Picture in your mind a freckle-faced, redheaded young boy named Joey. Joey is all of about 8 years old and has been taking piano lessons for about a year. Joey has gotten reasonably proficient at plinking out "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" and is slowly moving on to slightly more challenging pieces. His hope is that one day he will be a reasonably decent piano player--someone who can accompany a Christmas carol sing-a-long over the holidays or maybe learn to play some favorite movie songs from Harry Potter or something. So, imagine Joey's reaction if one day his piano teacher sat him down on the piano bench, looked Joey straight in the eye and said, "Joey, unless your ability to play the most challenging Chopin Etudes exceeds that of Vladimir Horowitz, the greatest pianist of all time, then there really is no sense in your playing the piano at all."
Well, now, surely this would widen young Joey's eyes. And once the depth of this demand began to sink in, Joey would almost certainly despair and consider giving up on the piano altogether.
"Do not think that I came to get rid of God's Law" Jesus says in Matthew 5, verse 20. "No, I came to fulfill it such that if your own righteousness does not exceed that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law, then you most assuredly are not going to be part of my kingdom." This, too, must have widened the eyes of the disciples when Jesus spoke this fairly early on in the Sermon on the Mount. After all, no one was better at law-keeping than the Pharisees. They were to the Law what Wolfgang Puck is to gourmet cooking, what Rene Fleming is to opera singing, what Johnny Carson was to late-night television: they were the best. You can't top them.
How could the disciples--and how could we today--receive these words of Jesus as anything less than demoralizing? But then again, how could Jesus himself have said this given that his own interactions with the Pharisees were all-but singularly negative in the Gospels? Truth is, Jesus didn't seem to think much of the lifestyle or attitudes of the religious leaders of his day. He regarded them as shams, as nitpickers who loved rules at the expense of loving people. In fact, before the Gospel of Matthew is finished, Jesus will go so far as to call them whitewashed tombs--people who shine up their outward appearance in the hopes you won't notice the death, decay, and ugliness inside them.
Apparently, then, what we have in Matthew 5:20 is another example of one of Jesus' favorite rhetorical devices: hyperbole. Jesus loved a good hyperbole. Tree trunks sticking out of people's eyes, whole camels slipping down people's throats, or camels threading the eye of a tiny sewing needle--this was Jesus' style! But if such hyperboles could not be taken literally, that doesn't mean the point behind them is any less vital or relevant. In the case of Matthew 5, Jesus seems to be pointing to the impossible only to hint that with God all things are possible.
No, you can't do this on your own. But God can do it in Jesus, and Jesus in turn can transfer all his righteousness to you as a gift of pure grace. The Sermon on the Mount is not a long list of entrance requirements for the kingdom of God. This is not a checklist such that once you can put a big red check mark in every moral box you get rewarded for having earned your own way into God's kingdom. Everything in this sermon from the Beatitudes to the closing parable about the wise and foolish builders is all about God's prior grace grabbing hold of you and filling you up to the brim with the goodness of Christ.
How else could you explain the opening of this passage? Jesus tells the disciples they are salt and light. Notice, he doesn't say they might become salt and light if they tried real hard. This isn't a prediction or a promise that may or may not come true at some future moment. Jesus flat out declares that the disciples--those still clueless, still confused, still wet-behind-the-ears fishermen who had only lately been invited to follow Jesus--Jesus says that these very fellows are salt and light. That was their status. Period. They had no more earned that status than they at that very moment really understood it, but there it was: salt and light.
That, too, was a gift of grace of course as was the superior righteousness Jesus mentions in verse 20. But the way to receive this gift required a child-like openness to receive and go with the new thing God was doing in this newly minted rabbi, this former carpenter from Nazareth of all places. The entire Gospel of Matthew is about God's upending conventional expectations and ordinary ways of doing things so as to reveal a whole new way to perceive the world and God's purpose in that world. God's got more going on in more places and in more people than you could guess.
Matthew started teaching us that in the opening family tree of Jesus in chapter 1. Mostly in that genealogy of Jesus, you get the usual suspects of lineage; but just to make things interesting, Matthew throws in Tamar and Rahab and Ruth and Bathsheba as a reminder that God was able to work through a lot of sexual tawdriness and through a lot of non-Israelites to produce his Messiah. And if that disturbs your moral sensibilities, well then welcome to the club of the righteous who had to re-learn the depths of true righteousness in order to recognize and welcome the true Messiah. And on that score Jesus' early father Joseph was Exhibit A.
Joseph, we are told in Matthew 1, was a righteous man, and so he was. And so he knew the righteous, law-abiding drill of what to do when your fiancé turns up pregnant and when you know it's not you who got her that way. But just as Joseph is drawing up the perfectly righteous divorce papers, an angel comes to point him to a broader righteousness that would come through Mary's child, through the One who would be Immanuel, the With-Us God. Joseph was the first of many righteous people who, if they were going to stay truly righteous and on the side of the one true God of Israel, would have to come to a whole new understanding.
We are never told this in the Bible, but we are probably safe to assume that Joseph took some heat from the righteous Pharisees for staying with Mary. Nobody would believe the truth and so maybe Joseph and Mary didn't bother to tell anyone either. Small wonder that Mary gets mentioned in the same family tree as Tamar and Rahab and the whiffs of prostitution that emanated from them like cheap perfume--Mary, too, was regarded as one of "those kinds of women." But God was up to something bigger and deeper than the bruising of one's reputation, and so Joseph and Mary did as the angels directed.
The child Mary birthed eventually came in for his fair share of public opprobrium from the religious authorities. Jesus was a far cry from righteousness in their book. He broke God's Law, mixed in with the wrong people, failed to keep Sabbath, contaminated himself with every filthy undesirable he ran across. Yet in our passage from Matthew 5; Jesus says he was actually keeping the Law right down to its slightest pen stroke even as he was achieving a righteousness so peerless and pure that, why, you'd have to be God himself to do any better. It all seemed backwards and upside-down and was surely unexpected and to many, at least, was also downright inexplicable. At the end of the day the only way to deal with this Jesus, this sham of righteousness, was to cross him out and be rid of him once and for all. That way, everyone could get back to their previously scheduled programming where righteousness involved ever and only rule-keeping and not much being loving toward all people, just toward some, just toward those already like you.
Of course, the deepest irony of the Gospel is that never did the righteousness of Jesus exceed that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law more than at that moment when he stretched out his arms on a cross, cried "It is accomplished!" and so drew all people to himself in gracious and perfect love.
That's not the end of the story, though. We do have to respond, to lean into those righteous patterns. You get to be salt and light by grace alone, but still Jesus had to worry about salt losing its savor and light being hidden instead of shining for all to see. And mostly the way that happens today is exactly when we, too, let rules and scruples come to mean more to us than people do. Or we let our long-held customary way of doing things stand in the way of seeing other people as welcome in God's sight.
The preacher Nadia Bolz Weber told a story a while back that made me laugh. I laughed because it was at once the reverse of a phenomenon we know only too well while at the same time being the same old thing all over again. Nadia is not your typical Lutheran pastor. Most people who see her tattoo-covered body and her penchant to wear clothing associated with motorcycle gangs--most people don't think Nadia is any type of pastor. But she is, and she has had a growing church for a while filled with people who tend to look a lot like her. But Nadia can really preach up a storm, and so she attracted a lot of attention and before you knew it, people in suit jackets and dresses and more typical going-to-church attire started showing up on Sunday mornings. And the tattoo crowd didn't like having "those kinds" of people around!
We get so used to defining righteousness and the Christian way of doing things to whatever it is we have grown accustomed to that we are no longer open to the surprises God has in store for us. The heart of God's Law has all along been love. Not love in the abstract or love as something you reserve for those who are already a lot like you. No, this divine love is a radical love, the kind of love God took a gamble on when he decided to create a whole universe of other creatures with whom to share the effervescent love the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit had enjoyed from all eternity.
A while back someone asked the preacher and writer Eugene Peterson what he would say if he were writing what he knew would be his very last sermon. Peterson replied, "I think I would want to talk about things that are immediate and ordinary. In the kind of world we live in, the primary way that I can get people to be aware of God is to say, 'Who are you going to have breakfast with tomorrow, and how are you going to treat that person?' In my last sermon, I guess I'd want to say, 'Go home and be good to your spouse. Treat your children with respect. Do a good job at work.'"
Peterson is right. We need to be righteous people of salt and light in the real world, and that involves genuinely being with real people, listening to them well, and treating them as the little images of God they are.
Along the way, we will be deeply surprised now and then at who God brings into our lives. We will discover that sometimes the most moral thing to do is the one thing that will cause others to regard you as immoral, as loosey goosey, as not keeping up your standards. It happens. But that's OK: it happened over and over to Jesus, too. And he fulfilled all the righteousness there ever was.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Please pray with me. Great God, we thank you for filling us up to the brim with the righteousness of Jesus Christ. Thank you for being a God of surprises and a God who shows us again and again the true meaning of Christ-likeness in the least likely people and places. Bless us that we may be a blessing of righteousness to all we meet. In Christ, Amen.