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Righteousness is Purposeful - Sermon 2 of 4 - Matt. 5:13-20

Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

Our faith serves a purpose, like a tool, to serve the world.

Our faith serves a purpose, like a tool, to serve the world.

Matthew 5:13-20 -

(Jesus said) "You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.

"You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under a bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good words and give glory to your Father in heaven.

"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. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same. will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven."

“Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (5:20)

Depending on how you hear this declaration from the lips of Jesus, you might think “that is way too hard! I might as well just give up now,” or you might think “that’s all? That’s not much of a challenge.” Either way, you’re a bit wrong.

If this challenge strikes you as hopelessly undoable, I have good news. Jesus is NOT setting an impossible standard of perfection (that comes over the next two weeks). What Jesus is doing here is setting a DIFFERENT standard than that upheld by the religious leaders of his time (and maybe ours).

If, on the other hand, you are used to thinking of the Pharisees as the bad guys in the gospels, you might be tempted to think that Jesus means “all you have to do is be better than the hypocrites, and you’re set.” Well… you do need to avoid hypocrisy, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy.

The key is to understand this different standard that Jesus has for righteousness.

Last week I introduced our four-week sermon series that is looking at how Jesus’s teaching in the Sermon on the Mount helps us to understand what righteousness really means, and how that changes our lives. To recap briefly, our first answer was that righteousness is EMPOWERMENT.

In the verses immediately before the text we read today, we heard all about God’s blessing…

Not on the strong, or the capable, or the ones who have it all together…

But on the meek, and on the persecuted, and on those who know how dependent they are on God.

So, (on this Superbowl Sunday) we can score one for the “we can do this!” crowd… but only if they stay humble and know that their own piety achieves nothing….hmmm. Maybe it's not either or.

Through the Beatitudes, Jesus gives us the ability to live into God’s righteousness by declaring his blessing on us from the beginning. We don’t have to question our ability to be righteous as though righteousness were something we produce. Instead, Righteousness is something we participate in – it means being part of God’s kingdom. It means declaring our allegiance to the kingdom of the heavens – to God’s way of being in the world – rather than to the priorities of the world around us. That’s good news, but it’s not easy.

All that was the set-up for this week’s declaration that our righteousness has to exceed the righteousness of the professional religious people …. An important set-up, because it frames our perspective on what that righteousness look like. The context of the Sermon on the Mount, and Matthew as a whole, shows us that our righteousness has to exceed theirs, because they were doing the wrong thing. The scribes and the Pharisees make a tremendous show of their religious practice… but it is disconnected from the central purpose of the law: More on that in a minute.

But first, we should also notice the way that Jesus talks about “the law” in this passage, because this is also important for understanding this week’s lesson about righteousness. In verse 17, Jesus makes the point that he has not come to abolish “the law,” but to fulfill it.

So what does that mean?

If righteousness is not the scrupulous adherence to the religious practices detailed in the Hebraic law – which the Pharisees practiced, but for which Jesus calls them hypocrites[1] – then what does it mean to fulfill the law?

It is helpful, with this question, to look at the way that Matthew uses this idea of fulfillment throughout this gospel.

  • Mostly, he talks about events in Jesus’ life that “fulfill what was spoken by the prophets.”[2] That is an important connection, because it points us back to the prophets to understand Jesus’ life and message.

  • But, that is how the gospel’s author uses the word fulfillment, and here we actually hear that word from the mouth of Jesus. So when has Jesus used this word before in Matthew? At his baptism.

If you remember from Baptism of the Lord Sunday, last month, John originally objected to Jesus’ request to be baptized, but Jesus said the action was: “necessary to fulfill all righteousness” (3:15) So Jesus has already linked the idea of fulfillment to the idea of righteousness. When Jesus talks about fulfilling the law in this passage, that language carries with it this underlying theme of righteousness, which is also the theme of the whole Sermon on the Mount. So what does it mean for our understanding of righteousness that Jesus has come to fulfill the law?

I think it means to fill the law with its purpose.[3]

Let me offer an analogy to explain what I mean. As I meditated on this passage this week, I saw the image of an anatomical heart. A heart has a complicated structure for receiving and pumping blood throughout the body – delivering life-giving oxygen and nourishment – but that structure is pointless if the heart is empty and dry. A heart only fulfills its purpose if it is full of blood to pump.

In the same way, in order for the law to be life-giving, it has to be filled with the source of life… it has to be working to a purpose. And the source of that life – the heart’s blood of the law – is the righteousness of the kingdom of the heavens. The righteousness that fulfills the law – the righteousness that Jesus wants to teach his followers – is a life that reflects the heart of God’s kingdom ways.

And this is where we come back to the theme of the fulfillment of prophecy, because the prophets had already told God’s people what this heart of kingdom righteousness was all about:

Justice and Mercy.

These three ideas: righteousness, justice, and mercy, are interwoven in the biblical languages, in a way that we miss in English. The Greek word translated as righteousness – dikaiosunē – can also be, and sometimes is, translated as JUSTICE. And the Hebrew word for righteousness – tsedaqah – includes also both justice and the related concept of MERCY.

Righteousness as Justice and Mercy. This pairing is all over “the law and the prophets” that Jesus references in his statement about fulfillment.

  • Consider today’s first reading from Isaiah 58, in which God rejects the religious observance of the Israelites because “you serve your own interest on your fast days, and oppress all your workers.”

In contrast, God says, “is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?” (58:6) – There’s kingdom justice – “(and) Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin.” (58:7) – There’s kingdom mercy.

  • Or, more simply, recollect last week’s reading from Micah:

“(God) has told you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” (6:8)

Whether we look back at the prophets whose word Jesus fulfills, or consider the broad themes and related stories of Matthew’s gospel, it is unavoidable to recognize that righteousness – right behavior – is about treating others, especially those who are less powerful, with oppression-breaking justice and mercy. As one commentator explains “righteous observance of the law is expressed in merciful action toward the neighbor.”[4]

And Jesus leaves us in NO DOUBT in this passage, that this is the righteousness that he expects from us – righteousness with a purpose.

“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored?”

“You are the light of the world… No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house.”

Jesus calls us to righteousness not for the sake of our own purity, but for a purpose – to be salt and light… to do justice and mercy... especially for the least of these.

Toward the end of Matthew’s gospel, he tells a parable about the judgement coming to those who didn’t realize their treatment of the least powerful was what determined their righteousness.[5] Someone wrote an update of this parable that has been circulating on Facebook, and it shows how easy it is to undercut justice and mercy:

For I was hungry and you said “drug test those who would ask for food.”

I was thirsty and you said, “oil for us in more important than water for them. Build the pipeline.”

I was a stranger and you said, “He could be a terrorist. Don’t let him in.”

I was sick and you said, “Take away her health insurance.”

I was in prison and you said, “Those people disgust me. We should bring back the death penalty.”

Truly I tell you, whatever you did to one of the least of these, you did to me.

Righteousness IS NOT EASY.

It’s not a simple matter of doing better than the hypocrites. Jesus demands that we put God’s law above every other allegiance and instinct we have. And that’s really, really hard.

But it’s not impossible. Because we aren’t doing it alone. Jesus starts the Sermon on the Mount by speaking a blessing on those who follow his way, and he died on the cross and rose to new life so that we can do just that. In our baptism, we receive the promise that we are part of the kingdom of God, and we are raised to new life.

A life of righteousness that has a purpose – to make us salt and light in the world; to make us agents of kingdom justice and mercy.

“So let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”


[1] See Matthew chapter 23.

[2] See Matt. 1:22; 2:15, 17, 23; 4:14, 8:17; 12:17; 13:35; 21:4; 26:56; 27:9

[3] In “The Kingdom Life in Matthew 5-7” And African Perspective”, Gold O. Anie argues: “by fulfillment here is meant, not just the carrying out of predictions, but also the accomplishment of the essence of the law and the prophets. In other words, Jesus brought out the rich and deeper meaning of the law, and actually lived up to that standard.” (p.139)

[4] Shore, Mary Hinkle. "Learning What Righteousness Means: Hosea 6:6 and the Ethic of Mercy in Matthew's Gospel." Word & World 18, no. 4 (September 1998), p. 362.

[5] Matthew 25: 31-46

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