Clive Staples Lewis, November 29th 1989 – November 22nd 1963.

(Reposted, slightly amended, from recent years)

On this day fifty-eight years ago, the great C.S. Lewis died.

In the early 1990s I lent a United Church minister friend a copy of Lewis’ Mere Christianity; when he gave it back to me, he said, “Do you have any idea how much this man has influenced you?”

Mere Christianity came along at just the right time for me; I was seventeen and had begun to feel the lack of a rigorous intellectual basis for my faith. In this book, Lewis gave me just that. I went on to read pretty well everything he had written, including the various editions of his letters which seem to me to contain some of the best common-sense spiritual direction I’ve ever read. I’ve parted company with Lewis on a few issues (pacifism, Conservative politics, the ordination of women), but for the most part I still consider him to be one of the most reliable guides available to a rigorous, holistic, common-sense Christianity.

Lewis was a fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford, and, later, of Magdalene College, Cambridge, and in his professional career he taught English literature. Brought up in Ireland in a conventionally religious home, he became an atheist in his teens. Later, in his late twenties and early thirties, he gradually came back to Christianity (he told the story himself in his book Surprised by Joy) and went on to become a popular writer and speaker on Christian faith. He claimed for himself Richard Baxter’s phrase ‘Mere Christianity’. Although he lived and died entirely content to be a member of the Church of England (‘neither especially high, nor especially low, nor especially anything else’, as he said in his introduction to Mere Christianity), he had no interest in interdenominational controversy, preferring to serve as an apologist for the things that most Christians have in common.

Nowadays evangelicals (especially in the United States) have claimed Lewis as a defender of a rigorous Christian orthodoxy (despite the fact that he did not believe in the inerrancy of the Bible and was an enthusiastic smoker and imbiber of alcoholic beverages). Likewise, Roman Catholics have sometimes pointed out that many fans of Lewis have gone on to convert to Roman Catholicism (something he himself never did, because he believed that Roman Catholicism itself had parted company on some issues with the faith of the primitive church), and have resorted to claiming that his Irish Protestant background somehow gave him a phobia about Catholicism that made it psychologically impossible for him to convert. Lewis himself, I believe, would not have approved of these attempts to press him into the service of advancing a particular Christian tradition or denomination. I believe we should take him at his word: he was an Anglican by conviction, but was most comfortable with the label ‘Christian’.

What about his books? Well, there are so many of them! In his professional discipline of literary criticism he wrote several influential books, including The Allegory of Love (on the medieval allegorical love poem), The Discarded Image (an introduction to the world view of medieval and renaissance writers), An Experiment in Criticism (in which he examines what exactly it means to take pleasure from reading a book), A Preface to Paradise Lost (in which he introduces us to one of his favourite works of literature, John Milton’s famous poem Paradise Lost), and English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, Excluding Drama (this is only a selection of his works of literary criticism).

Turning to his more specifically ‘Christian’ works, in The Screwtape Letters Lewis gave us an imaginary series of letters from a senior to a junior demon on the art of temptation; along the way, as Lewis intended, we get some penetrating insights into practical, unpretentious, daily holiness. In Miracles and The Problem of Pain Lewis gives us an intellectual defence of Christian truth (the first book examines the question of whether miracles are possible, while the second deals with the issue of evil and the goodness of God). Reflections on the Psalms is a series of meditations on the issues raised by the psalms (including an excellent chapter on the ‘cursing’ psalms), while Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer gives us accurate guidance on what a life of prayer is really all about. In the ‘Narnia’ stories and the Space Trilogy, Lewis baptizes our imagination, using the genre of fairy story and science fiction to present Christian truth in a fresh and compelling way. And in Mere Christianity he presents his case for the truth of Christianity and a good explanation of its central ideas.

These are just a few of his books; there are many websites that give exhaustive lists.

This website by Lewis’ publishers is of course focused on trying to sell books – Lewis’ own books, collections of his writings published since his death, and many of the books that have been since written about him. Personally, I like Into the Wardrobe better; it isn’t trying to sell me anything, but includes a biography, a collection of papers, articles, and archives, and some excellent links.

Since his death Lewis has become almost a cult figure, especially in the U.S., and the number of books and articles about him continues to grow. He himself was uncomfortable with the trappings of fame, and I believe he would have been horrified with the growth of the C.S. Lewis industry today. It seems to me that the best way to observe the  anniversary of his death is to go back to his books, read them again (or perhaps for the first time), ponder what he had to say, and pray that his work will lead us closer to Christ, as he would have wanted.

Rest in peace and rise in glory, Jack. And once again, thank you.

“If You Choose”

‘When Jesus had come down from the mountain, great crowds followed him; and there was a leper who came to him and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean.” He stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, “I do choose. Be made clean!” Immediately his leprosy was cleansed. Then Jesus said to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer the gift that Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.”’ (Matthew 8.1-4 NRSV)

“Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean.” This is a similar prayer to “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!” The man with the skin disease (not leprosy as we understand it today, but serious nonetheless), doesn’t doubt Jesus’ ability to heal, but he’s not so sure about Jesus’ desire. Maybe Jesus is too busy today. Maybe he won’t want to be associated with a social outcast with a disfiguring skin disease. Maybe (and you just know this had happened many times in the man’s experience), it just wasn’t going to happen today.

I expect this man was very familiar with disappointment. Many of his hopes and dreams had not come about as he had hoped. Many of his prayers for God’s help had gone unanswered. Maybe he had often protected himself from further disappointment by quietly whispering that phrase so many of us use: “Don’t get your hopes up.”

Can you identify with this man? I must confess that I can. Many things I’ve wanted to happen just didn’t come about, at least not in the way I was hoping. Many of my prayers haven’t had the results I’d longed for. And I’ve used that phrase myself—maybe not in so many words, but I’ve certainly felt it—”Don’t get your hopes up.”

Jesus is not slow to rebuke his disciples for their lack of faith, but he doesn’t rebuke this man. He understands what the man has been through; he feels for his hurts and disappointments. People with skin diseases like this were social outcasts in the time of Jesus, and it may have been years since anyone had touched this man. But Jesus stretches out his hand and touches him. “I do choose; be made clean.” And immediately his skin disease is healed.

“Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.” “Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean.” Don’t feel you have to pretend to God that you have more faith than you actually have. If lack of faith is the problem, make that part of your prayer as well (“Help my unbelief!”). But don’t fixate on it. Fixating on our lack of faith takes our eyes away from God and fixes them on our own feelings instead. A better plan is simply to turn to Jesus and ask for help. The answer may be quick, or it may be slow. It may be a healing, or it may be extra strength to go through the difficulty. But let’s not doubt his compassion. He wants to help. He has the time. He won’t turn us away.

Picture from ‘The Chosen’, used by permission of a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International Licence (for further information go here)

Out of the Depths (a settler’s reflection on the residential schools)

I’m going to go on a bit of a ramble here.

I made my first trip from my home in England to Canada at the age of eight, in September 1967. My dad and mum, my brother and I travelled by sea from Liverpool to Montreal, took the train to Edmonton, then flew north in a DC-6 to Cambridge Bay NWT (as it was then called), where my dad became the missionary in charge at St. George’s Anglican Mission. This was a five year commitment for him, and it was not anticipated that we would get out for any holidays during those five years.

However, the Diocese of the Arctic had neglected to inform my parents that the school in Cambridge Bay only provided education up to a certain grade level, after which I would have to go to Inuvik, to a residential school. This would happen very soon, and my parents were not prepared to send me away at such a young age. So, my dad backed out of his agreement with the Diocese of the Arctic, and we returned to England after only one year. 

Of course, I knew nothing about the reasons for this at the time; it was many years before I found out about them. But even if I had known, I’m sure it would never have occurred to me that there was a whole category of people in Canada who had no choice about this residential school experience—that there were children who were taken forcibly from their parents—that whole communities had been robbed of their children, and the children robbed of their parents, against their will. My parents exercised a choice. I had no idea how lucky I was that they had that choice.

I returned to Canada (again with my parents) in December 1975, at the age of 17. To be honest, the last thing I wanted was to move to Canada; I didn’t want to leave behind my friends and family and the familiar world i lived in, and I was determined that as soon as possible, I would return to the UK. Ironically, 45 years later, I’m the only member of the family still living in Canada! (I put it down to the love of a good woman!)

I went to Toronto to the Church Army Training College in September 1976 for a two year training course in evangelism. I would be working in the context of the Anglican Church of Canada, but strangely, our Church History courses included no Canadian Church History. Nothing. Nada. We learned all about the controversies of the Reformation and all the European stuff, but nothing about the history of missionary work and evangelism in Canada. And I certainly never heard about the Residential Schools.

After a year serving in Ontario, I married Marci in 1979 and we moved west to Saskatchewan. The parish I was serving in was Arborfield, Red Earth and Shoal Lake; Red Earth and Shoal Lake were First Nations communities. I helped lead services in those two communities Sunday afternoons, learned to sing hymns in Cree, taught religion classes at the government day schools at the two reserves on Tuesdays and Wednesdays every week, and had, I think it’s fair to say, a lot of exposure to First Nations people, language, and culture. 

But no one told me about the Residential Schools. Or if they did, I didn’t notice. What I could see was that the schools on the two First Nations where I worked were day schools, just like the ones I had attended, with the kids going home to their families at the end of the day. I had absolutely no idea that this hadn’t always been the case.

Looking back now at some of the books I read (especially some of Rudy Wiebe’s novels, and ‘I Heard the Owl Call My Name’), I can see that the residential schools were mentioned in them. But the full story was not told. I had no idea that the churches had run these schools on behalf of the government, or that children had been taken forcibly from their parents to attend them, and that they had not been allowed to speak their own languages or practice their ceremonies. This was never explained to me.

In 1988 we moved north to the Arctic, where I served as missionary in charge of two parishes, Aklavik 1984-88, and Holman (now Ulukhaktok) 1988-91. Here, at last, I began to hear the stories of the residential schools. Aklavik had been the site of two of those schools and their student residences (later moved to Inuvik). But still, I didn’t get the full story. In fact, this story was never told me by anyone in either Aklavik or Ulukhaktok (perhaps they assumed I already knew?). It wasn’t until First Nations people in the Anglican Church of Canada began to publicly tell their stories at general synods that I began to realize at last the full enormity of what had happened. 

After that, of course, I heard far more than I ever wanted to hear. Survivors were coming forward and sharing their stories, at general synods and other church gatherings. The stories made me physically ill. We heard about the physical and sexual abuse, the beatings, the loss of language and culture and ceremony and identity, the isolation from the love of family and community, the intergenerational trauma, the substance abuse, the suicide. All of it a consequence of a system run by people who thought this was a good idea, that it would help the people. That it was a good way to make them Christian (by force? Where did we get that idea from Jesus?).

Full disclosure: I also knew three people who had worked in the residential school system. As far as I could tell, they were not monsters. They seemed to be good people. Maybe, I thought, it had been a good system with a few bad apples in it. But gradually, I realized this was not the case. It was an evil system from the beginning, despite the fact that some of the people involved were good people.

In the late 1990s, residential school survivors began taking the Anglican Church of Canada, and its individual dioceses, to court. Sadly, for most of us, we didn’t sit up and take notice until First Nations people began using our own court system against us. And it quickly became clear that this process had the potential to shut down hundreds of little churches all across Canada. Quite frankly, in the dioceses where I worked, there wasn’t a lot of reserve cash. And in fact, one of our dioceses did go bankrupt and had to shut down.

Eventually a settlement was negotiated between the Assembly of First Nations, the Anglican Church of Canada, and the Government of Canada. A fixed amount of money was asked of the Anglican Church of Canada, and dioceses were asked to contribute to that sum. The Diocese of Edmonton had never had an Anglican residential school on its territory, but there was no question of us not taking part. Parishioners were asked to give, and many of us gave generously. We knew it was the right thing to do. Quite frankly, for most of us, we had no idea what else we could do.

But of course, the story was far from over. It was necessary for reparations to be paid, but money itself will not heal people’s trauma. And there was a bottomless well of trauma. When the Truth and Reconciliation Commission travelled across Canada, it stopped in Edmonton for a while. Again, the stories were told. Witnesses relived their pain. Many of the speakers were justifiably angry at the massive injustice that the government and the churches (including my church) had perpetrated on their people. Like many of my colleagues, I put on my clerical collar and went and sat in that hall, and listened. I thought it was something I had to do. I was an ordained representative of a church that had participated in this system. It was my responsibility to take ownership of the sin that had been committed.

What was my part in that sin? After all, I was brought to Canada as a seventeen year old boy by my parents. I was not part of the decision to establish or run residential schools. I had no power in the church. The last residential school in Canada was closed in 1996. I was first elected to General Synod in 1998. So it would be easy, and comforting, to say “I had no part in this system.”

But I don’t believe this is true. My personal sin was that I chose not to ask questions. From the moment I moved to Saskatchewan in 1979, it was clear to me that First Nations communities were plagued with social issues. No need to go into detail about them here (I have no desire to add to the stereotypes). My sin was not to ask the deeper questions. Why are things this way? What is the history? Why is there such a huge difference in quality of life between these First Nations communities and their non-indigenous neighbours?

I didn’t ask these questions. At least, not very often. And when I did, I asked the wrong people, and so I got an inaccurate story. (I actually suspected that it was an inaccurate story, but I chose not to pursue the issue).

Today, I’m doing my best to do better. I’m trying to educate myself, to listen to indigenous friends and colleagues, to learn a more accurate history, to think about the bad things that happen when the Church gets into a Christendom relationship with the State—in other words, when it carries out its mission from a position of coercive power, not a position of marginalization and humble service. To think about how easily we confuse the Gospel of Jesus Christ with white European culture. 

When it comes to systemic issues, I confess to feeling overwhelmed. I’m fairly sure that the majority of Canadian Anglicans know that a vast evil was perpetrated. We know the Church was wrong to get involved with that system. But we also know that in those days of Christendom, Church and State were so intertwined that no one saw any problem with it.

So I guess what I’m doing now is that I’m trying to pray, trying to listen, trying to live out a lifestyle of reconciliation, trying to follow Jesus in the midst of a world of systemic evil (to which, of course the human Jesus was no stranger). I confess that the whole thing often seems too huge for me to fathom. So I try to reduce it to bite-sized portions. I try to think each day about what it means for me to love my neighbour as myself. I, who was not forced to go to that residential school, when so many of my neighbours had no choice. 

It continues to astound me that I could go to a two-year training course at an Anglican institution in the 1970s and learn absolutely nothing about the history of the Anglican Church of Canada. Never mind the residential schools—I was taught nothing about the history of the church I was going to work in. At that point in time I had lived in Canada for a sum total of ten months. Perhaps the Church Army assumed its students would already know these stories. I have no idea. But I hope it’s no longer the case. I hope that every student at any sort of Bible college or theological seminary in Canada, of whatever denomination, is now required to learn about these stories, and to own them. 

At the end of the First World War, so many people cried ‘Never again!’ Sadly, that cry was not heard. Twenty-one years later, a Second World War broke out. Lessons had not been learned. Again, millions died.

When it comes to the Residential Schools and the worldview that produced them, I, for one, am crying ‘Never again.’ But am I actually learning the lessons? Am I practicing what it means to be a follower of Jesus from a position of weakness and vulnerability, not a position of power and coercion? Am I a good listener? Am I a voice for justice for the descendants of the original inhabitants of this land?

I don’t know, and maybe I’m not qualified to answer that question. All I can say is, I do want to make a difference. And I do believe in the hope of the Gospel, which is that God’s kingdom will come and God’s will be done on earth as in heaven. The future doesn’t have to look like the past. The future can be about love and compassion, rather than hate and exclusion. As a Christian, I’m commanded to seek that future, to ‘seek first the Kingdom of God, and God’s righteousness.’ I’m still figuring out what that means in practice.

I’d like to finish this reflection with a prayer from the Bible, from Psalm 130.

Out of the depths I cry to you, Lord;
    Lord, hear my voice.
Let your ears be attentive
    to my cry for mercy.

If you, Lord, kept a record of sins,
    Lord, who could stand?
But with you there is forgiveness,
    so that we can, with reverence, serve you.

I wait for the Lord, my whole being waits,
    and in his word I put my hope.
I wait for the Lord
    more than watchmen wait for the morning,
    more than watchmen wait for the morning.

Israel, put your hope in the Lord,
    for with the Lord is unfailing love
    and with him is full redemption.
He himself will redeem Israel
    from all their sins.

‘The Hunger Games’ and the Human Predicament

For the last couple of days I’ve had some late nights because I’ve been rewatching the32b48154b2be18daf89f26dee4993c60 ‘Hunger Games’ movies on Netflix (I’ve also read the books). I know, it seems a dark and depressing way to end the day, but I find them riveting. In fact, if I wanted to lead a young adult study group on the Christian doctrine of original sin, I think I’d start with ‘The Hunger Games’.

I can hear the objections. ‘Can you really imagine a whole society being so twisted that it enjoys the spectacle of teenagers—and some barely into their teens—killing each other in a virtual arena?’ Well, as it happens, I can. I recall a time in human history when gladiatorial contests were entertainment—the more blood, the better. I also recall a time when young children were sent up chimneys as sweeps, and many died when they got stuck up there. As a human race we’ve dropped bombs on children, sold them as sex slaves, kidnapped them and turned them into child soldiers. We’re not quite the enlightened race we like to think we are.

‘But a nation set up in such a way that a wealthy capital sucks in all the resources and enjoys the lifestyle they make possible, while keeping the regions that produce the resources in poverty and subjugation? Surely we wouldn’t do that?’ But that was the whole point of colonies, wasn’t it? Places that the developed nations could exploit for their resources, while keeping the natives under their thumb. People living in the two-thirds world tell us it’s still going on today.

‘But can you imagine people standing up in front of a microphone and telling out and out blatant lies like that?’ Um – funnily enough, in 2020, I can! Enough said about that!

‘But those ridiculous costumes and hairstyles! All that flashy extravagance and love of spectacle! Isn’t it all a bit over the top?’ Maybe, but is it really so very much different from a modern political convention—or the Grammy Awards?

‘But children standing up on stage talking about how they can’t wait to get out into the arena and fight for the honour of their district?’ Well, that sounds rather like what a lot of soldiers said when they marched off to fight in World War One. And some of them weren’t much older than the kids in the Hunger Games.

So yes—I think ‘The Hunger Games’ tells us some uncomfortable truths about ourselves. Christians believe human beings are made in God’s image, but are also infected with the disease of sin. And what is sin? It’s what Francis Spufford calls our ‘Human Propensity to F___ Things Up.’ We’re really good at it. We break things. We break people. We break relationships. We know it. We try to change it, but it’s desperately hard to break old habits and find a new path.

And ‘The Hunger Games’ reminds us that it’s not just about individual choices. Whole societies are organized in such a way as to institutionalize evil, to reinforce it, so that if you want to step away from it, you have to be intentional about it and be ready to suffer the consequences. As Cinna did. As Katniss and Peeta did.

A gloomy way to start a Friday morning? Maybe. I also believe God has come among us as one of us and started a movement to root out the poison of evil from our souls and our societal structures. But I don’t expect that to be the work of a few minutes, and I don’t expect it to be completed in a single lifetime.

As so often, Bruce Cockburn sums it up well:

From the lying mirror to the movement of stars
Everybody’s looking for who they are
Those who know don’t have the words to tell
And the ones with the words don’t know too well

Could be the famine
Could be the feast
Could be the pusher
Could be the priest
Always ourselves we love the least
That’s the burden of the angel/beast

Birds of paradise — birds of prey
Here tomorrow, gone today
Cross my forehead, cross my palm
Don’t cross me or I’ll do you harm


We go crying, we come laughing
Never understand the time we’re passing
Kill for money, die for love
Whatever was God thinking of?

 – ‘The Burden on the Angel/Beast’ (from the Album ‘Dart to the Heart’ [1994])

Making a Difference (a sermon on Matthew 5.13-20)

There’s a very important difference between a thermometer and a thermostat. A thermometer tells you what the temperature is inside your house, but it doesn’t actually change anything. A thermostat, on the other hand, is connected to the furnace; it changes things! When the temperature dips below a certain level, the thermostat sends a signal to your furnace, and the burners fire up, and a few minutes later things are toasty warm again. Thermometers give you information about the world. Thermostats change the world. We Christians are called to be thermostats.

Last week at St. Margaret’s we celebrated the Feast of Candlemas, and Susan led us in our reflections on Jesus as the light of the world. So it’s a nice piece of serendipity that Matthew 5.13-20 follows on as our gospel reading for this week. In John, Jesus tells us that he is the light of the world, and all who follow hm will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life. But in today’s gospel he turns it around, as he looks straight at us and says, “Youare the light of the world.” In today’s Gospel we think about how we’re called to shine the light of Jesus in the world around us. Like a thermostat in a cold room, a candle in a dark room makes a difference; it changes the world. We’re called to be that change.

I’m glad we celebrated Candlemas last week, but it’s too bad that it preempted the usual gospel reading for the day, which would have been the Beatitudes, the opening passage in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. I’d like to suggest to you that the Sermon on the Mount could be called ‘Lessons in the School of Jesus’. Most people who enroll in the School of Jesus do so because of a sense of need in their own lives; we’re coming to Jesus for help for ourselves. That’s fine as a place to start, but we’ll soon discover that the School of Jesus doesn’t just exist for my personal benefit; it exists to change the world. This is very clear as we read through the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus starts in the Beatitudes by telling us we’re welcome in the Kingdom of God whether we’re saints or sinners, beginners or long-time Christians. But he then goes on immediately to remind us that the purpose of the School of Jesus is to produce disciples—people who can make a difference in the world by being like salt and light. That’s what today’s gospel is about. 

“You are the salt of the earth”, says Jesus in verse 13. The word ‘You’ is a plural; he’s addressing his followers as a community, not just individuals. We, as a community, are to act on the world like salt acts on food.Salt was mainly used in the ancient world to prevent meat from going bad. The purpose of the salt was to influence the meat, not the other way around! So Jesus calls us, his disciples, to have a positive influence on the world around us, and we can’t do that if we’re no different from the world. If we’re going to be useful to the world, we need to be different, to live by different values, to follow a different Master.

In this passage Jesus explicitly warns us about losing our distinctive flavour. Modern table salt actually can’t lose its flavour, but in the ancient world the salt wasn’t pure. It was picked up from the shores of the Dead Sea, and many other impurities were picked up with it, impurities that looked just like salt but actually weren’t. The pure salt was water soluble, so it wouldn’t be uncommon for all the saltiness to be washed away and only the impurities be left. So Jesus warns his disciples: there will be a lot of pressure for you to ‘wash away’ your distinctiveness and blend in with the world around you. He’s warning us not to give in to that temptation, because if we do, we kiss goodbye to any opportunity to make a real difference for God in the world.

And we are to be visibly different; that’s the point of the second illustration. “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven” (vv.14-16).

It’s interesting that in John’s gospel Jesus says, “am the light of the world”, but here in Matthew he says to us, his followers, “You are the light of the world”. Darkness in the Bible stands for evil, sin, and ignorance, and Jesus is bringing light into the world – truth, goodness, and holiness. He calls his disciples to be like him, so that they also may spread his light wherever they may go. And the question for us as a church community is surely this: does our life together as followers of Jesus remind people of our Master? Do they see his light in us?

I think we sometimes have a tendency to assume that they don’t. Many of us have a perfectionistic streak in us, and all we can see is how far we fall short, without giving ourselves room to be thankful for the good things that arehappening. I need to take some responsibility for this, too; Marci sometimes reminds me that I’m the resident Eeyore in our family! But then I remember some years ago when a member of our congregation brought me a cheque for $300. She told me a friend had given it to her to pass on to our church. Her friend wasn’t a member of St. Margaret’s, but she’d heard on the grape vine that we were a church that knew how to be a blessing to the poor and needy. Not a bad reputation to have!

But of course, there always is room for improvement, and so as a community we need to be constantly listening to the teaching of Jesus in the gospels and asking ourselves “How would that change the life of our community? If we actually did what he tells us here, how would we be different?” And then, of course, we need to actually make the necessary changes. That’s what it means to be a Christian church, a community of disciples of Jesus.

But in order for this to happen – in order for us to truly be salt and light and to have a positive influence on the world around us – there needs to be genuine transformation in our own lives, and it can’t just be superficial; it has to go deep. This is what Jesus goes on to address in verses 17-20, where he says,

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven”.

As it stands, there’s an obvious difficulty with this teaching: it doesn’t line up with the practice of Jesus. Jesus actually sat rather lightly to some of the commandments. For instance, he allowed his disciples to harvest grain on the Sabbath. He healed the sick on the Sabbath. He said it was no longer necessary to keep kosher, because it wasn’t unclean food entering the body that made a person impure, but evil actions coming from within. He wasn’t always scrupulous in observing every little detail of the law himself. So how are we to understand this passage?

We need to remember that Jesus was raised in a tradition in which exaggeration was an accepted form of teaching. He talks about a camel going through the eye of a needle, and about not trying to take the speck out of your neighbour’s eye when there’s a great plank of wood in your own, and being able to use faith to move mountains. Teachers in Jesus’ day often exaggerated in order to make a point, and we need to take this into account when we’re interpreting what Jesus had to say.

So what’s he trying to say in this passage? Surely the point is that faith in him involves obedience to God’s commandments. Jesus hung out with sinners, but that didn’t mean he was okay with sin; he wasn’t. He wanted to welcome everyone into the kingdom to begin a journey of transformation, so that together they could become people whose lives were visibly different. In this way, he said, he came to fulfil the law and the prophets; his movement would produce people who were more righteous than the scribes and the Pharisees, not less.

In the rest of Matthew chapter five Jesus gives us some concrete examples of what he’s talking about, and in every case it’s clear that he’s taking the law and internalizing it. He’s not interested in righteousness that’s only skin-deep; he wants the word of God to penetrate into our hearts, so we’re transformed on the inside as well as the outside.

So it’s not enough, he says, to congratulate yourself because you haven’t murdered anyone. Murder is caused by anger and resentment, and you must root these things out of your lives as well, and do your best to be reconciled to your adversaries instead of nursing a grudge against them for decades. And it’s not enough to congratulate yourself that you’ve never committed adultery, while all the time you’re nursing secret sexual fantasies about other people. It’s not enough to congratulate yourself on the fact that in your divorce you followed the law to the letter; God didn’t establish the institution of marriage with divorce in mind, so we’re called to work for reconciliation. It’s not enough to proudly say that when you take an oath in court you never break it. Why do you need to take an oath in the first place? Are you telling people you can’t be trusted unless you take an oath? It’s not enough to follow the Old Testament law that limits vengeance to exact equivalence—an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. Rather, don’t take vengeance at all; turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, and love your enemies, just as your heavenly Father sends sunshine and rain on both good and bad alike.

You see what’s going on here? Jesus is focusing not so much on the letter of the Law, but on the positive values God is looking for – reconciliation, faithfulness, honesty and truth, forgiveness and love for all. This is what Jesus means by ‘fulfilling the Law and the Prophets’, and it helps us make sense of his saying about our righteousness exceeding that of the scribes and Pharisees.

The scribes and Pharisees were seen as the most religious people of their day, but the problem, according to Jesus, was that often their religion was only skin deep. They would keep the commandment about murder but continue to seethe with anger against others and see nothing wrong in that. They would keep the commandment about adultery but continue to nurse lust for others in their hearts. They would keep their oaths but not be so scrupulous about telling the truth at other times. They would congratulate themselves on having achieved an amicable divorce rather than working for reconciliation in their marriages. They conformed to God’s standards outwardly, but inwardly they were unchanged.

This may look good on the outside, but it’s not what Jesus is after. Not that he’s against outward actions. Sometimes that’s the way it works; we learn to do some outward action, and gradually it transforms us on the inside as well. We learn a new habit, which at first is only an outward thing, but gradually it starts to go deeper. Young couples who are madly in love with each other often hold hands, but it works the other way around as well; older couples who continue to hold hands often find that it enhances the love they feel for each other. The outward action is meant to lead to an inward transformation, and it’s the inner transformation that Jesus is most interested in, because that’s what makes it possible for us to make a difference to the world around us.

Let’s go around this one last time.

Everyone is welcome in the Kingdom of God, because God loves us so much that he accepts us just as we are. However, he loves us too much to leave us there. He knows that living lives of disobedience and sin is ultimately bad for us, so his purpose is to lead us out of darkness into the light of a new way of life. And he’s not just doing this for our own sake; he wants the whole world to be transformed by his light. We, the disciples of Jesus, are called to be a community that learns a new way of life from our Master, and then practices living it together. We, as a community, are the salt of the earth, the city set on a hill, the light shining for all to see. The world is meant to be able to see our way of life and take note: this is what God’s Kingdom looks like.

But in order for this to happen, our obedience can’t just be skin deep. Rather, the Holy Spirit has to work below the surface to transform us into people who love to do the will of God. As we continue our studies in the Sermon on the Mount next week, we’ll look a little more closely at the examples Jesus gives of the deep work of transformation that God wants to do in us.