5th Sunday after the Epiphany
So when did “righteous” go from being a good thing to being a bad thing? What sleight of hand turned a righteous person into a self-righteous person? Did we miss something…or what?
It’s kind of like poor Ole in all da snow dis vinter. Ole and Lena vere sitting at da kitchen table savoring a cup of coffee vhen da radio announcer interrupted the programming vit a veather up-date. “Four inches of snow is expected tonight. All cars must be parked on da odd numbered side of da street for snow plowing.” “Uff da!” said Ole. “I better get out and move da car.”
Next day, Ole and Lena were again enjoying der cups of coffee vhen da radio announcer interrupted again. “Six more inches of snow expected. All cars must be parked on da even numbered side of the street for snow plowing.” “Uff da meg!” groaned Ole, as he rose to go out. “I have to move da car again.”
Vell, yoo betcha, next day—Ole, Lena, coffee and da radio. “More snow today. All cars must be…” Suddenly da radio vent silent as da power vent out. “Oh no, Lena! Da radio has gone dead. Now how am I supposed to know vhich side of da street to park on?” “Oh, Ole,” Lena sighed, “dis time, vhy don’t yoo yust leave da car in da garage.”
Ja…Ole isn’t the only one getting snowed! We Christians have become a confused bunch. Our Lord has created a perfectly good garage—the Christian faith. But the world has somehow convinced us that we gotta move the car. But we don’t know where!
Oh yes, there’s the righteous side of the street. But, ugh!, the world is convinced that a righteous person is a joyless, grim sort of stick in the mud, who loves to root around in other peoples’ business looking for something to accuse them about. “Pharisee” is the image that comes to mind. Holier than thou. Judgmental. Good only for the purpose of rubbing someone else’s nose in it. Righteoussss…and hiss when you say it.
But then the other side of the street is the shameless side of the street. Who really wants to park there? Although…strangely enough, that side is inhabited by all sorts of likeable folks who flaunt social mores and are never bothered by it. The scoundrel who is kind of appealing. Scandalously fun. Live fast, die young. A sinner…and say it with a nudge and a wink and a smile.
And we get so snowed by all of this that we really don’t have a clue as to what to do. We’re not so keen on calling ourselves righteous, because of all the bad associations. And yet, we have enough self-respect that we don’t want to be called shameless either. So we just kinda park in the middle of the road somewhere.
We like some rules and boundaries and obedience, until it gets a bit personal. We say sin is bad…unless it’s my sin and then there are always extenuating circumstances. And we’re buried in all that snow…
Well…Jesus certainly isn’t snowing anyone in His sermon! In fact, Jesus is really blunt. “Whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven.” That’s mighty clear! Grace does not excuse us from obedience to the commandments of God. You can’t just make it up as you go! Faith does not permit an “anything goes” sort of lifestyle.
Then He raises the stakes. “Unless your righteousness [your thoughts and words and deeds both public and private] unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees…you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Yeah, He said, “Never.”
Whoa! How is that even possible?! Especially when we are so easily attracted to the scoundrels and so often repulsed by the righteous? How about if we just do the best we can? How about, so long as it doesn’t hurt anyone? “Never”? Did He really say “Never”? You mean being Christian DOES have to be sour-faced, sober-minded, no laughing matter? Out Pharisee the Pharisees? Jesus can’t really mean that, can He? Surely He’ll cut us some slack. We’re only human! Where’s the love?!
Aye! And there’s the rub! But you see…being Christian is neither a self-righteous thing nor is it a blank check for unrighteous. Not one side of the street or the other…or out in the middle! It’s like Ole’s garage. We have the perfect place to park!
Listen to what Jesus is saying. “I have not come to abolish the Law [God’s commandments, His expectations of righteousness] I have not come to abolish them…. Indeed, with just a sentence, Jesus upholds the Law in the Old Testament. He clearly and decisively stands the Law of God right in our face. And He solemnly declares…“I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot [the two smallest characters in the Hebrew and Greek languages] will pass away from the Law…” There’s no wiggle room at all in what He is saying!
Ah…but…in the same breath, Jesus goes on to add something important, something which makes an eternal difference. “I have not come to abolish,” He says, “but to fulfill them.” Fulfill!
Yes, Jesus makes it very clear that if anyone thinks He has come to make the Law of God more tolerable…they are gravely mistaken. And in next week’s portion of this sermon He makes that abundantly clear, as He explains what out Phariseeing the Pharisees looks like! And there is no way, no how, that anyone listening to next week’s portion is going to escape squirming over it. There are no loop holes in God’s Law!
But…having said that He is not abolishing that Law, Jesus makes very clear what He means by fulfilling it. And St. Matthew will show us that it’s the crucifixion of Jesus which reveals the utter seriousness of God toward His commandments. The crucifixion shows us that sin is judged. Condemned. Big sin. Little sin. Your sin. My sin. A deadly Dr. Seuss story.
And yet…oh thankful word…yet, St. Matthew also shows us that this same crucifixion is what Jesus means by fulfillment. Jesus fulfills the Law of God by becoming sin for us on that cross. He fulfills the Law of God by dying for us on that cross. For us! On our behalf.
And all along the way in this Gospel, Jesus’ perfect righteousness—a righteousness that is displayed in the strictness with which He upholds God’s Law AND by the incredible tenderness with which He lifts up those who are smacked down by that Law—Jesus’ own righteousness becomes our perfect, Pharisee-surpassing righteousness on account of our faith in Him. Because of the fulfillment in Jesus’ death and resurrection, His righteousness is credited to us by faith as our righteousness, as our fulfillment of God’s demanding expectations.
So it’s Jesus who keeps Christianity from becoming some kind of grim self-righteousness or spiraling off to become a reckless life. And we follow Him…not a shameless indulgence to sin…not a strict, legalistic demand for perfect behavior. Him! We follow Christ.
And St. Matthew is going to do it to us again and again and again…here in the Sermon on the Mount and all the way to the end of his Gospel. He will send us Oles and Lenas scrambling, trying to figure out which side of the street is the correct side to park on. Keep the Law? Relax the Law? Matthew sends us scrambling…until it finally dawns on us that it’s not about the Law. We have a perfectly good garage with Jesus!
Jesus is the One who holds us tight with Him, despite the fact that God’s Law makes us run away! He is the same Jesus who picks us up when that Law catches us and guilts us, the Jesus who wraps us in His own roomy garments when we bring shame on ourselves, the Jesus who says to us what that Law could never say: “My beloved, My own.”
Christianity shows us Christ. And seeing Christ we see what He is making of us…here in the Sermon on the Mount it’s salt and light for the world…shaping us in His own image for the sake of the world…so that the world might know a better righteousness which comes by faith in Jesus rather than a righteousness defined by Law…that the world might know a broad, thorough-going acceptance in Christ, that is so much greater than anything that comes by relaxing the Law.
And that’s where we Oles and Lenas park our lives…in Christ. And there in Christ, we are free. He is our call to a righteous life and He is our gift of that righteousness life. He is! So He says, “Follow Me.”