The following sermon was preached by Dr Thomas Korcok in the seminary’s Martin Luther Chapel for the divine service on Wednesday, 4 November 2020.
In Thesis XXV of Law and Gospel, Walther stated, “You are not rightly distinguishing Law and Gospel in the Word of God if you do not allow the Gospel to predominate in your teaching.” It almost seems like our Lord’s sermon, given to the crowds about the Scribes and Pharisees, fails on this account, because through this chapter there is no word of forgiveness, or mercy, or kindness. There is not the slightest word of encouragement or hope. Speaking to the crowd, our Lord tears into the hypocrisy of the Scribes and the Pharisees, listing seven woes. In doing so, He lays bear our own double standards and our own hypocrisy such that there is no hiding from it. Why is He doing this? It is because He wants us to know our woes, and that our woes have been paid for.
If you know anything about numbers and the Bible, you know that “7” is the number of completeness. Jesus, in Matthew chapter 23, lays out seven woes that befall the Scribes and Pharisees. He pronounces a perfect and complete woe to them because in each case they are perfect and complete hypocrites. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!” Why? Because they shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. They will do anything to convert a person, and in doing so, they pervert the Word of God such that they become twice the child of hell. They would devour widows’ homes and then cover up their covetousness with long and devout prayers. They would zealously tithe while ignoring the need to show mercy to those who were suffering, and thus they would, as Jesus said, “strain out the gnat of sin, while swallowing a camel.” They were greedy and self-indulgent, because, like whitewashed tombs they prided themselves in their outward righteousness all the while covering over the spiritual death under which they lived out their lives.
I guess those scribes and Pharisees were pretty terrible people, weren’t they? Can you believe that they were such hypocrites? Ah yes, this is a fine way to abuse the Law isn’t it: turning it around so that it points to the sins of others? Christ isn’t saying these things so that we can prove our righteousness over against the hypocrites. He is speaking to us. He is speaking the Law so that it has a chance to do what the Law always does—condemn sin! Consider each of those woes. Is there a single one that does not apply to each one of us? Do we not, at times, become more concerned about the gnats of having precisely the correct doctrine at the expense of mercy and kindness to others? Do we not care more for the appearance of righteousness and holiness, using it to cover a love of our own secret sins? Do we not neglect widows, orphans, the poor, the weak, the helpless, and console ourselves with “long prayers” and devotion to proper worship? Yes, the woes are spoken of us as well, and we must have ears to hear them because, if our sin is not condemned, it is not put to death, and then WE must be condemned and put to eternal death. We must listen and take to heart these woes, or we will not hear the Gospel that is to follow.
You see, in fact, the Gospel does predominate. It is not just found here in Matthew 23. Just as our Lord pronounces the perfect law with the seven woes, He also pronounces the perfect Gospel with the seven words from the cross. With those words, He liberates us from the woes that convict and condemn. If you list the seven Woes next to the seven Words, you find that they almost perfectly match up.
In contrast to the woe that condemns us because of our neglect of justice, mercy and faithfulness, our neglect of others, Christ prayed that mercy would be shown to us, saying, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
In contrast to the woe that condemns us for our miserable efforts to truly evangelize, to preach the comfort to those who are lost and without hope, Christ turned to the hopeless thief hanging next to him and comforted him with the Gospel message: “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
In contrast to the woe that comes because of our callous neglect of widows and all those they represent, Jesus called the most precious widow close to him and said, “Woman, behold your son; son behold your mother.”
In contrast to the woe that comes because we have in so many ways abused God’s name with foolish promises and oaths designed to benefit ourselves, Christ used God’s name rightly praying the Psalms on our behalf and saying, “My God my God why have you forsaken me.”
In contrast to the woe that comes because of our greed, our self-indulgence, and our desire for the comfortable life, Christ uttered the simple words, “I thirst” and thus contented himself with nothing more than a sip of sour wine vinegar.
In contrast to the woe that comes for the times when we shut the door to the kingdom of heaven through our own self-important theologizing, Christ flung that door open with the words, “It is finished.”
And in contrast to the woe that comes because of our outward righteousness by which we cover over our dead dry bones, Christ took our place by placing his dying bones into the hands of the living God, saying, “Into thy hands I commit my Spirit.”
So, you see, with Christ, that perfect hypocrite has been put to death, and the woes that were laid on each of us by the Law have been lifted as from the cross Christ pronounces this most beautiful, wonderful absolution. In the moment of His suffering and death, He is putting our total hypocrisy to death and raising up a perfect new man. In doing so, He gives us his life, and what a beautiful life it is: a life of perfect authentic faith, of perfect authentic love, of perfect authentic obedience. He is giving us—He is giving you—Himself.