The Greater Righteousness (a sermon on Matthew 5:21-37)

If a preacher stood up in a pulpit today and said, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of Mother Theresa, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven”, I suspect the members of the congregation would be shocked. Mother Theresa, who gave her entire life to serving the poor of Calcutta? Mother Theresa, who thought nothing of cleaning out bedpans and washing the hideous wounds of lepers? Mother Theresa, who spent an hour in prayer every morning before the Blessed Sacrament? How the heck can we have a greater righteousness than hers?

And this is exactly how the crowd would have felt when they heard Jesus speak these words from the end of last week’s gospel reading: “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20).

In the time of Jesus, the Pharisees were highly respected for keeping the Law of Moses. They had calculated exactly how many ‘thou shalts’ and how many ‘thou shalt nots’ were in the law, and they had added all sorts of traditions to apply the commands to every conceivable situation in daily life. In the gospels we mainly get a negative view of the Pharisees, but we should remember that most people in the time of Jesus looked up to them and saw them as the most holy and devout people of their generation. So for Jesus to talk about ‘a greater righteousness than that of the scribes and Pharisees’ would have been astounding to the people of his day.

What does he mean by ‘a greater righteousness’? Well, that’s what we’re going to find out today and next week, because Jesus spends the rest of Matthew chapter five giving us six concrete examples of this ‘greater righteousness’. With each example, he’s going to show us the problem with the Pharisees: they were satisfied with a strict obedience to the bare demands of the Law of Moses, but they weren’t going any further than that. They weren’t asking the question, “What sort of person is the Law designed to produce? How does God want to change me on the inside, so that breaking the Law is something I would never even think of doing?” Another way of looking at it would be to say that a Law-oriented person is going to ask, “What’s the least I can get away with?” whereas a follower of Jesus is going to ask, “How can I grow in love and become the sort of person God dreams for me to be?”

How does this work out in daily life? Well, let’s take a look at the first four examples, and see how the basic principle is worked out in them. The other two will be in our gospel reading for next week.

Jesus starts in verses 21-26 with the commandment against murder: “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’, and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgement’” (v.21). We can imagine a strict Pharisee being proud of himself at this point and saying, “Yep, I can tick that one off on the scorecard; I’ve never murdered anyone”. How comforting it would be for us to know that there are no murderers in this church! We might even congratulate ourselves on what a godly church we are!

But Jesus is going to take it further than that. He’s going to ask us, “But what causes murders? Often, it’s anger, and resentment, and the desire for revenge. So I’m not only going to outlaw murder – I’m going to outlaw anger as well. And here’s what I’m going to do: I’m going to make reconciliation a number one Christian value. So whenever you realize that there’s something wrong between you and someone else, drop whatever you’re doing and go and do all you can to make it right. This should be priority number one for you”.

You see what he’s doing? He’s going deep into the inner meaning of the Law of Moses and ‘fulfilling’ it – in other words, ‘filling it up’, asking not only ‘what’s the letter?’ but ‘what’s the spirit?’ And he’s going to do the same thing with the other examples too.

In verses 27-30 he turns to the commandment against adultery. There it is in the Ten Commandments: “You shall not commit adultery”, and once again we can imagine a righteous Pharisee saying, “Yep, I can tick that one off too: I’ve always been faithful to my wife and never had sex with anyone else”. But once again, Jesus is asking the hard questions. “What causes adultery? Surely, it’s uncontrolled lust. How are you doing on that score, mister Pharisee? You may never have committed adultery, but do you have a roving eye?”

Jesus is not talking here about just noticing someone; we all do that. He’s talking about indulging that impulse, nursing it and cultivating it. Of course, in his day he never had to deal with the rise of Internet pornography, but we know today that it’s a huge problem in many lives. So Jesus is going to the root of the problem: the best way to head off adultery is to deal with lust, and the way to deal with it is to ruthlessly cut out all opportunity for it in your life. It might not literally involve cutting off your hand or gouging out your eye; it might mean, instead, putting some external controls on your Internet use, so that you become accountable to others for what you look at and what you don’t. A pastor friend of mine told me some years ago about a computer program that had been developed to help this happen; you give it the list of a small group of friends you want to be accountable to, and each day it emails them a list of all the websites you have visited.

This may sound drastic, but Jesus sees the damage that can be caused, and so he encourages us to take drastic measures, far beyond a bare obedience to the letter of the Law. The goal, of course, is a pure heart, one that’s committed to loving in a way that conforms to God’s dream for us. Jesus is telling us that this is a treasure worth making sacrifices for, so we ought to do whatever it takes to become that sort of person.

Of course, these commands of Jesus are demanding, and they touch every one of us. Many of us have been seriously hurt by people in our past, and we find it very difficult to avoid being angry and resentful. Sometimes, it’s all we can do to just avoid murdering them! And the Jesus we read about in the gospels is gentle on us sinners; he knows what we’ve been through and the difficulties we face. But he’s encouraging us to press on, to see the Law of Moses as just a start. God has a dream for us, and we will find our real freedom and joy as we press on toward that dream.

The same applies to lust. We live in a culture that’s soaked in sexual innuendo, and the media milks it for every cent it’s worth. Let’s be honest; to put Jesus’ teaching into practice here is very, very hard. But once again, we know he’s right when he says that it’s worth it. We all know marriages and families that have been wrecked by the pain of adultery, and we know that this all starts with looking, and indulging and cultivating that looking. So Jesus encourages us to go to the root of the problem.

The next topic that Jesus turns to is one that touches even more of us. Many of us here have been touched by the pain of divorce; many of us have been divorced and remarried. And once again Jesus turns to our Pharisee, who looks at the Law of Moses and finds there a command that says, “If you want to divorce your wife, be sure to give her a certificate of divorce”. So once again our Pharisee can congratulate himself and say, “Yes, I’ve done that one too; my divorce was all strictly legal and above board! Well done, me!”

But Jesus won’t have it; to him, every divorce is a tragedy, and we know he’s right. Maybe, in a small number of cases, the tragedy of the marriage was such that there truly was no other option, but there’s no such thing as a divorce that doesn’t cause pain and heartache. And, as Jesus says in another place, “In the beginning it was not so” – in other words, God didn’t design us for serial marriages, he designed us for lifelong faithful monogamy. So if you want to pursue God’s dream for you, that’s what you need to pursue, he says – keeping in mind, of course, that every single one of us has fallen short of God’s ideal for us in one way or another, and that the Gospel assures us that God always starts with us where we are, not where we ought to be.

Can I pause here and point out that the order in which Jesus has examined these first three examples is not an accident? Surely, if we want to save a difficult marriage, anger and lust are two major issues that we need to deal with. Many times, when marriages are full of unresolved conflicts, both partners are keeping score cards and lists of all their grievances, and as the lists get longer and longer, the chances of saving the marriage get smaller and smaller. Unless we can deal with the issue of anger and resentment, and learn the way of reconciliation, then Jesus’ words will become sadly relevant to us: we’ll never get out of court until we’ve paid the last penny! And it’s obvious that the issue of lust – adultery in the heart, as Jesus calls it – is a major factor contributing to the breakdown of many marriages. These examples Jesus gives, you see, are not isolated; they’re all connected to each other, and as we address one area, it has an impact on the others as well.

The final example we’ll look at today is his fourth one: truthfulness. Once again, we can imagine our little Pharisee congratulating himself and saying, “Yes sir! Every time I’ve made a promise, I’ve kept it! If I swear by the gold of the Temple, you can be sure I’ll keep my word, and if I sign a contract with you, you’ll get exactly what you’ve been promised”.

But once again, Jesus is going to the heart of the issue. Why do we have to make promises at all? Why do we have to use oaths or sign contracts? Surely, it’s because people can’t trust our bare word! What are we actually saying if we feel we have to swear an oath? Are we saying, “Well, normally, you can’t trust what I say, but now I’ve made an oath calling on God to punish me if I’m not telling the truth, and I do fear God, so now you can finally trust me”?

Jesus is encouraging us to imagine a different level of honesty. Imagine a situation where I’ve been called on to be a witness in a court of law. So I take the stand, and the clerk approaches me with the Bible so I can swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God. But suddenly the judge stops the proceedings. “Wait a minute”, he says, “that’s Tim Chesterton up there. The whole world knows that he’s a man of absolute integrity and honesty. There’s never been a known occasion when he’s told a lie, or when he’s said he’s going to do something and failed to do it. It would be an absolute insult for me to ask him to take an oath and swear to tell the truth, because that’s what he always does”.

Is that me? No, I’m afraid it’s not, but I have to say that I would love to be that person. Jesus is telling me that this is God’s dream for me: a life of absolute honesty and integrity. So aim for this, Jesus is saying. Don’t settle for a life of controlled dishonesty; aim to be known as a person who lives truthfully and speaks truthfully.

If we’re honest, these four examples Jesus has given today both scare us and excite us. They scare us, because we all know we’ve fallen short. But they also excite us, because we know in our hearts that Jesus is describing a life of integrity, love, and holiness, and this is attractive to us. We know instinctively that if we’re going to find the peace of mind and heart we’re looking for, the path Jesus is laying out for us is the right one.

Next week we’ll go on to the last two examples Jesus gives, revenge and love for enemies. But as we come to a close today, let’s remind ourselves of what the Beatitudes tell us. They tell us that the kingdom of God is for the weak, the poor, and those who know their need of God. So if you feel like you’ve fallen short, don’t be discouraged by that; the way of Jesus is for people just like you! The Sermon on the Mount is the curriculum in the School of Jesus; it’s not the entrance exam! The entrance exam is simple – repentance, faith, and baptism. If you’ve turned from sin and evil, put your faith in Jesus and been baptized – whatever order those things happened in – then you’re in.

God loves us so much that he accepts us just as we are, but he loves us too much to leave us there. As we continue to explore the Sermon on the Mount, we’ll discover the ways in which God is patiently teaching us a new way of living. As we learn to put that new way of living into practice, we’ll gradually find ourselves being transformed – not just on the outside, but on the inside as well – and we will discover for ourselves what the greater righteousness is all about. In the end, of course, there’s a very simple name for it: the greater righteousness is all about love.

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