For those who were here last week, I commend you for your dedication to being confronted two weeks in a row. For those who were not here last week, we have begun to experience Jesus confronting his audience in and through Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Jesus confronted people not with accusations but with the possibility and promise of being blessed by God. When Jesus was finished with his sermon, the gospel writer, Matthew, said the disciples and crowd were in awe of what Jesus said. Matthew’s observation is important because we are drawn to imitate whoever captivates us with awe.
Last week, Jesus confronted his audience telling them that it was the poor in spirit, the mournful, and the meek, in a word, the humble of the world, God would bless not the wealthy, healthy, and those steeped in religious traditions and ceremony. Those who were humbled and had a thirst and hunger for God would be filled with God’s righteousness. In their filling with righteousness, the blessed would bless others with mercy, purity, and peace. Humility, mercy, purity, and peace are the very essence of Jesus.
Today, we will see that Jesus was just getting warmed up in confronting his audience then and now. He was going to hold his audience in awe again. And I want to begin having us look at what Jesus said about the law, the Pharisees and teachers of the law, and righteousness itself. The law, as Jesus used the term, was the collection of commandments of God. The Pharisees and teachers of the law were the religious elite. These were the people the crowd admired because of their knowledge of the Scriptures and their faithfulness in observing all the various religious traditions of the day. Finally, there is the matter of righteousness.
What is righteousness? Think of righteousness this way. Righteousness is being in the state as you ought to be. There is a correctness of thinking, feeling, and acting about you. You are authentic to the way you are supposed to be, and you have integrity because the way you think, speak, and act are congruent. You do not think one way, speak a different way, and act, perhaps differently than you speak or think. In righteousness, you are as you ought to be. But there is always a but. But who determines how you ought to be? As Jesus used the term righteous, he, of course, was referring to God’s view of how you ought to be. God made humanity right. We were free, fearless, unashamed, content, happy to be in fellowship with God, and happy in fellowship with our spouse. We were in the state as we ought to be because we were right with God.
With that introduction, let’s look at what Jesus said.
17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. 19 Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:17-20).
Jesus began assuring his audience that Law, the commands and promises of God, were not being replaced but fulfilled. God’s plan was firm, and, in fact, Jesus was revealing that a major part of God’s plan now had been set in motion. What was the part of God’s plan that had been set in motion? It was to redeem people from where they were to where they ought to be.
This is a key point for us to understand. God is never going to meet us where we pretend to be. God is never going to meet us where we would like to be. God is only and always going to meet us where we are. It is a freeing thought that I don’t have to pretend to be some sort of holy saint before God makes himself known to me. I can be me, just as I am. I don’t have to wait until I achieve some measure of standing in the church or community or age before God makes himself known to me. I can be me, just as I am in this moment. The people were in awe because Jesus was saying in their words that God’s plan to make things as they ought to be was unfolding before their eyes. What anticipation and excitement there must have been in the crowd at that moment.
But then Jesus unleashed the shocking and confronting news. Jesus said, “20 For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20). There were two shocking thoughts here.
The first shocking thought, I suspect, was that Jesus audience said to themselves, “What does Jesus mean? I must be more righteous than the Pharisees and teachers of the law? That must have sounded impossible.” The Pharisees were known for being careful in meeting the Law handed down by Moses, so much so that the Pharisees created more rules and practices to avoid even getting close to breaking the law. The teachers of the law were experts on the Scriptures knowing every word of the Scripture forwards and backwards. The standard Jesus seemed to set out was impossible. His audience must have thought, “How can I outperform the Pharisees and teachers of the law in keeping the law?”
The second shock came a moment later as Jesus’ audience thought, “Wait a minute, for me to enter the kingdom, my righteousness must exceed that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law. If that is true, then that means the righteousness of the Pharisees and teachers of the law isn’t good enough to enter the kingdom either! The Pharisees and teachers would have to exceed their own standard of righteousness which they cannot.” Jesus had confronted his audience telling them that admiring the standards and practices of the Pharisees and teachers of the law was misplaced. Jesus did not want the audience to be better at being a Pharisee than the Pharisees themselves. God was not interested in religious traditions and ceremony of a nation or group or individual person. Instead, God was interested in the person, in their heart and willingness to have their hunger and thirst to being the person they ought to be met through their personal relationship with God himself.
God had spoken many times in the past about religious behavior and righteousness. In the book of Amos, a prophet, God said, “21 I hate, I despise your religious festivals; your assemblies are a stench to me. 22 Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them. 23 Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. 24 But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” (Amos 5:21-24).
Jesus’ audience must have been stunned and in awe. Righteousness that leads to entry to the kingdom of heaven was not about burnt offerings, religious festivals and obligations, and outward practices. Jesus really meant it when he said that God blesses the poor in spirit, the mournful, and the meek. Those who thirst and hunger for God himself not some religious practices are filled. What does such a blessed person receive from God. Theirs is the kingdom of heaven (5:3b), comfort (5:4b), the inheritance of the earth (5:5b), mercy (5:7b), the vision of God (5:8b), and adoption by God (5:9b).
Righteousness, the way one ought to be with God was not to be found in temple or other religious practices. And it is still not to be found in church or religious practices. We should, therefore, enjoy how we worship God together with our songs and traditions, but we should hold onto those practices with an open hand. We should recognize those practices are but an aid to us in pushing back against the distractions of the world and getting our minds and hearts focused upon God. But we need to see that our own traditions by themselves accomplish nothing in our redemption in becoming who we ought to be with God.
The Apostle Paul helps us by explaining that point this way. “8 For it is by grace you have been saved (made righteous, made into who you ought to be), [it is] through faith—and this [salvation, redemption, righteousness] is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9 not by works [sacrifices, traditions, songs, festivals, charity, good works], so that no one can boast [that they earned their salvation, redemption, or righteousness]” (Ephesians 2:8-9). God blesses us with salvation, redemption, and righteousness when we are humble and meek enough to accept the gift of Jesus Christ.
What Jesus said to his audience was very confrontational and very much held people in awe. The road to redemption in God had been opened in a way that the people had not considered.
Now one of the questions that Jesus’ audience might have had was, “If the enduring visible model of righteousness is not to be found in the behaviors of the Pharisees and teachers of the law, what does that model look like?” Jesus had given a few examples of how we ought to look when we are as we ought to be. Jesus gave two tangible illustrations of righteousness.
First, Jesus said, “13 “You are the salt of the earth” (Matthew 5:13a). Jesus’ audience would have understood the significance of being salt. Salt changes whatever it touches. Salt was used to preserve food. Salt was valuable, even used in Jesus day as currency. Salt was necessary to sustain life. Salt could not be faked. When you are as you ought to be, then you are like salt. Noticeable from the world around you and you draw people toward you because of your qualities.
Second, Jesus said, “14 “You are the light of the world” (Matthew 5:14a). Jesus’ audience would have understood the significance of being light. The people of Jesus’ time had light to see almost exclusively by the sun. That meant half of each day was spent in almost total darkness. To strike a light, a lamp, then was a stark and noticeable signal of life. And so Jesus equated the righteous, those who had been restored to the way they ought to be, as a light, a city of a hill, a symbol of life. They were unmistakable, un-fakable, capturing the attention of even the most casual of observers.
In both illustrations, Jesus was pointing to righteous people as salt and light, not to some religious practices they did. And that is what we must take away from this week’s confrontation by Jesus.
We are made as we ought to be when we willingly empty ourselves of pride and submit ourselves to be fed and watered with the righteousness of God. Jesus came to be that righteousness in all ways and to be that salt and light for us. Jesus gave his righteousness to us through his death on the cross, giving us a gift of salvation, redemption through him.
In a few moments, we will be taking a bit of bread and a sip of juice from a cup. These simple elements are yet another confrontation from Jesus to his disciples who now include you and me. Jesus said that bit of bread is body, and he beckons us to eat of his body. Of the juice, Jesus said is his blood, and he beckons us to drink of his blood. To eat of a body and drink of the blood is a stark and confrontational thought. But that confrontation is turned to awe when we come to realize that the bread and juice are symbols of Jesus’ body and blood reflecting Jesus’ commitment to fill our hunger and thirst for righteousness. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled” (Matthew 5:6). Come now, let us be confronted and held in awe of Christ as we take of the bread and cup as reminders that following Jesus satisfies our hunger and thirst to be filled with righteousness. Let’s take these symbols so that we can be reminded that through Jesus we have received the gift of salvation and that we are being restored into who we ought to be. Amen and Amen.