“Good Works Shine!”
That last sentence of today’s Gospel reading always sounds very harsh to me. Jesus tells his followers that “unless [their] righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, [they] will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
It doesn’t sound like the grace and mercy that we usually associate with Jesus, does it? Normally when people do wrong things (the opposite of righteousness) Jesus is the one who loves them anyway, who gives them another chance, who forgives them and welcomes them into the family of God.
But this morning we hear him preaching about strict adherence to the commandments, and making it clear that it’s not acceptable to ignore some of the rules or the finer points of God’s law. Not if you want to go to heaven, anyway.
In the first century, the scribes and Pharisees were two largely distinct groups. Scribes were professionals who had knowledge of the law and could draft legal documents like contracts for marriage, divorce, loans, inheritance, or sale of land. Every village had at least one scribe, and Jesus interacted with a number of them during his ministry.
Pharisees were not typically professional scribes, but they were also well-known as legal experts. They were a religious group that prided themselves on following the Law of Moses carefully, and they were known for separating themselves from others (particularly Gentiles) in order to keep themselves pure.
Jesus says to his followers: “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” So that could mean that since the scribes and Pharisees are major experts in the law who are super good at knowing and following the rules, we need to be even more knowledgeable and disciplined than they were.
But I don’t think that’s what Jesus meant. I don’t think that the bar for getting into heaven is to know more about being good than everyone else. If that were true, heaven would be full of theologians, academics, and perhaps some clergy. The only thing we would do at church would be to study the commandments, and perhaps practice following them. And we’d be worried that if we forgot some of them or mis-interpreted them, that would be it for us – God would reject us for our simple intellects or lazy attitudes, and we would be condemned.
Of course, another way to interpret what Jesus says about the law in the Gospels presumes that he rejected God’s list of commandments as given to Moses and the People of Israel. We may be inclined to paraphrase Jesus saying, “It’s all about love, so don’t worry about the details.” But that’s not quite true either.
In our text today, Jesus says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.”
When something is “fulfilled” it’s truly embodied, incarnated, filled out, brought to life. When we “fulfill a responsibility,” for example, we perform it – we give it form – like an arm sliding into a perfectly tailored, beautifully embroidered sleeve. To “fulfill the law,” then, is to embody its essential features, to “fill out” and exemplify its meaning, spirit, and substance.
Right, so Jesus did not come to be the best at knowing the law, or to study the law most carefully, or to teach the law most comprehensively. He came to “fulfill” the law – to live it out in his life of love, kindness, generosity, healing, hospitality, and sacrifice for the other.
And we, as his followers, are called to join him in that work. We won’t become greater experts or know more about the details of every commandment than the scribes and Pharisees, but our righteousness will exceed theirs as soon as we begin to fulfill the law by living it out in the world through good works of love.
I like to remember that this passage comes immediately after the Beatitudes that we talked about last Sunday. You’ll remember that Jesus is teaching his disciples and the crowds of people who were poor, weak, struggling, excluded, and persecuted. And he’s telling them that they are loved and blessed by God, just as they are.
They don’t need to become religious experts in order to be blessed by God or to share that blessing with others. And he goes on to use two metaphors about seemingly small things that make a big difference in the world.
Jesus tells them and us that we are the “salt of the earth” and the “light of the world.” I like the way the appropriately named SALT Lectionary Commentary unpacks these two metaphors:
“First, even in very small quantities, salt and light can make a big difference to a much larger whole. A pinch of salt brings a dish’s flavours alive – indeed, salt is one of the only spices that can enhance and bring out other flavours in a dish. And even a little bit of light – say, a single candle – can light up a room. It can even light up a landscape: a candle is visible from more than a mile away (1.6 miles away, to be exact).
“Second, both salt and light have simple, elemental purposes. As a seasoning, salt is, well, salty. No one would use salt that’s ‘lost its taste’. Salt is for saltiness; its identity and its purpose are virtually one and the same. Likewise, light is for shining. No one lights a lamp and then hides it out of sight!
“In the same way, your identity and purpose – who you are and what you’re meant to do – are virtually one and the same. Like salt and light, God made you as a small thing that can make a big difference for a larger whole. God made you to spice things up – not to overpower the dish, but to enliven it, enhancing and highlighting its other flavours. And God made you to shine, as only you can: a flame that can light up an entire room, or guide a far-flung traveller home.”
“Jesus isn’t giving his listeners a new role to play here; rather, he’s naming who we already are. We don’t have to work to become salt and light. God made us this way, blessing us with gifts that can bless the world. But we do have to claim and embrace and live out these gifts. We do have to actually be salty and luminous. We do have to fulfill, to embody what our gifts make possible. We do have to be who we are.”
Both of our Scripture readings today have an emphasis on letting our light shine by doing good works. Isaiah talks about loosing the bonds of injustice, undoing the thongs of the yoke, letting the oppressed go free, sharing bread with the hungry, bringing the homeless poor into our house, and clothing the naked. And when we begin to do these things, the prophet says that our “light shall break forth like the dawn,” just as Jesus said our good works will shine so that others will see them and give glory to God.
Just think of all the good works that may flow out from just our little congregation this week if we each go out with the courage to be who God made us to be this week.
Someone’s going to check on their neighbour who has been home sick lately. Someone else is going to volunteer some time in a community organization. Another person will help someone they encounter whose car has broken down. Someone will be kind and patient with that guy at work who gets on everyone else’s nerves. Someone else will stand up for a colleague who’s experiencing discrimination. And many will give their time, talent, or tithe to the ministry of the church in our community and the wider world.
It seems to me that our attitude when doing our good works today or tomorrow need not be to worry about whether we are doing enough, whether we are doing the perfect things, or whether or not God or anyone else will notice them.
The point is simply to live into our identity as God’s children and Jesus’ followers, to fulfill the law bit-by-bit through our daily acts of love and sacrifice, and to be who we are as salt and light in the world. Our good works will shine, and God will be glorified.