The grace, mercy, and peace of Christ Jesus rest upon each and every one of you this day.
When people think of the Pharisees, one of the very first things that comes to mind is “works-righteousness,” and rightly so. These guys believed, taught, and lived out a life that was centered on fulfilling the demands of the law in order to attain God’s righteous favor. What many people fail to understand, though, is the fact that the Pharisees diluted and watered down God’s Word so that they could achieve this impossible goal. Most people think that these guys were crazy, strict authoritarian, taking God’s Word and adding all kinds of man-made rules and regulations so that only they could achieve “perfection.” In reality, though, it’s just the opposite. They rounded off and shaved off all the sharp edges; anything that would hurt them or make them the slightest bit uncomfortable. They lowered the bar, not so low that everyone could squeak by, but low enough so that they could squeak by with “perfect” marks.
Consequently, Jesus winds up having to re-teach and clarify what God’s Word actually says and means. Jesus ramps it up. We see this very clearly in the Sermon on the Mount. For instance, the Pharisees taught their rounded-off and watered-down version of not committing adultery and not murdering. As long as you didn’t physically cheat on your spouse, you kept the commandment. As long as you didn’t plunge a knife into someone’s chest and take their life from them, you could pat yourself on the back for keeping the Fifth Commandment. Jesus sets the record straight. “You’ve heard it said…but I tell you this: If you even look at a woman with lustful intent in your heart, you’ve already committed adultery. If you’re angry with your brother and you insult him and call him ‘fool,’ you’ve committed the sin of murder. You are liable to the fires of hell.” Ouch! EVERYONE is now guilty, aren’t they? No one is without sin.
Of course, we hear all this and we understand how wrong these liberal, self-righteous Pharisees were. And yet the terrible irony here is that we fail to see just how guilty we are of this same sanding down and watering down of God’s holy Word. Case in point: Look no further than the first verse of our Gospel lesson for today. “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You can’t serve God and money.” Folks: There’s a LOT lost in translation here! And understand: I’m not simply referring to the modernization of “money” from the original Greek “mammon.” That is a problem, don’t get me wrong. No one here would say that they worship money. But mammon is so much more than money. Mammon includes all earthly goods and sustenance. *Mammon is NOT the same as “daily bread.” Your Lord never commands you to pray for mammon! Understood properly (the way those first disciples of Jesus would understand it), the Greek word “mammon” is a word with Hebraic undertones referring to “confidence.” It’s a “faith” word (and not in a good way either). You can either have saving faith in God, or you can put your confidence in your earthly stuff/condition, but you can’t have it both ways. Again, Ouch! EVERYONE is now guilty of serving mammon over/instead of God. You may not want to admit it, but it’s true. It’s true of all of us. Lord, have mercy!
But as I said, the whole Pharisaical problem of watering down the Word of God and trying to help God out by making His Word more understandable and acceptable and palatable isn’t really found in the substitution of “mammon” with “money.” It’s most noticeable in our understanding of “service/servanthood.” The original Greek does not use the word “servant,” which would be diakonos. No! The word that Jesus uses here is a word that is used throughout the New Testament, especially by St. Paul: doulos – “slave.” “You can’t be a slave to God and a slave to mammon.”
“Umm…Pastor, we don’t talk about slavery. Slavery is wicked and vile and terrible.” If you’re referring to that reprehensible institution that took place in our country so many years ago, then you are absolutely correct. But…to say that all uses of the term “slave/slavery” should now be expunged from our Scriptural vocabulary because of the sins of our forefathers is no different than what the Pharisees did when they watered down the Word of God. The meaning and understanding of what Jesus Himself is saying here winds up getting lost in translation, covered over and buried in our arrogant sense of political correctness. We may think that we’re helping God out, but we’re not.
This may surprise you, but St. Paul refers to himself multiple times as a “slave of Jesus Christ.” Romans 6 alone is FILLED with language of being either a slave to sin or a slave to righteousness. 1 Corinthians states very clearly (multiple times) that our Lord and Master has purchased us and our salvation with a price. We were once slaves of unrighteousness. We were once slaves to sin, death, and the devil. But our Lord and Master has purchased us. The price was Jesus Christ Himself. Our purchase price was the lifeblood of the Son of God! That’s how great our bondage to sin, death, and the devil is! It takes the death of God Himself to pay that price; to purchase us and make us His own! Contrary to popular belief, we are NOT free men, free to do whatever we please; free to do our heart’s desire. No! We have been bought with a price. We are no longer slaves to sin, but that doesn’t mean we are now without a master. We now have a new Lord and Master; a righteous and holy and life-giving Master. We are slaves to Him; slaves to His righteousness.
And if you’re still struggling with this and uncomfortable with all this, God Himself tells Israel multiple times (especially throughout Deuteronomy) that they (the Israelites) were once slaves in Egypt, but He has purchased them and redeemed them. He is now their Lord and Master. You may not like the language, but your problem is with God. That’s the language He uses. Centuries later, St. Matthew will tell us that Jesus Himself was sold as a slave into the bonds of sin and death. Wickedness sold Jesus out for thirty pieces of silver. That’s it. The Son of God was sold as a slave into death for thirty lousy pieces of silver. But…He is also the Lord and Master of Life. He is the Lord and Master of righteousness and salvation. By shedding His blood and paying the full price of our bondage, in this beautiful great reversal, He purchased us, making us His own, giving to us His merciful and gracious gifts of undeserved love and forgiveness.
Back to the words of Christ in our Gospel lesson. “You cannot be a slave to God and a slave to mammon.” Folks: There is NOTHING wrong or offensive with these words of Jesus! Rather than trying to help Jesus out by softening the language, examine yourself in light of this Word. Who is your Lord and Master? Either you’re a slave to God and His righteousness, or you’re a slave to something/someone else. You can’t have multiple masters. Either God is your Lord and Master, who richly, daily, and graciously provides you with all that you need for this body and life, or He’s not. It’s that simple. It’s that cut-and-dry.
And you can’t be selective in your slavery (which we like to do all the time); i.e., I’m a slave to God in certain things, but I’m also a slave to my checkbook, my job, my yard work, my leisure time, and/or my personal likes and dislikes (although I would never classify it as such). I’m a slave to God in things that I like and approve of, but those things that I don’t care for I’m gonna take charge and call the shots. It doesn’t work this way. This is why Jesus uses a bit of humor in explaining what this all means for us. You’ve never seen a farmer bird, have you? You’ve never seen a flower working as a seamstress, have you? Duh! Such things are almost as foolish as making mammon your lord and master. Calling God your Lord and Master, but then acting like He’s your slave and you’re in charge is as foolish as a farming bird or seamstress flower. Ouch! Lord, have mercy! And He does…in Christ and because of Christ.
Now, before we close I do need to make abundantly clear that the “slavery of righteousness/faith” is a wonderful joy for those who rightly understand what it means to be a “slave of Christ.” Purchased with the price of Christ’s body and blood, we have been adopted as children of the King. Our loving and gracious Lord loves us so much that He treats us, not like a heavy-handed taskmaster, but as a Father loves and treats His own beloved child. And, indeed, that is what we are. In and through the waters of Holy Baptism, our Lord and Master has adopted us and made us His own. Let that beautiful irony sink in. God has watered you down! It is through God’s watering down of you that you are purchased from the bonds of sin, death, and the grave! Yes, we are His slaves; slaves who have been given sonship in His household of righteousness and grace. When viewed through the lens of the cross, being a slave of Christ is a tremendous joy and privilege. “For all this it is my duty to thank, praise, serve, and obey Him.”
Understood in Christ and through Christ, it’s really not that difficult or offensive, is it? In fact, it’s all very beautiful. Watering this Good News down is offensive! “Thank, praise, serve and obey.” What else would I do?! Through faith, I know my Lord and Master. I know all that He gave up to purchase me and my salvation. Out of joy and thanksgiving for all this, how could I not want to obey and serve Him with my whole life?! I know my Lord and Master. I know and trust that He is working all things for my good and for the good of all those who love Him. I know and joyfully seek after Him and His righteous provisions. I seek Him and His righteousness first. Peace? Assurance? Confidence and hope? Look no further than right here! Look to the font. Look to the rail. Look to your Lord and Master in action! Here He is, graciously kneeling down from heaven to you, to feed you and nourish you with the most important and vital of all things: Himself and His righteousness. All else may fail you in life. Everything else may crumble and fall and fail, but you belong to Christ. You bear His name upon your head and your heart. He has made you His own. Nothing and no one can ever steal that way.
Confident in this Christ-centered Good News and blessed assurance; faithfully confident in His grace and mercy and daily/abundant provision, may you be freed up to humbly and obediently serve Him with all that you say, think, and do. May you, like St. Paul and all the faithful who came before you, be proud to call yourself and consider yourself a slave of Christ and a child of God.
In His name and to His glory...AMEN.
Feel free to use any or all of this sermon for the edification of God's people.
Send Pastor Jason Zirbel an email.