Freedom to Be Real | Matthew 5:21-37 | Bob Reid
Last week our reading ended with these remarkable words of Jesus: unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees you won’t enter the kingdom of heaven. On the face of it , this seems like NOT very good news. The scribes and the Pharisees were the experts at keeping the law. They had a place in the social, political, and religious hierarchy that gave them authority in matters related to the keeping of the law. They were seen as moral heavyweights in the community. If what Jesus means is that I have to go the religious leadership ONE better, then don't sign me up.
But what if exceeds their righteousness actually means a new approach, a fresh approach to understanding what God wants from people regarding righteousness?
In the homily Bob talked about the way in which Jesus approaches the Law in a radically different way than did the Scribes and Pharisees. In Matthew 5:21 and the verses that follow, Jesus presents a picture of our relationship to the Law that is at once more radical and more life-giving than the Scribes and Pharisees.
In one important sense, this portion of the Sermon on the Mount can be seen as Jesus’ taking the power away from the Scribes and Pharisees - the power to interpret what counts for righteousness before God And he does it by talking about the Law in a much more radical way than the Scribes and the Pharisees did. When Jesus says "you have heard it said but I say to you" he is saying you have heard it said that righteousness consists in checking the boxes the Scribes and Pharisees check. After they check them they sit down in satisfaction that they are righteous and then they judge those who have not conformed as they have and they call them sinners. Such an approach to keeping the Law is superficial and breeds hypocrisy. Quick aside: Jesus never confronts the Scribes and the Pharisees for doing their job per se but for hypocrisy- for being obsessed with limiting their liability; by being obsessed with outward conformity and not caring about inward realities; by taking an approach to God’s Law that would enable self-righteousness and close the heart to the messiness of loving others as God has loved us. What Jesus does here is to take the way that the Law was interpreted by the religious leaders of his day and suggest that their approach left people imagining that God wanted people to be good and religious and good at being religious. Life is messier and better than that: the Law actually exposes our hearts as roiling and divided, incapable of loving others as God has loved us. What is behind Jesus’ teaching here is the truth that the Law is meant to point beyond itself to the need for a heart that is transformed by God’s love. Jesus' focus on the radical nature of sinfulness here is not meant to make people feel bad because their hearts are crooked and their motives are impure. Rather, he is simply describing how things really are, a reality that people who are good and religious and good at being religious tend to whitewash over. You can manage a certain kind of outward conformity and pass yourself off as a good person but holiness is about being changed by God’s mercy in the depths of our hearts. A righteous relationship to the law is about dealing with things at the radix, or root - Jesus is radical like that. Jesus implies that if you want to explore what righteousness looks like, quit playing religious games and making other people feel bad about themselves by making it seem that what God wants is for people to be religiously accomplished and outwardly good.
When Rowan Williams talks about holiness in his excellent little book called Being Disciples he borrows a phrase from an Evelyn Waugh novel where one character says of another: “she was saintly but she wasn’t a saint”.... Williams goes on: the character in question was strict, devout and intense, but the effect that she has on those around her was to make them feel guilty, frustrated and unhappy. In contrast, holy people, those who are saints rather than saintly, actually make you feel better than you are.
The pursuit of goodness can be experienced as if you are taking part in a competitive examination in which some people are scoring very well, others are on the borderline, and some are sinking below the line. But the holy person somehow enlarges your world, makes you feel more yourself, opens you up, affirms you. THey are not in competition; they are not saying I have something you haven’t… When I think of the people in my own life that I call holy, who have really made an impact, it’s this that comes across most deeply in them all. These people have made me feel better rather than worse about myself Or rather, not quite that: these are never people who make me feel complacent about myself, far from it; they make me feel that there is hope for my confused and compromised humanity. God is big enough to deal with and work with actual compromised and imperfect people.”
The supremely holy person is Jesus who makes us feel that no matter how crooked our hearts are that there is hope and there is hope because the law points beyond itself to Jesus who meets us in our mess and says to us that that is exactly where righteousness happens. Righteousness happens when we come to the end of our capacity to be good and give up trying. Then we get about the business of being made new.
Prayers of the People
We pray for our consistory, pastors and staff of Grace Chicago. We thank you for the calling you have provided to each of them and the ways you are using them to carry out your mission here in the city and beyond.
God and Father of the poor, the oppressed, the refugee, and the alien, who inspired these words to be written in our Old Testament, “So you too should love the resident alien, for that is what you were in the land of Egypt”: we invoke the power of the Holy Spirit who inspired those words of Scripture, and the name of Jesus, who descended from a displaced people and was murdered by the state; we ask in Jesus’ name for your Spirit to incline our hearts and the heart of our country towards the needs of refugees. We pray that our nation’s policy towards refugees will always heed the words of Jesus, if you have done it to least of these…. you have done it to me.
We continue to pray for those who continue to grieve the loss of loved ones. May you provide comfort and peace to those who grieve and may your love be more evident to them in this difficult time.
We pray for Nettelhorst School and all Chicago schools. May you continue to use these institutions to provide an atmosphere that inspires children. We ask that our systems of government can work together to support, improve and fund the educational needs of all our children.
Lord in your mercy...Hear our prayer