Matthew 5:17-20

The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching

June 2, 2024

Almost everyone admires Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount for its uncompromised call to uncompromised righteousness.  But some of us are intimidated and troubled by its lofty demands – especially when Jesus ends up talking about being as perfect as God.

But is Jesus expecting perfection from us any time soon, or just telling us to set a trajectory that will eventually get us there by His companionship and grace?

Up to this point in His sermon, Jesus has been talking about who His followers are.  Now, for the first time in it, He talks about who He is.

Answering critics who accuse Him of not taking God’s law and its commandments seriously, Jesus declares Himself to be Someone utterly committed to respecting its authority, asserting, “Do not think I have come to abolish the law…but to fulfill [it]”, which He does in both His character and His conduct.  Jesus swears heaven and earth would pass away before He’d ever alter or ignore even “one stroke of a letter” in God’s law.  He will teach it all and live out it all.

Some of Jesus’ actions, however, have occasioned some to wonder about that.  His accepting and welcoming everyone, and being compassionate and kind to even the worst behaved, makes Him look as if He has either no standards at all or no inclination to hold anyone accountable to them.  Moreover, it’s clear He feels free to violate the letter of the law.  He relaxes the rules about Sabbath keeping and kosher eating.

Consider one specific example: Though Leviticus 11:12 forbids eating shellfish, Jesus in Mark 7:19 says the faithful may eat any food.  His teaching is consistent with the law only if a poetic interpretation of the law is truer to its heart than a literal interpretation and only if fulfilling the spirit of a command matters more than adhering to its letter.

So we must ask: Why did God tell His people not to eat certain foods in the first place?  Not because they are bad for people, but because foregoing the enjoyment of certain food reinforces obedience to God’s law at least three times a day and gives people practice in an essential component of all loving: self-denial.  There just is no loving without self-denying.  For instance, to love God is to worship Him and to worship Him rightly is normally to deny oneself the use of an hour Sunday morning for other purposes; and to love a friend is to be there for them 24/7 and to be there for them like that is to deny oneself the freedom to engage in other activities if they are, say, violently ill or in emotional distress, and in need of one’s help.

So also, there is the spirit of kosher law and there is its letter.  Focusing on the letter may get in the way of serving the intent behind it.

It’s not true, as some say, that to take something literally is to take it more seriously.  It can actually have the opposite effect.  For example, later in the Sermon, Jesus commands His followers to take the log out of their own eye before they try to take the speck out of someone else’s.  If I take Him literally, His word is irrelevant to me; for I’ve never had a crossbeam in my eye and never could.  But if I take Him figuratively, His word is of great impact for me.  It tells me to prioritize fixing my own faults and not get distracted from that task by trying to fix others’ faults.

Though Jesus takes many non-literally, no one takes God’s commands more seriously than He.  By not limiting their meaning to the literal application, He can draw out their full implication and expand their application.  For example, the command to refrain from committing adultery then includes refraining from treating anyone like a mere object of one’s desire in any sense; and the command to refrain from committing murder includes refraining from denigrating anyone with cruel words that kill the spirit.  All this is why Jesus says that the righteousness to which He calls His disciples exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees.

From the end of today’s short lesson to the end of its chapter, Jesus illustrates by six examples what it means to pursue the right righteousness rightly and to do full justice to God’s holy and unchanging law.  In chapter 5 Jesus unfolds God’s intent behind specific commandments and applies them as widely and deeply as they deserve.

In doing that, Jesus helps His followers avoid the hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees who claim to take God’s laws seriously but end up diminishing their reach and emptying them of much of their purpose.  To “exceed” that righteousness is to refuse to say No to nailing down God’s commands to make them more attainable, but instead to honestly face how they show us how much we don’t measure up to God’ standards and how much we need God’s forgiving grace.

When Jesus concludes, with a call to perfection, this chapter’s extended reflection on the place of the law in a disciple’s life, is He insisting we flawlessly obey it right away, or launching us on a long journey of growth?

Remember what He’s already said in the Sermon. He began it by saying the kingdom of heaven belongs, not to the perfect, but to “the poor in spirit” – to those who know full well they fall short before God’s standards and lack the personal resources ever to do much better.  Jesus underlines this by adding that “blessed” are those who “mourn” over their moral and spiritual inadequacies and know they can only “hunger and thirst” for righteousness.  Remember too He’s speaking to those who’ve just embarked on the journey of following Him and are in the earliest stages of their development as disciples. His first followers have far to go and have taken but a few tentative, initial steps in their transformation process.  Soon they make it obvious how far they have to go.  James and John want to call down heaven’s fire to kill some folks who reject them, Peter tries to stop Jesus from going to the cross (a necessity for our salvation) and they all, despite being with Him for years, abandon Him at His arrest when He could most use their support.

Jesus doesn’t expect His beloved but imperfect followers to be anywhere near perfect any time soon.  If He did, why would He in the beatitudes urge them to be merciful lest they lose their chance to receive mercy and shortly thereafter urge them to forgive others lest they lose their chance to be forgiven themselves?  The perfect don’t need mercy or forgiveness!

Jesus calls imperfect people to the pursuit of perfection, not as an immediately attainable goal, but as a hope-filled process of continual improvement.  Like stars in a night sky, perfection is not something we can reach, but it is something we can navigate by so as to reach our ultimate destiny in the end.  The ideal of perfection we should ever keep before us, because it banishes complacency and then fires us up to refuse to settle for any compromised, good-enough righteousness, that we might keep reaching for righteousness at its best.

We run after that dream as we own up to our poverty of spirit and depend on the riches of Jesus’ love and leadership.  Let us, with a peace-giving faith in His steadfast grace, pursue the right righteousness rightly!

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