This is too long. It will be the printed version, and I'll talk about it.
Gospel: Matthew 5:13-20
‘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 underfoot.
14 ‘You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. 15No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.
17 ‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil. 18For 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. 19Therefore, 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.20For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
The scribes and the Pharisees get really bad press in the New Testament.
They were the representatives- the key leaders- of the Jewish religion in Jesus' time. They are the ones leading the charge against the Christians. They are the ones who tried to protect Jewish religion against wild-card, ratbag teachers like Jesus. So of course, the Christians were not nice back. They painted the Pharisees and the scribes in the worst possible light.
I understand all that. And I understand that not all scribes and Pharisees were bad. Many of them were holy people, and people we’d be glad to have as friends and congregational members.
But I didn’t understand something else.
Jesus said unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Even though there were good Pharisees, I always heard him saying unless your righteousness exceeds that of the bankers, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Or if I can mention another Australian prejudice, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the lawyers, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (Which is kind of crazy of me, anyway, because the only two lawyers I know are both Christians, and I really admire their living out of the faith!)
But Jesus is not saying that! He is not saying unless your righteousness exceeds that of the banks!
He is speaking to a people who revere the Pharisees and hold the scribes in the highest estimation. Sure, there were Pharisee jokes, and bad Pharisees, just like there are minister jokes and bad ministers, but on the whole, people admired them.
When Jesus said unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, it sounded to his listeners like he was saying this:
... unless your righteousness exceeds that Mother Theresa, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
... unless your righteousness exceeds that of Mary MacKillop, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven..
... unless your righteousness exceeds that of Bishop Tutu, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
I think many of the original listeners would have been shocked by what Jesus said.
We should be shocked too, because unless our righteousness exceeds that of Mary Mackillop, and Bishop Tutu, and Martin Luther King, and Martin Luther himself, we will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Despite the fact that we Aussies are legendary for our ability to lop tall poppies, and would find fault with Jesus himself, I’m pretty sure I can’t hold a candle to any of these people! It is a true statement.
So what are we going to do?
The first thing is to understand that doing good doesn’t get us into heaven. God gives heaven to us! This is what Paul understood when he talked about Grace. The word, basically, means gift. Saved by Grace means saved by Gift. What life is really about is not getting saved, it’s about responding to the fact that we are saved!
I grew up in a tradition that was convinced there was a barrier between us and heaven and that if I didn’t get across that barrier then I was bound for hell. What I didn’t understand was that I would have to work incredibly hard to defeat God’s love and stay out of heaven. Someone was asked how long it would be before God brought the world to an end. The answer was that God would keep things going until Satan himself, finally gave in, and gave up, and let God love him.
So, point number one: Stop trying to be good enough for God. You can’t be. You don’t have to be, because God loves you anyway and gives your heaven anyway.
Trying to be good enough is a recipe for despair. You will never get there.
So why do we do all this Christian stuff? Is it because, to put it crudely, God loved us, and so we should love God back?
I think that’s half the truth.
I should serve God in return.
I should give God my whole life... what else would be adequate?
But this is not the whole truth. It’s just trying to be good enough come back, dressed up in other clothes.
I can sit up all night with my wife because she is sick. Yet isn’t something missing if I just do that because she has loved me, and therefore it is my duty? Don’t you think it would feel a thousand times better for her if I stayed up all night because I loved her... because I had fallen in love with her? I can tell you... and this was a big learning curve for me! ... that when I love her it is a thousand times better.
So, point number two for today: Our best response to God’s love is not the fulfilling of an obligation, it’s when we have fallen in love with God and all God is and is doing, and we are not even thinking about obligation and duty.
When we are simply loving God, it shines out of us. We are a light to the world. We are salt. We are like the man who had gotten through a personal crisis and begun to grow in his faith. He told the famous author Father Morton Kelsey, who was helping him, that people had just coming up to him on trains and talking about their lives. Kelsey said that when we are in tune with God, loving God, it shows. We don’t have to find people to talk to.
Now all that I have said so far is working from a very personal image of God. It is technically called a theistic view. With a theistic view, when we think about God, we think about God, essentially, as a person like us. We say God is more than that, but if we’re honest, God is the person we talk to.
It’s a powerful image. God is a person we can fall in love with. We can adore God with all our hearts. God is wonderful, beautiful, and desirable. God is the best friend forever.
The trouble with this, is that we can love God, and forget God’s other people. So in the poetry of Isaiah 58, God tells us what people are saying to him:
‘Why do we fast, but you do not see?
Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?’
and God says
Look, you serve your own interest on your fast-day,
and oppress all your workers.
4 Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to strike with a wicked fist.
Such fasting as you do today
will not make your voice heard on high.
5 Is such the fast that I choose,
a day to humble oneself?
Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush,
and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?
Will you call this a fast,
a day acceptable to the Lord?
It’s like God is saying, “You love me with all your fasts and going to church, but you’ve forgotten the other people. And that means you don’t really love me at all! If you want to love me, then
6 Is not this the fast that I choose...
7 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?
If we are not being salt, if we are not a light to the world, if we are not merciful, and hungering after justice and peace, we are not loving God. We are just doing religion for ourselves.
God says that when we share our bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into our house
then your light shall rise in the darkness
and your gloom be like the noonday.
So, point three for today: for those of us who love God, it’s not just God and us, it’s God and everyone and everything that we need to fall in love with.
Now about this personal God thing: Some of us don’t always think of the Divine in that intensely personal way. We relate best with an understanding of God that is called non-theistic. And it is much more obvious, if that is how we see God, that social justice must happen. God is... we see God and we know God... through the people and the creation. The problem this non theistic view sometimes has is, that we get so focussed on the justice and the people, that we forget “God” is more than this. It can become duty which burns us out, not love that fills and empowers us. So if you understand the Divine this non theistic way, we come to
Point Four for today: Are you just doing your best to live a good life and do justice, or have you fallen in love with the life that the Divine has given you?
Now let’s try and bring this all together with two questions.
How can I love all this?
And if heaven is given to me, why do I still have to enter it, somehow?
How can I love Mary the Prophetess who smashes her way into ministers' homes, and who was only at Scots for half an hour before the police forced her out, but whose illness left us churning for days? How can I love an itchy, smelly druggy who is trying to con me again? How can I love a person from another culture when I can only understand one word in four, and feel uncomfortable and stupid and inadequate? How can I love a person lying to my face, and she knows I know, but she still does it?-- And you can add all your own struggles and experiences to the list!
There are times I would like just to sit down with my prayer book and bible, close my study door to the world, and read the nice bits, and forget the rest.
Loving seems like such hard work, and so impossible sometimes.
But just beginning loving, just beginning to help someone, bears an unwarranted harvest in return. This is the secret. As I seek to love... even though I fail so badly... it changes me. I realise I am beginning to discover heaven now. Life now is better than it ever was... and often harder... but better. And I find that I am beginning to enjoy it in ways I never did, or even imagined that I could.
When we become that tiny bit of salt in other people’s lives, and when we are a tiny flickering light to the world, it’s like Isaiah said
then your light shall rise in the darkness
and your gloom be like the noonday.
Life... and love... blossoms in us. God blesses us. And we find we are in love. All it takes is to begin.
Andrew Prior Feb 2011
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!
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