St Luke's Anglican Church in Enmore a lively, inclusive welcoming liturgical community

Exceedingly Righteous?

 Exceed­ingly Right­eous

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.


Philip Brad­ford