Speaking as a Pharisee...
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 under foot.
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.
Perhaps we should list Matthew 5:13-14 with the Beatitudes, the verses which immediately precede them. The Beatitudes are meant to encourage the people of Matthew's church, and so are these verses. He says to those who are suffering, and who are derided, "You are the salt of the earth…. You are the light of the world." Be encouraged! You are going the right way. You are blessed!
The Beatitudes list the way of blessing, the way of living honourably in the world: You have chosen the way of honour— live it! say verses 13 and 14. Don't put your light under a bushel.
These verses, and the Beatitudes, only make sense when understood as lived religion. There is nothing here about believing in the sense of holding certain precepts to be true. It is all about living out: "Show me your faith without works, and I by my works will show you my faith." (James 2:18)
It's clear that in Matthew's city, there were those who felt the Christians were abandoning the way of Moses in the way that they were living. Why else would Jesus say, "Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil?" Matthew's Jesus immediately contradicts the idea that the law and the prophets are somehow diminished by his message. Instead, he has come to fulfil them.
And this is where it all begins to unravel for us. We like to imagine ourselves as the "good guys," the ones who are right. After all, we have chosen the way of honour. We are the salt of the earth. The problem is that the ones who, to our way of thinking, are the "bad guys" in Matthew were the good guys of their time. They were the ones who had chosen the path of honour. They had chosen not to become accomplices of the Empire and the rich and powerful— that was the path of the Sadducees, the compromisers. The Pharisees had insisted on keeping the pure faith. As Jesus himself said, "… whoever does … and teaches … [the law] will be called great in the kingdom of heaven." The Pharisees agree.
But the verses this week— unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees— explicitly tell us the Pharisees' way is inadequate for life. In the remainder of Chapter 5 we repeatedly hear him say, "You have heard— it is implied that you have heard from the Pharisees— it was said… … but I say to you..." and he radicalises the law. He insists on a more central, more extreme living out of the law.
You have the way of honour. You are the meek, (Matt 5:5) the pure in heart, (Matt 5:8) those who truly mourn that the world does not live according to God. (Matt 5:4,7 ) But if don't live this, you are like the salt of an earth oven1 which has "lost its saltness" and no longer makes the fire burn hot. You will be thrown out. If you don't live the way of honour, you are like a light someone has put under a basket: useless. Indeed, you are a fire hazard to your house!
You have to "do better" than the ones we honour; unless you do better than them, you will discover you have not chosen the way of honour at all, for you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.
We read the Pharisees as the "bad guys" because we do not understand or remember, that in Jesus' time, the Pharisees were the same religion as him! Pharisees are not bad Jews— we inject a little anti-Semitism in here as well— and not some other lesser religion. Pharisees are the most committed people of our religion, gone wrong.
I am a Pharisee. My family background is to do right. From my earliest memories, I was schooled to do the right thing. We were church goers. We were serious about living well. We beat ourselves up for not doing the right thing well enough, often enough, seriously enough. My Dad was on so many local committees and boards, that at the busy time of one year, I remember them scheduling pre-breakfast meetings to get the work of the town done, because they had run out of evenings! Not to do the right thing was a matter of serious shame for both sides of my family.
"On Wednesday night, April 10th, at his residence, Laura, there passed away one of Gladstone's earliest settlers and one of the most highly respected farmers in the district, in the person of Mr. Jonathan Pryor." This obituary was not flattery, and you were meant to live up to it.
I have found three problems with this honourable life.
The first is that you can't live up to it. The harder I try, the more I fail. It's not just a personal thing. The life of rectitude— we call a stick up the arse— acts as a kind of judgement of others, when rectitude is all we have. And because we always fail, our judgement is hypocritical. I had a school mate, very relaxed, who would occasionally explode when his own sense of rightness and honour was crossed. One day, in class, he exploded at me in rage, about my hypocrisy. I have no idea what triggered that, but I began to realise, from then, that I was not only not living up to being good, but that my "goodness" was very flawed.
The second problem follows: Under the soft veneer of my youth, I was becoming harsh and bitter. As we get older, these things show, and corrode everything, and everyone, around us.
When life is all about doing the right thing, it's almost impossible not to disapprove those who don’t do the right thing. And that's complicated by the notion that my right thing is the right thing, even before we ask questions about whether there even is a right thing in a situation.
Doing the right thing, even with the best of intentions, was making me harsh and condemnatory. My efforts to be loving were cold charity, at best, and often thoroughly judgemental. I was mostly blind to this, but was intermittently horrified when something showed me how others saw me.
The third problem was that doing the right thing became a crippling burden. I could never be good enough. It didn't matter what you thought— I could dismiss you: I was disgusted by myself. In my own eyes, I was a failure.
I was nowhere near the kingdom of heaven and I knew it. The vitality was being leeched out of life. And I was smart enough to know that the harder I tried, the worse it got.
So what is the key to the kingdom of heaven? Where is the good news of Jesus? We need to get beyond reading verses in little lectionary clips, week by week, in isolation from the wider text. The key is in the bigger picture; in the narrative as a whole. Matthew (and the other gospels) are not a list of things to measure up to. Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, verses 17-20, introduce a whole series of teachings.
They point to a constant reorienting of already common teachings— Jesus is saying nothing new, really. He is pointing us to a rediscovery of the centralities of what people already knew. But of course, if you come from a do-the-right-thing family like mine, that can be read only as a demand to try harder. Which is self-defeating. It makes me
like the Pharisees of Matthew 23:
13 ‘But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in, you stop them. 15Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.
And, most of all, I lock out myself.
We can find the guide, or the key, to all these sayings in Matthew 9. Look at the theology that the narrative teaches us.
• The teachings are finished— " Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teaching, 29for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes." (Matthew 7:28)
• The crowds follow Jesus— hint.
• And the power of his teaching, the proof of his authority, is shown in the stories of Chapter 8: people are healed.
• Even the power of chaos— dis-creation (cf Genesis 1:6-10, and also the reversal of the flood in Genesis 8)— is overcome in the stilling of the storm. So chaos, evil, the Satan— whatever you call it— then makes a personal attack in the story of the demoniac in 8:28, and Jesus again overcomes it. He continues to heal.
• And then Jesus comes to a man who is in no sense good.
Matthew 8:9 As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he got up and followed him.
Matthew is like the debt collector hired by CentreLink in its extortion of the poor in Australia. He deserves no mercy. He is the epitome of un-righteousness. He does not do the right thing; he got his position as a tax collector by convincing the Romans he could squeeze more money out of the poor than all the other bidders for the job. Jesus hung out with lots of people like this.
10 And as he sat at dinner in the house, many tax-collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples. 11When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, ‘Why does your teacher eat with tax-collectors and sinners?’
The Pharisees are right! What kind of decent person associates with scum like these?
12But when he heard this, he said, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. 13Go and learn what this means, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.’
It's a quotation from Hosea 6:6.
For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice,
the knowledge of God rather than burnt-offerings.
The right thing— in Hosea's time, and for many in Jesus' time— was to get the sacrifices right; to keep the laws "just right"; to tithe even dill and cumin, which is to undertake tiny and almost ridiculous amounts of law keeping; that is, tiny and almost ridiculous amounts of doing the right thing to keep God happy.
—to keep God happy. And to keep happy all those voices in our past about what it means to be right and good. Not much has changed in the way we seek to be honourable and right.
But God only asks for steadfast love… which is to be pure in heart. It is to be merciful, compassionate, gentle, full of empathy. This stuff pulls the stick out our posterior and grows us a spine. It sets us on the path to freedom from pleasing others.
Steadfast love makes goodness a fruit of the spirit. It teaches and moves us to love people (and God) rather than seeking to be good by paying attention to things. (Doing the right thing is a precursor to materialism and consumerism: it gives value to things. Value resides in spirit: in people, in God, and in the community of these.)
But how is the call to love not a burden? How does the call to love not overwhelm me— some of the people in my street, although not tax collectors, are not folk I enjoy being around. Some people are hard work!
In the language of Paul the Apostle, love is not a work. It is a grace. It is, by definition, given, and never earned. It is grace for me because when I love my neighbour the tax collector, I have to cut him some slack. For love includes mercy; it values the person over and despite their failings. It forgives them. (Oops! "Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy." (Matthew 5:7)
And as I have learned to forgive my neighbour, I have found I can forgive myself for not being the best, and for not living up to the expectations I inherited and then doubled-down upon myself. Finally, I can believe— I can experience— that God forgives me, and see the pathway to the kingdom of heaven. And to my great surprise, I find that there is something in me that other folk often find to be salt and light in their world.
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!
Footnote 1: The "earth" is an outdoor, earthen oven (Job 28:5; Ps. 12:6) found near the house. The ideal householder had a house that surrounded a courtyard that contained (1) an earthen oven with (2) a double stove, (3) a millstone for grinding, (4) a dung heap, along with (5) chickens and (6) cattle (m. Baba Batra 3:5). The earthen oven used the dung as fuel. The dung heap was salted, and salt plates were used as a catalyst to make the dung burn. Salt loses its saltiness when the exhausted plates no longer serve to facilitate burning. Unlike Matthew, Luke specifies that salt without saltiness is "fit neither for the soil nor for the manure pile; they throw it away" (Luke 14:34-35). (Malina and Rohrbaugh Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, Matthew 5:13)
More detailed comment can be found in an article by John Pilch. I noticed somewhere that folk have said it is not correct to call the salt plates catalysts because true catalysts are not chemically depleted or exhausted. This is correct, but it in no way detracts from the underlying message of the image.