Sermon preached at Enmore, Epiphany 5, 5th February 2017
Reading: Matthew 5.13–20
“Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
I wonder what your reaction was when you heard those words read this morning? How righteous are you feeling today? The problem is we often have a rather negative view of what it means to be righteous; very often we associate the word, ‘righteous’ with self- righteousness. None of us want to be self- righteous for we associate that with an arrogant ‘holier than thou’ attitude that is most unattractive. So what did Jesus mean when he said that our righteousness must exceed that of the Scribes and Pharisees? It is important that we understand it because Jesus declared that unless we get hold of this righteousness business we will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Strong words.
To start to understand what Jesus is on about in this passage we have to remember the context. Today’s Gospel follows on from last week’s passage when we read the first part of the Sermon on the Mount-the beatitudes. We noted that the beatitudes are not a new list of legal requirements but rather blessings pronounced on those who are followers of Jesus. They are a description of the life of the people gathered by and around Jesus. They include the poor, the meek, the peacemakers, those who mourn and those who are hungry for justice and righteousness. Having declared these blessings Jesus then goes on to describe his listeners using two images: salt and light.
Jesus says: “you are the salt of the earth” and you are the “light of the world.” Some forty years after the time of Jesus, Pliny the Elder wrote in his Natural History, “There is nothing more useful than salt and sunshine.” Jesus declared that salt and light describe the character of the new identity of his followers. When Mahatma Gandhi was leading the campaign for independence in India one of his targets was the British monopoly of the supply and distribution of salt. Millions of Indians, bought and sold salt in defiance of British law — hundreds were beaten as they picketed salt works and thousands were gaoled. Because salt was essential to the life of every villager it was a powerful symbol. We have been educated to think of salt as a rather dangerous substance to be avoided where possible but for Gandhi’s followers and for the people of Jesus’ day, salt was essential as a preservative, as a spice, and even as an antiseptic.
What did Jesus mean by this statement about being the salt of the earth? Salt in all its uses is most valuable when spread around and dispersed. The followers of Jesus are to be part of the world not separated from it. The people in Jesus’ day who regarded themselves as righteous tended to withdraw from the wider society and formed themselves into groups like the Scribes, the Pharisees and the teachers of the law.
By the time the Gospels were being written the Christian community which had begun in Jerusalem as a kind of ‘off shoot’ from the Jewish community had spread far and wide throughout the Roman world. This came about because of persecution but also through the missionary work of Paul and other disciples who travelled huge distances taking the Christian message with them. They did this in response to Jesus’ commission to his followers to take the good news into all the world. They became salt in their communities by living a different life style. They treated one another as equals regardless of barriers of social class and gender, they cared for the needy and demonstrated genuine love for one another. Jesus’ metaphor of salt is sometimes seen as being about stopping a bad world from getting worse but it is more helpful to see it as his disciples bringing joy and zest into the world around them. The task of the Christian is to affirm and encourage what is good, not simply to rail against what is bad. Throughout history Christians have often been tempted to take one of two extremes: some have retreated from the world fearful of being contaminated by its godless values and sinfulness while others have become so enraptured by the bright lights of our world that they have lost any sense of being different. In the former case the salt is locked away and in the latter case the salt has lost its distinctive flavour.
The second image Jesus uses is that of light. As the purpose of salt is to flavour and preserve, the purpose and nature of light is simply to shine and illuminate. In the ancient world without modern sources of power, a city on a hill was seen because of the hundreds of little lights coming from each house where an evening meal was being prepared. It was a corporate image of many lights coming together and bringing illumination to all. Followers of Jesus were not to withdraw from the world but to bring light and clarity to all those around them. In John’s Gospel Jesus describes himself as the light of the world so the light we bring is a reflected light, dependent on the greater light of Jesus.
Those listening to Jesus would no doubt have been pleased to be called salt and light but they would have had a different reaction to Jesus’ comments about the law. Jesus claims that he is the fulfilment of the law and the prophets and so calls on his followers to be law keepers, not law breakers. But then he makes the extraordinary statement that in order to enter his kingdom, one must have a righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees.
The Pharisees have had a lot of bad press over the centuries, not all of it deserved. Jesus and the Pharisees had some things in common: both believed that the Law should be applied to all areas of life, both believed in the general resurrection, and the activity of angels and demons in the world. But Jesus often criticised their interpretation of the law and accused them at times of hypocrisy for not practising what they preached. When Jesus said that one must have a righteousness which exceeded that of the Pharisees he clearly did not mean that one should be even more scrupulous about law keeping than the Pharisees were. Jesus was talking about a new kind of righteousness.
The new kind of righteousness was spoken of by the prophet, Ezekiel who wrote of the day coming when God promised: “A new heart I will give you and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my spirit within you and make you follow my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances. Then you shall live in the land that I gave your ancestors and you shall be my people and I will be your God.” (Ezekiel 36.26–28).
So Jesus was not asking for stricter observance of the law but for a change of heart and mind. He was speaking of the new age of the Spirit which was already being revealed in his life and teaching. Jesus was making the extraordinary claim that with his coming to earth all the promises spoken by the prophets were being fulfilled. God’s new day had dawned.
That is why Paul can write in Romans 3.21 : “But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed and is attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.” So if you are a follower of Christ you are righteous (whether you like it or not!) and you are salt and light: it is God’s gift. So let us pray that God will help us to become in truth what we already are. Amen.