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Up on the Mountain: The Way of Righteousness

a sermon on Matthew 5:17-48, the third in a series on the Sermon on the Mount
preached at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone on on January 30, 2011

Snowstorms tend to bring out the legalist in me. Life is frustrating enough these days without the people who refuse to shovel their sidewalks or who block the road with their insanely large SUVs! But there is little that annoys me more than people who clear the snow from around their cars or in their driveways and throw it into the street. It makes the street slick, moves the snow only so far that someone else has to move it again, and just doesn’t reflect any degree of kindness for neighbors, pedestrians, or drivers. Not only that, though, it is against the law, and violations carry fines of up to $350, and I for one figure that not enough people have been assessed the fine for shoveling snow out into the street! I shudder to admit that I’ve taken to acting on my own to protest my frustration with these self-centered actions since the city seems to be quite lax in its enforcement, so I drive a little closer to the edge so I can spray a little of the snow back on the person throwing it into the street or honk my horn and shake my head as I drive past.

All this reminds me of how I can be a very legalistic person – I definitely want to follow the rules very carefully and avoid doing something wrong, and I expect others to demonstrate a similar respect for them. I could catalog many, many ways of how I embody this in my life, but I’ll leave that for a conversation with a therapist sometime!

This kind of legalistic attitude seems to be very much present in our reading from Matthew’s gospel this morning. This portion of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount deals with how to follow the law – but it is immediately clear that Jesus has quite a different perspective on this for his time and ours. Jesus starts out making his purpose clear: “I have come not to abolish [the law or the prophets] but to fulfill [them].” From the beginning, he reminds the people that he isn’t encouraging them to stop following the law – in fact, he suggests that following the law and teaching others to do the same will bring honor in the kingdom of heaven.

But then he surprises everyone by setting the bar even higher: “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees” – those known for their exacting attention to the details and minutia of the law – “you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” But I think righteousness for Jesus here isn’t quite what it seems – it’s certainly not in the details and minutia of the law that were the focus of the scribes and the Pharisees. In six “case studies” of the law that indicate the form and content of this extremely high standard, Jesus makes it clear that the way of righteousness is not so much in exacting attention to the details of things but more in embracing the fullness of the spirit of the law.

Each of the cases Jesus offers helps to describe that spirit in light of a well-known law and so open up the way of righteousness.

  • “Do not murder” demands more than just not ending a human life – it demands that brokenness be avoided and reconciliation stand at the center of all relationships.
  • “Do not commit adultery” suggests that even more than specific sexual acts are prohibited – even the beginning desires of these things go too far.
  • While divorce may be permitted, Jesus finds that it should not be the ideal.
  • While some may say that oaths are permitted and even encouraged to discern truthfulness, Jesus suggests that a simple, honest “yes” or “no” from the very beginning should be enough to make righteousness clear.
  • The law may say “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” but Jesus suggests that responding in vengeance is futile, instead recommending that one give even more than one is asked and offer abundant grace in the midst of hatred and enmity.
  • And the law may suggest that love can be limited to those we know or like, those we can immediately identify as family, friends, or neighbors, but Jesus insists instead that the real commitment should be to love even our enemies – a far more difficult challenge!

So he concludes with the greatest challenge of all for the way of righteousness: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

All these things seem like a very high order, and they are. This standard of righteousness is far more difficult to meet even than the city law against tossing your snow in the street, if you ask me – but strict adherence is not what matters. In fact, in bringing these cases Jesus makes it clear that the law must be interpreted beyond its basic meaning, not just to figure out whether and how it applies to a particular situation but also to determine how the broader principles of God’s intentions can be realized in the particular moment. Just because something is not explicitly prohibited by the law does not mean that it is allowed in the way of righteousness.

And so Jesus establishes some broader principles for living in the way of righteousness. Evil and good aren’t always immediately distinguished, and evil is certainly not to be eliminated at the expense of doing good. Brokenness of any sort and any origin is not God’s intention, and the specifics of the law require that we do whatever we can to bring about reconciliation, even when the law suggests otherwise. And even the difficulty of perfection is clear – so clear that there is no choice but to leave room for grace to permeate the situation and make room for God alone to make things perfect. Even as he proclaims that he has come to fulfill the law and not abolish it, Jesus makes it clear that the way of righteousness is built not on the letter of the law but rather on the quality of relationship that the law produces.

As commentator Stan Saunders puts it,

“While Jesus fulfills and affirms God’s law, he also understands that where laws implicitly or explicitly confirm the existing, broken order, they may be abandoned in favor of reconciliation, restoration of relationship, and wholeness.” (Preaching the Gospel of Matthew, p. 41)

Following the law for Jesus is clearly not about fulfilling a checklist – instead, it opens the way of righteousness through relationship and reconciliation.

In many ways, looking at this text on a day when we spend so much time dealing with the particulars of business as a congregation seems a bit strange. The congregational meeting that follows worship today is one of the most scripted and prescribed moments in our life together, as we have very particular rules about what we can and must and cannot do, and we spend most of our time and energy making sure that all the i’s are dotted and t’s crossed. Like those moments when my stress rises because of snowy streets, we often turn to the rules to figure out how best to proceed as I did in looking up the penalty for throwing snow into the street! But what would it be if we saw this important gathering as an opportunity and invitation to walk in the way of righteousness together? What would it be for us to deepen our attention to reconciliation and focus us on displaying the way of righteousness in relationship that Jesus describes as we go about this important work today? What would it take for us to set aside our attention to all the details of standards that we will never get perfect and right and focus on how we can best walk together in the way of righteousness in the days before us?

And so I think Jesus calls us in times like these to walk in this way of righteousness – not focusing so intently on the particulars of the law that we lose sight of its spirit, not getting so worked up when others ignore the particulars and intent of the law that we take it into our own hands as I tend to do in these snowy days, but instead embodying the reconciliation, relationship, and wholeness that it offers us as we seek to be like those who live in the kingdom of heaven. It is clear that we will never meet this very high standard, but God nonetheless calls us to walk in the way of righteousness as best we can, trusting that every step we take in this way will be a part of the coming of God’s kingdom into the world.

So may Jesus’ vision of this new way of righteousness from up on the mountain inspire us to join in his new way, setting aside all our brokenness and trusting God’s power to heal and make new as we join in this work of relationship and reconciliation until we see all things restored and made whole in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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