4th before Lent 2017 Yr A
8.00 and 9.30 at St Bartholomew’s
1 Cor 2.1-12
Matt 5. 13-20
Righteousness and self-righteousness
For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
This must be one of the most positive things Jesus ever says about the scribes and Pharisees, those well known baddies of the gospel story, always lurking and scheming to catch him out in heresy. As he preaches on the Galilean hillside (not really a mountain at all despite the fact that we know it as the Sermon on the Mount) Jesus is aligning himself with the Jewish tradition and teaching to which the Ps and Ss dedicated their whole lives, studying and teaching and exhorting to bring every smallest aspect of Jewish life and thinking within the control of the law.
It’s hard for us to recognise, let alone understand, how Jesus’s words would have impacted on his Jewish hearers. When we hear you are the salt of the earth: you are the light of the world: of course we apply it to ourselves, understanding that we are called to bring light and goodness and distinctiveness to the world we live in. Which is fine as far as it goes. But when we remember that Jesus was addressing the words to a Jewish audience, members of God’s chosen people, they take on an even deeper, more precise, significance and we begin to recognise the particular challenge they posed to Jesus’ own contemporaries. Remember: God had called Israel to be at the centre of his plan for the world, to be the salt of the earth; but Israel was behaving like everyone else, with its power politics, factional squabbling, revolts and terrorism… The main function of salt in the ancient world was to keep things from going bad – if Israel, God’s chosen salt, had lost its ability to do that, its distinctive taste, they weren’t doing what they were created to do. In the same way, God had called them to be the light of the world. They were supposed to be the people through whom God’s light would shine into the world’s dark corners, to show up evil, and to help people to find their way out of darkness. So why were they hiding this light, being part of the darkness. Jerusalem was a city set on a hill to be a beacon of hope to the world… But we know how dangerous Jerusalem would prove, and the beacon would turn out to be something very different from a light – the cross. So we can see that , as so often, although Jesus words have universal application, they are rooted in his particular moment of history, addressed his countrymen and coreligionists, reminding them of all that God has done for his people. And of who and what they are called to be.
Jesus was always deferential to and observant of Jewish law –
‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets;. – But he might well have shocked his hearers during this discourse by placing himself at the centre of his own teaching… I have come not to abolish but to fulfil… implicitly, the law and the prophets. Jesus is making a significant claim He is sent by God not only to show the next stage on the journey , as the prophets did, but to be the next stage on the journey – to be the messiah.
Which brings us to the end of today’s reading: what are people to do in response to Jesus’ words? He has been preaching for some time already about the kingdom of heaven and now he says something which must have sounded impossible: unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. But how can they go further than these paragons of law keeping and religious propriety? how can we?
Remember when the Pharisees were outraged to find Jesus and his disciples gleaning – picking up grain – on the Sabbath when no work was to be done? Jesus’ answer to their critical questioning was to assert that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. He was reminding them what the purpose of the law was: to protect and provide, to be a means to living well, not to be a pointless burden. And so he would heal on the Sabbath, and be willing to make himself ritually unclean by touching the sick or the bleeding or even dead to heal, make whole, give life. Compassion underlay all he did. Just so, when asked about the greatest commandments he gives us the summary of the law which is all about love, the love that defines how people relate to God and to one another – we heard those great commandments – also known as the summary of the law – at the beginning of our service as the introduction to the confession, and were reminded that on them hang all the law and the prophets.
It seems to me, thinking about what Jesus says in our gospel and says and does elsewhere, that the righteousness he attributes to the Pharisees is more like self-righteousness – and self-righteousness is never an attractive quality. The very inclusion of the word self gives it away: it’s not doing the right thing out of love and compassion: rather, its doing the right thing out of pride and self satisfaction, and integral to it is looking down on others, judging them as inferior. Here’s another story, about the Pharisee and the tax collector praying in the temple, providing us with a perfect picture of self-righteousness. There they were, the Pharisee right in the centre of the temple court, saying…. God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” But the tax-collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.’
At least since the days of Empire, and perhaps the longer than that, the British has had a tendency to self-righteousness – to smugness. Anyone who remembers 1066 and All That will remember that history came to an end once we were top nation. And our literature is full of characters who assume a natural superiority in customs and manners which they then seek to impose on others or use to judge others. Not just literature: we all do it. I know I do, and sometimes I recognise it and try not to and sometimes it’s only with hindsight I can see what I was doing, and sometimes I probably don’t recognise it at all.
Human beings have an alarming tendency to base their beliefs, their behaviour and their judgements on the wrong thing. The Pharisees are such a good example of this and we need to learn from them. They allowed the form to blind them to the substance: the propriety and precision of their adherence to Jewish law to become so important and absorbing that they forgot those first 2 commandments on which it was based. It’s so easy for us today, here in prosperous Surrey, here in the established church, with our traditions and our attachment to what we know, to fall into the same trap, to judge and criticise others and even each other from a perspective which somehow excludes Jesus’s call to love one another, to be salt and light, and so to transform the world and and bring his kingdom into being.
St Paul writes in Corinthians that even the foolishness of God is wiser than the wisdom of men, and in today’s reading he returns to this theme: faith rests not on the wisdom of this age, not on human wisdom but on the power of God. ”none of the rulers of this age understood this power, for if they had they would not have crucified the Lord of glory”. If we allow ourselves to think about that it’s devastating, but it does allow us – force us even – to take on that new perspective of the love of God and the wisdom of God. And all we need to do – all – is to allow that love of God to live in us, allow it to inform our judgements and direct our words and actions. The simplest thing and the hardest thing in the world: to put our prejudices and preferences aside and to love our neighbours as ourselves. But God has given us the power to do it his wisdom, not our own, his spirit to live within us and direct us. Paul writes: now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God. And surely, the chief of those gifts is that gift of love, of righteousness untainted by pride in ourselves, of righteousness not self-righteousness.
We are the salt of the earth. We are the light of the world. We are the city built on the hill. So let’s pray for the wisdom and power to let our light shine before others so that they may see our good works and give glory to our Father in heaven. Transform us Lord to become the people you created us to be.