Righteousness in an Age of Austerity.

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2014-02-09 by George Kaplan

Preacher: Christopher Adams
9th February 2014
Readings: Matthew 5:17-20, 5:21-42 (referenced/quoted later in sermon)

I have had difficulty this week teasing out any kind of common thread among the passages we have heard. Paul’s writings in First Corinthians I’ve found especially difficult to interpret, or incorporate, so I will confine myself to the first three passages: from Isaiah, the Psalms, and Matthew.

I remember sitting in Bible class in — it must have been seventh grade — I would have been thirteen or fourteen at the time — and I remember the lecturer setting us this passage from Matthew: “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven’ (v. 20), and later, in Matthew 5:48: “Be perfect, therefore, even as your heavenly Father is perfect”. The lecturer’s commentary followed a typically evangelical approach: Jesus is saying here that which is impossible. The Pharisees were the most ‘righteous’ persons of the age — how could their righteousness be exceeded? Perfection! How is ‘perfection’ even attainable? No — what Jesus means here is that these are impossible standards, we’re all sinners, and it is by faith and/or grace alone and Jesus’ atonement for our sins that we enter the Kingdom of Heaven. And so on and so forth.

Re-reading these passages now, I’m not entirely convinced by my seventh-grade lecturer’s interpretation of the passage. Especially in light of the readings from Isaiah and the Psalms. I’m not so sure Jesus was in fact setting out impossible standards (okay: perfection is hard, I’ll grant my lecturer that). Rather, he seems to be pointing to a righteousness that is both beyond and unconcerned with outward forms of righteousness.

Matthew 5:17-20 (NIV)

The Fulfillment of the Law

17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.
18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.
19 Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
20 For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.

The passage we’re greeted with in Matthew comes toward the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount. I think it’s important we keep in mind the fact that the Sermon on the Mount is, in fact, a sermon. Three whole chapters of a sermon and whether or not Jesus actually said all of what he’s quoted as saying in one long sermon, what’s also important is that Matthew wants us to read the Sermon on the Mount as a sermon. Which is another way of saying: we can’t take what Jesus says about the law and the prophets, and, particularly what he says about “your righteousness” exceeding “that of the scribes and Pharisees” out of context. In fact, within the Sermon on the Mount as a whole, I think verse 20 is the key verse for understanding the rest of the sermon. In verse 20 Jesus tells us, and I think we can take this at face value, that our righteousness needs to exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees, and throughout the rest of the Sermon, he’s going to tell us how to do so.

Matthew 5:21-42 (NIV)

Murder

21 “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder,and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’
22 But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sisterwill be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.
23 “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you,
24 leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.
25 “Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still together on the way, or your adversary may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison.
26 Truly I tell you, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny.

Adultery

27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’
28 But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
29 If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.
30 And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.

Divorce

31 “It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’
32 But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

Oaths

33 “Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made.’
34 But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne;
35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King.
36 And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black.
37 All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.

Eye for Eye

38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’
39 But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.
40 And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.
41 If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles.
42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.

The examples Jesus gives — and here I’m going off into passages we haven’t heard (added above – Ed) — seem to form around a general theme of beyond. The law says this, but I tell you to do this plus something else. The law says X, I say X + Y. The law says go one mile, I say go two. The law says to give your cloak, I say to give your cloak and your shirt. You enemy wants to hit you on one cheek, give him two! Jesus focuses on that word — exceed — excess. Jesus has not come, as he reminds us, to abolish the law, but to fulfil it, with an emphasis on filling, being full, being full to overflowing, to exceed. The Kingdom of Heaven is an excessive one.

But why so? Why excessive? Why is the principle of going beyond important? Jesus seems concerned with the spirit of the law, rather than its letter. Perhaps this provides a link with Paul’s words in first Corinthians: “for the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God” (1 Corinthians 2: 10) and “now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God” (1 Corinthians 2: 12). The letter of the law brings death, but the Spirit life. A righteousness borne out of the letter of the law is limited, displays a failure of imagination, is contractual. But the ‘truly’ righteous are found in the words of the Psalmist: “The righteous…have distributed freely, they have given to the poor.”

Or take the passage from Isaiah: “You fast, only to quarrel and to fight to strike with a wicked fist.” (Isaiah 58:4) and “Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?”(Isaiah 58:5). Here, righteousness is personal, the fasting is inward looking, concerned with the self. This form of righteousness is contraposed against an excessive righteousness: “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house?”

The discussion of excess is one that, in today’s austerity-driven world, is counter-cultural. Jesus’ righteousness in an age of austerity is counter-cultural. It gives excessively in a society that values frugality. It requires more, when society says less. It is generous when told to be mean. It actively resists the encroachment of tightness, of counting the cost. “Your righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees! Or you will never see the kingdom of God!” Is the converse true? Let your righteousness be excessive, and there, before you, you will begin to perceive, begin to see forming in front of your very eyes, the Kingdom of Heaven.

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