Today is Reformation Sunday, that time when we Lutherans mark the day in 1517 when Dr. Martin Luther, an Augustinian friar and priest in Wittenberg Germany, nailed a set of academic theses to the door of the castle church. Unless he sent them in the mail, which is less dramatic but probably more likely to have really happened.
It’s a day that comes with its own controversies: should we really be celebrating this event that shattered European Christianity into a thousand pieces, sparking violence for a hundred years and conflict ever since?
And if we do celebrate it, what does it mean? That Luther and his friends fixed the church up good for us? Luther himself would be the last to agree with that.
I can’t read German or Latin, the two languages in which Luther did all of his truly vast writing output. And I have never been more than an amateur student of his work even in translation. But it’s fair to say that I’ve spent more time than most studying Luther, trying to figure out his main works, and trying to figure out what they might mean for me and for anyone. When I got around to writing a book a few years ago, I took one of Luther’s treatises as the central focus.
But the truth of the matter is that Martin Luther can be exhausting. He’s funny, he’s intense, he had a unique ability to compare his opponents to the excretory organs of pigs. He said a lot of things that needed to be said. But he belongs to his age. That age could only ask certain kinds of questions and could accept only certain kinds of answers. But there is so much in the whole history of Christianity around the world that was never really touched by the Reformation. And over time I’ve had to admit to myself that if we Lutherans really want to understand our own tradition, and make it the best and most faithful tradition it can be, we need to look outside of Luther’s world. We need to learn from the people before and after Luther, and from those places that never got sucked into the struggles of the Reformation.
The truth is that the Reformation started long before Martin Luther, with movements and individuals that sought to reform the Church in Europe for hundreds of years before those 95 theses. And it didn’t end with him. If we mark anything meaningful on this day, it’s not one moment in time but a whole movement of the Spirit of God, continually reviving the Church and driving it toward unity and holiness.
So it’s a good day to revisit the question asked of Jesus in our Gospel. “What is the greatest commandment,” a student of the law asks Jesus.
This is a good question for a rabbi. There’s no trick here. It’s just a way to get a teacher to explain what he or she thinks is central in the religion.
And Jesus gives a very clear and orthodox answer: first, from the book of Deuteronomy: You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, soul, and mind. And there is a second like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On this, Jesus says, all the Law and all the Prophets depend. In other words, take those two laws away and everything else falls.
Jesus isn’t saying here that none of the other laws in the Torah matter. He’s making the claim that at the center of all the Law there are two critical principles: a total commitment to God, and a total commitment to the neighbor. They are, in fact, connected: if you love your God, you must necessarily love your neighbor. If you would truly love your neighbor--for that matter if you would truly and properly love yourself--you must love God too.
There’s nothing controversial in that. Just a typical discourse among scholars. It’s not so different from the way scholastic theologians discussed questions of Christian faith in Luther’s time.
The controversial part comes next: Jesus asks the others about the Messiah. Whose son is the Messiah, promised in the Scriptures and in the tradition of Judaism? The Pharisees answer that the Messiah is King David’s son. And this is important because just before this, when Jesus enters Jerusalem with the palm procession and the crowds, he is hailed as “Son of David.” In fact, throughout Matthew’s Gospel we hear how Jesus is connected to David.
But Jesus says that this can’t be right. David, the author of the psalms, says in one of those psalms that “The Lord--that is, God--said to my lord--that is, the Messiah--sit at my right hand until I put your enemies under your feet.” David isn’t calling his own son “my lord.”
The implication of this question is left hanging here. But we are supposed to understand that the Messiah is none other than Jesus himself, and that he is God’s son. His authority and power come directly from God, not from David or anyone else.
And so this is going to bring me back to Dr. Luther there in Wittenberg. My favorite work by Luther is not those famous 95 theses, though those are interesting and I’d love to talk more about them some day. It’s another set of theses for an academic debate in the city of Heidelberg in 1518. That’s before anyone knew that they were in a Reformation.
These theses, or statements that are put up for debate, are about Law and Grace. Luther writes: “the Law says, do this, and it is never done.” God’s Law is an imperative, it’s a command, and you can never fulfill it completely. Love God with all your heart. Love your neighbor as yourself.
Who among us would dare to say that we have done this? I do love God, and I try to express that love in my actions, my words, the ways I use my money, the decisions I make every day. I do love my neighbor, and I try to express that love in all those ways too. But I know only too well how much I let other loves get in the way. How much I love my own comfort, or my own sense of righteousness, or my own judgment.
The Law says love God and love your neighbor. And this is true and good and perfect. Truly, without these laws everything is in vain. And yet it is never done, not by any of us.
But that’s not where Luther ends. “The law says, do this, and it is never done. Grace says, believe in this one--that is Jesus--and everything is already done.” Jesus fulfills the Law on our behalf.
Yes, the greatest commandments are great and true and good. But it is the Messiah who does them. The Law of God is a gift. Without it we are lost. But it is the Messiah, who is greater than King David, who is the Lord even of King David and every prophet and giver of Law, who wins us the victory.
You can batter yourself forever on the rocks of these commands. They are so good and so true. They unlock such depths of insight, such powerful works of love. But we will never be done with the commands, and they will never be done with us. If there is any spark of recognition in these commands, if they touch our conscience in any way, they should lead us here: Believe in this one. Believe in the grace and mercy of the Son of God. Trust in his promises. And everything is already done.