-no-punches response not only accuses them of hypocrisy, but tells them
they’ve got their priorities screwed up, too. They’ve elevated man-made rules
almost to a point of obsession, put their dependence and faith upon them, and
set aside what God truly desires of His obedient children.
Had Jesus stopped right there, they’d have been
offended enough. He’d called them hypocrites, implied that they didn’t know or
follow the Word of God, and told them they weren’t conforming themselves to
God’s way. Sort of like we say ourselves, each and every week when we admit in
the words of our various confessional liturgies that we are unworthy, have
sinned in thought, word, and deed, and have not loved God with our whole
heart. For deep down, we are all Pharisees, through and through.
And as our many protests to the contrary arise even at
this very moment in our minds and catch in our vocal chords, it just proves the
point, and we are convicted all the more.
But Jesus doesn’t stop there, does He? He is
relentless, and presses forward with His attack, even giving them a prime
example of their inconsistency, hypocrisy, and non-conformance with God’s law.
With dripping sarcasm He tells them, “You have a fine way of setting
aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions!” He
points out specifically what the Word of the Lord says in regard to one’s
mother and father, and then contrasts that to their tradition of Corban. Under
this tradition, one could make a religious vow to dedicate his earnings to God,
and get around providing proper support to his mother and father. Once made,
such a vow was vehemently and vigorously enforced by the Pharisees, even though
it clearly ran directly against the Word of God Himself.
They were looking out for their own interests, and for
giving the proper appearances of piety and religiosity, rather than for having
a right heart with God.
In making His accusations and pressing them hard,
Jesus was giving an excellent example of properly distinguishing Law and
Gospel. The Pharisees and teachers of the law who came to him that day had
hardened hearts. They were comfortable sinners, thinking that by the following
of their complex system of rules and regulations, they were showing their faith
and were righteous in the eyes of both God and man. Yet here they were, in a
backwater town in a remote section of Palestine, and He who is both God and man
was staring them down, and finding them lacking. In their comfort, in their
pious self-confidence and self-righteousness, they weren’t ready to hear the
Gospel. They needed to hear the Law in all of its harshness, and its severity,
and its judgment, and its under-the-microscope, under-the-bright-lights
They needed to be hammered upon until that brittle
shell of false security was shattered, leaving a soft, weak, and defenseless
soul exposed and at the mercy of God.
In speaking the Law to these men, Jesus was showing
extreme love. He was not telling them that everything was fine. He wasn’t
comforting them with the falsehood that it’s their intentions and not their
actions that count. He wasn’t assuring them with the lie that their efforts
would be seen as admirable by God. He wasn’t telling them that it’s OK to sin and
violate the clear Word of Scripture as long as you convince yourself and others
that you’ve got a good reason for it. He wasn’t telling them that they should
close their eyes and ears to their own sin or to the sin of others, and simply
accept it so long as it didn’t appear to hurt anyone else.
Jesus was giving them Gospel in the larger sense by first
applying the Law to begin the preparation of the soil to receive the good seed
of the kingdom. We can’t know the hearts of those individual Pharisees and
teachers of the law who came to Jesus that day–any more than we can know for
sure the spiritual condition of anyone in our own day apart from their outward
behavior and words.
Yet it’s safe to say that some of them had hearts of
rock that needed to be cleared or pulverized into dirt. Others had souls like
a heavily-walked path that had been pressed so hard that the seeds would not be
able to penetrate its rigid surface. Only a few might’ve had souls which were already
plowed into softened soil, eager and willing to receive Jesus’ words of life
and the kingdom of God as so many others already had.
So don’t despair or feel frustrated when you come
across a difficult portion of Scripture such as this—one that doesn’t seem to
have any good news or encouragement or words of Gospel hope within it.
Remember that we—remaining sinners as well as having been made saints—still need
to be regularly reminded of that, and given a dose of bitter Law before once
again receiving the sweet, sweet Gospel.
So, then, where is the Gospel in our Gospel lesson for
this day, where Pharisees and teachers of the law complain about the behavior
of others and are chastised for their own blindness and hypocrisy? The Gospel
is right where the Gospel has always been centered, in the One who on this day
spoke to evil hypocrites by the Sea of Galilee, and to evil hypocrites in pews
in Austin. The Gospel is there in the Word made flesh; in the person and in the
work of Jesus Christ.
It’s there in the One baptized in the waters which
flowed southward from that Galilean lake, joining Himself to you for all time
in His humanity and in your own baptism. It’s there in the One who would make
His own arduous journey—not from Jerusalem to Galilee to see a radical preacher
and rebuke him for His disciples’ faults, but from Galilee to Jerusalem to do a
most radical work on a bloody cross. That work would rebuke sin and death by
removing their curse forever, in spite of those disciples’ many and most
Yes, Gospel is there because Jesus is there, and where
Jesus goes, there is the Word. Where the Word goes, the Holy Spirit works
repentance and faith, and where faith is, there is forgiveness of sins, life,
That’s the Gospel, dear friends, and that’s what is
delivered to you, in the speaking and the singing and in the hearing—each time
we gather here where Jesus has promised to be for us.
So bring your unwashed hands and your filthy hearts.
Bring your hypocrisy and your disobedience. Let Jesus’ words of Law drive all
the pride from you, break up the stones and plow the soil of your heart and
soul to receive both the words and the benefits of His Gospel love. Be
cleansed again and again in the remembrance of your baptismal washing, and eat
the food that makes you pure, holy, and immortal—the body and blood of the Word
Gospel is found wherever Jesus is, and He comes here,
In the name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of
the Holy Spirit. Amen.