Think about a time when you needed to do something – some job, some task, some test,
some responsibility, but you just couldn’t bring yourself to do it. Your inability to do the
thing before you really weighs on you, but you know you just don’t have it in you. And then,
someone, somehow steps in and does it for you. Not as a favor to be paid back. And not with
you, holding your hand and helping you. But for you. Just because they love you and care
for you. The weight is gone, the obligation is finished, the job is done.
I had that experience in a powerful way right after my father died. Christie and I were on
the way to his nursing home in Crozet around 10:30 on a Saturday night when the call
came in. We had our farm service scheduled for the following Sunday morning. Of course,
we weren’t thinking straight in the moment and I was concerned about being there to
Around midnight it was obvious that we would be in no shape to be ready for the next
day. Not only that, but I realized I needed the next week to grieve and attend to the all the
details that are in the wake of any death.
So very quickly, in a matter a few moments and a few texts and a few phone calls, I was
able to off-load all my church responsibilities for the coming week to my wonderful friends,
who also happen to be my work colleagues. They immediately took everything off my plate,
with such willingness and attentiveness. As a result, I felt fully loved and fully cared for.
Again, people didn’t fulfill my responsibilities with me. They fulfilled them for me – in my
place. In today’s gospel passage, we have yet another round of questions designed to test and
trap Jesus. Week after week after week the authorities have tried and tried and tried to trap
Jesus with questions. He stymies them every time. So this time they decide to bring out the
big guns – the wiliest and perhaps the most disreputable one among them. Who is it? Here
is what the text says: When the Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, they
gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. A lawyer!
As one has endured his fair share of preacher jokes, I’ll use the floor for a little lawyer
levity, with apologies to all the lawyers in the congregation. A man went to a lawyer and
asked what his fee was. “$1000 for three questions,” answered the lawyer. “Isn’t that a little
steep?” asked the man. “Yes,” said the lawyer. “Now, what’s your third question?”
And speaking of questions, unlike the other questions posed to entrap him, Jesus
answers this one straight up. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He
said to him, “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and
with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You
shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the
No irony, no subterfuge, no evasion – just a simple answer: love the Lord your God with
all your heart. And He even expounds on the answer with a second answer: love your
neighbor as yourself. Why the straight answer? Well, for anyone with even an ounce of selfawareness, the answer is a show stopper. Love God with ALL your heart, soul and mind?
Love your neighbor – yes THAT neighbor – as yourself? NO FREAKING WAY! Only the
seriously deluded think they have a shot at following that law.
And if the answer sounds familiar, it should. It’s at the beginning of our Rite 1
Communion service. It’s called the Summary of the Law. After the minister recites this
passage, there is a congregation response. It is the only sane response available to us.
Remember what it is? “Lord have mercy upon us. Christ have mercy upon us. Lord have mercy
upon us.” Translation? We don’t stand a chance of doing what you command. We can’t get
this right; we will always get this wrong.
The good news of the gospel – which is what you are here to hear – it that Jesus answers
the question for you. Not with you, but for you. He passes the test for you. He does the job
for you. He completes the task for you. In theological terms, this is the vicarious atonement.
The vicarious atonement is not as heady as it sounds. Parents are said to live vicariously
through their children – when a child accomplishes something, the parent feels that
A recent example for us is our dear friend Jo. She’s been working on a novel for 15 years.
Last week she called to tell us that the publishing house Faber – the best in Britain (she’s
English) bought the rights and gave her a huge advance. Publishers in other countries –
including the US – are bidding on it. Faber only publishes 5 new novels per year, and Jo’s is
going to be the top novel of 2022! Now, Christie and I did not write a word of that novel,
but we are still on Cloud 9 – vicariously – since she called to give us the news. Stay tuned –
we’ll have Jo do an exclusive reading in Meade Hall when she comes to tour America!
Finally, UVA basketball fans are thoroughly familiar with vicarious achievement. When
we won the championship, WE won, didn’t we? Now raise your hand if you actually played
on that team. I’ll close with an example used by a minister friend. When he was a small child he was
watching Walter Kronkite on the news waiting for Neil Armstrong to descend onto the
moon. (Some of you are old enough to remember that moment.) As Armstrong says, “One
giant leap for mankind.” People all over the world are responding in tears.
Why? It’s something humanity has dreamed about since the beginning – not just one
man, but all of humanity. His accomplishment was our accomplishment. It didn’t matter
what language you spoke, what country you were from – humanity could say “we made it to
In Christ Jesus one of Adam’s sons finally got it right. He loved the Lord His God with all
His heart, mind, and soul. And on the cross, He loved His neighbor – all neighbors – you and
me, as Himself One of us finally gave God the obedience He had wanted all along. And
through Christ’s accomplishment for us – not with us – we are allowed to be called Children
of God through the gift of His spirit.
The weight is gone, the obligation is finished, the job is done. Jesus has answered the
question for you.