“True Righteousness” by Interim Pastor Tim Morphew
Everywhere he went Jesus proclaimed the good news that the Kingdom of God was near! Everywhere he went, Jesus cured the disease and sickness of those who came to him. Everywhere Jesus went, “great crowds followed him from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, & from beyond the Jordan.”
Of course they followed. Wouldn’t you? Who wouldn’t?
So when Jesus went up the mountain and sat down, as rabbi’s do when they’re going to teach a lesson, his disciples draw near. And I think that the crowd also followed Jesus up that mountain and those who could drew as near as they could to hear what Jesus would say…
Because Jesus is different! His miracles and healings show that he has a power and authority like no other! So when Jesus sits to teach they want to hear what he has to say. They want to hear about God and what it means to believe in God, what it takes to be “right” with God. That’s why I took Bible classes in college. That’s why I went to Seminary. I figured that even if I changed my mind or it didn’t work out, even if pastoral ministry wasn’t for me, I would have learned more about the Bible and the Faith and I might better understand what it means to believe in God and to follow Jesus faithfully.
I suppose that’s why the first believers in God, the Jews listened to and learned the stories and teachings that were eventually written down on scrolls, which became their scriptures, which their priests and leaders read and studied and discussed. – Because they wanted to know. They wanted to learn all they could about God and what God wanted of them, what it meant to live a life that honored and pleased the God they worshipped.
And over the years – the thousands of years the Jewish judges, priests, scholars, scribes, etc. wrote and reflected on their best understandings of the original 10 commandments which Moses brought down from his mountaintop encounter with God. That’s the Torah, the Law. But you’ll find most of the laws in Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy – about 613 laws according to the 12th century torah scholar Maimonides, who counted 248 positive, “do this” commandments, and 365 negative, “do not do this” commandments.
So his disciples and the crowd followed Jesus up the mountain and when he sat down, as a rabbi does to teach, they drew close to listen. Because they wanted to know what this man of God might say about God and the Reign of God which he said was “at hand.”
And the way Matthew tells it, Jesus said a lot. In fact, readers of Matthew, students of scripture and Gospel scholars consider Matthew 5-7 a potent summary of Jesus teaching about who God is and what it means to live as a citizen of God’s Kingdom – starting now and for the rest of your life on this earth and beyond!
Jesus begins by declaring that the lowest, the least and the lost are and will be blessed. – Not unfortunate, not being punished by God, but blessed! Then he declares that his disciples & followers are – not should be, but are (as followers of his way) the salt of the earth & the light of the world!
Jesus sits there like a new Moses, on the mountain, delivering God’s Word to a new generation. And his beatitudes really challenge the way most of us see the world most of the time, they turn “conventional wisdom” on its head. So maybe this Kingdom of God that Jesus announces is really different from the world of their parents & grand-parents. Maybe there will be different rules – or no rules!
But no, we hear Jesus warn in Matthew 5:17-18: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.”
That’s a hard teaching Jesus! I’ve heard and read these words of warning before, (as have many of you), and still they trouble me, they worry me… And if these warnings trouble you like they trouble me, take comfort, we’re not alone. Most every student of scripture, most every Gospel scholar agrees that these are hard words! Jesus says God’s Law still stands! It still applies – all of it, every bit of it, everything – even the punctuation marks! And Jesus concludes with a challenge that still stings (Matthew 5:20): “I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
A righteousness better that the scribes and Pharisees Jesus? Oh please Jesus how can we possibly live more righteously than the religious experts?? They know the Torah so much better than us working people.
That’s a hard teaching Jesus! All of God’s Law applies and we have to live more righteously than the professionals.. And the truth is that most of us have a rebellious streak and we don’t like laws much anyway – Or we like them better for everybody else than we like them for ourselves, (am I right?)
But I happened upon some very helpful insights that I would like to share with you from a message on today’s Gospel lesson by Dr. John Siburt (Preacher & Nonprofit CEO):
“In Matthew’s world God’s law is not a heavy burden but a gift of grace… [And]
“For Matthew, the word of God fulfilled is Jesus Christ. [Jesus] will enact the promises of God. He will confirm the intentions of God. He will fulfil the law of God…
Remember, that is just what Jesus says about himself in Matthew 5:17: “I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” So how does Jesus fulfill the Law and the Prophets??
“Take a trip with me through Matthew’s world and visit a few of the [places] where Jesus [fulfills] the law [of God] in the face of opposition. At our first stop (Matthew 9) Jesus and his disciples are criticized for eating with tax collectors and sinners. Jesus answers, ‘Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice’’ He repeats this charge (Matthew 12:7) when criticized for healing a man with a withered hand and allowing his disciples to pick grain on the Sabbath.
“A little further down the road Jesus encounters a man who asks him, ‘Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?’ Jesus responds, ‘Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.’ When the man wants even more instruction, Jesus invites him to sell all of his possessions and follow him (Matthew 19:16-21). Later (Matthew 22:36), Jesus is challenged, ‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest. He answers, ‘‘you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hand all the law and the prophets’ (Matthew 22:37-40).”
“Even further down the road, Jesus criticizes some for neglecting the weightier matters of the law. He says, ‘woe to you scribes & Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill & cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!’(Matthew 23:23-24).”
Some years ago – last century, at an Ohio Pastor’s Convocation I heard a seminary professor of preaching say that around every scripture text lurks a word of grace. I love that! Did you hear that? It’s almost worth writing down, “around every scripture text lurks a word of grace…” So let me propose to you a word of grace lurking in this morning’s Gospel lesson:
Jesus said, “I have come not to abolish the law or the prophets, but to fulfill them.” You may remember that ‘fulfilment’ is one of Matthew’s themes. Often-times Matthew will mention how something that happened to Jesus or something that he did fulfilled a Hebrew scripture or prophesy. Matthew uses “fulfil” or a variant of it at least 15 times in his gospel.
Now to fulfill something is to do it, to satisfy the prophesy, to realize a promise completely. Maybe you remember how, after Jesus’ death and resurrection, his disciples finally realized how profoundly Jesus fulfilled the Law and the Prophets, and thus, ‘fulfilled all righteousness.’
Jesus fulfilled God’s Law by living it better than anyone ever did. He fulfilled the Law by submitting himself to the condemnation that the Law brought against people who transgressed it.
When Jesus announces that all of the Torah’s 248 “do this” commandments, and all 365 “do not do this” commandments still apply, we are troubled, worried, even hopeless because we don’t think we can do it. We can’t keep all 613 commandments. But in his life and ministry, Jesus’ commitment to the Law of God takes on a saving significance! – Because Jesus did indeed fulfill the Law and the Prophets – perfectly! Jesus lived and died a surpassing righteousness. And his resurrection is God’s endorsement of Jesus’ righteousness!
Jesus lives for us a surpassing righteousness that satisfies the Law of God and redeems our relationship with the Holy God! How do we achieve a righteousness that exceeds that of the Scribes and Pharisees? We don’t. Jesus does that for us. Through his life of perfect obedience to GOD and by his bearing the consequences of our sins, Christ redeems our relationship with God!
So a righteousness that surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees is a Christ-Like righteousness, a righteousness attuned to and responsive to the spirit and intent of GOD’s Law…
This, Sisters and Brothers is a word of Grace that lurks in today’s Gospel lesson: Our salvation is not won by our efforts to live righteous lives, but by Christ’s fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets! We strive to keep God’s Law, not to earn our way into God’s Kingdom, but out of an overflowing gratitude for God’s love and grace incarnate in Jesus Christ. We strive to keep God’s Law because we love God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength… And what does it look like when you and I live from that righteousness that Christ accomplished for us??
In A Book of Saints: True Stories of How they Touch our Lives (Bantam, 1994), Anne Gordon tells about the spectacular witness of Father Maximilian Kolbe, who was a prisoner at Auschwitz Concentration Camp in German-occupied Poland.
“In July, the Nazis discovered that a man had escaped. The Nazis had a procedure for punishing the remaining prisoners after an escape: 10 men would be starved to death. A German officer named Karl Fritsch gleefully chose the ten men who were standing in ranks. When one of these men, Franciszek Gajowniczek, pleaded, “My wife and children,” Father Maximilian Kolbe broke ranks and made a plea of his own: “I am a Catholic priest. I want to die for that man; I am old; he has a wife and children.”
Father Kolbe’s dying wish was granted, and he was led away to die naked in a dark cellar. But if the Nazis were expecting to hear cries of sorrow and anguish, they were sorely disappointed. Because as Kolbe awaited [his death &] a crown that was promised [when he gave his life to Jesus], a somewhat unexpected sound was heard from his cell: singing. Maximilian Kolbe was heard singing Marian hymns in honor of [Saint Mary] his Immaculate Queen.
Two weeks later, the Nazis again had seen and heard enough. Father Kolbe had not succumbed to starvation, so he was injected with a fatal dose of phenol on August 14…
“30 years later a survivor of Auschwitz described the effect of Father Kolbe’s action: ‘It was an enormous shock to the whole camp. We became aware that someone among us in that spiritual dark night of the soul was raising the standard of love on high. Someone unknown, like everyone else, tortured & bereft of name and social standing, went to a horrible death for the sake of someone not even related to him.
“Therefore it is not true, we [learned] that humanity is cast down, overcome by oppressors, and overwhelmed by hopelessness. Thousands of prisoners were [assured] convinced that the true world continued to exist and that our torturers would not be able to destroy it.
“To say that Father Kolbe died for us or that person’s family is too great a simplification. His death was the salvation of thousands… We were stunned by his act, which became for us a mighty explosion of light in that dark, dark [time and place].” – Anne Gordon, A Book of Saints: True Stories… When we are truly, deeply grateful for the exceeding righteousness that Christ has accomplished for us, how will we live? What might it look like when our hearts overflow with gratitude for God’s love & grace, incarnate in Jesus Christ? May Christ’s life, death and resurrection fill our hearts and shine in the way we live! AMEN!