Jesus calls the church to become the salt and light of the world. We respond in gratitude for God’s grace, not out of fear.
If we had time for a dialog session before the sermon, I might have asked you how you respond to Matthew 5:20, a verse that’s included in one of the lectionary cuts of today’s gospel passage: “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” That word “never” has an ominous sound to it. How do we respond to the idea that unless we get this righteousness stuff right, we will never enter the kingdom?
Did a shiver run down your spine when you heard that verse? Has Jesus set the bar so high that we can never jump over it? When we look at the scrupulous tithing of the Pharisees, and how they dedicated themselves to keeping the law in every aspect of their lives, do we feel our hearts sink in despair? Do we have to quit our jobs and become missionaries to have a chance?
Or on the other hand, do we think we have nothing to fear? Do we see the scribes and Pharisees as nit-picky, joyless, holier-than-thou sticks-in-the-mud who missed the point of faith? When we read Matthew 23, where Jesus continues scolding them, do we consider our chances pretty good? “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!”1 Jesus says. Then he details their hypocrisy. Jesus accuses them of misunderstanding what matters in the law, among other problems. We may not consider ourselves perfect, but we consider ourselves sincere. If we avoid hypocrisy, we can ace Matthew 5:20, we might think.
Or perhaps we feel confused by verse 20. It sounds as if entering the kingdom of heaven comes from our own goodness, our own ability to live rightly. If we understand righteousness as good relationship with God and with other people, we know our best efforts at that fall short. It sounds as if verse 20 comes close to saying we need to earn our way into the kingdom of heaven. But if we’ve heard or read more of the New Testament, we may remember Ephesians 2:8-9: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God — not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” We know other verses that assure us that Jesus has done what we could not do for ourselves, so that our salvation does not depend on our works, or our righteousness. We enter the kingdom of heaven only because Christ has opened the way for us.
When we read the Bible and notice a verse that grabs our attention as verse 20 does, we should spend some extra time on it. Verses like these have something to teach us. Matthew believes in the grace of God just as much as Ephesians does. The beatitudes, which come earlier in Matthew 5, express God’s grace and blessing to those who need it most. When Jesus pronounces a blessing on the “poor in spirit,”2 he is proclaiming favor on those who have been crushed by life. Jesus continues with the blessings for those who grieve; for the meek; for those who long for the down-and-out to receive justice, to receive what’s fair. The beatitudes announce God’s blessing and favor on those not at all considered blessed. We rejoice in Matthew’s understanding of grace as much as we rejoice in Ephesians’ understanding of grace.
Our passage for today represents a shift in tone following the beatitudes. Verse 13, where our passage starts, begins the teaching about how the church responds to God’s grace and favor. We might say that the audience seems to shift at this point in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus might have intended the beatitudes for the crowds who had gathered — the ones who, at the end of the sermon, “were astounded at his teaching.”3 The crowds needed to hear the word of grace. The crowds included many who were “poor in spirit.” But now, starting with verse 13, Jesus’ focus seems to be on the church itself, represented by the disciples, who have gone up on the mountain with him, as the first verse of Matthew 5 indicates. Matthew never says that any part of the sermon was addressed primarily to the disciples, but they were among Jesus’ hearers that day.
However, we figure out the position of the disciples and the position of the crowds, at verse 13, Jesus shifts the tone. Before verse 13, Jesus pronounces the blessings. After verse 13, Jesus defines the mission of the church. God offers grace to those who need it most. Becoming the church marks the response of those who hear and receive this word of grace. The church represents those who follow Jesus. Much of the rest of the Sermon on the Mount explains what Jesus expects of those who follow him: If we follow Jesus, we pray in a certain way, we forgive in a certain way, we use our money in a certain way. If we receive God’s grace and blessing, and if we follow Jesus, Jesus holds us to a high standard.
In that context, we can begin to understand verse 20 of our passage. Jesus calls us to become righteous people. We will leave aside the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees. We don’t know as much about the historical Pharisees as we wish we did. We do know that the scribes set as their task understanding the scriptures to give advice about how to live as God’s people. But Jesus apparently feuded with both groups. We will say only that as the gospels portray them, they do not serve as our role models. We know from Acts that some Pharisees joined the early church.4 We know from the Gospel of Luke that some of them tried to protect Jesus.5 But we should set ourselves the task of learning the kind of righteousness Jesus calls us to have, without worrying about competing with the scribes and Pharisees.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus calls the church to a righteousness that comes not from external actions, but from the heart. We don’t just hold back from killing people; we seek to change our thoughts and actions. Not only do we refrain from adultery, but we cease to see others as objects. We seek to become good people from the inside out, and let our actions flow from inside ourselves. Later in the sermon Jesus says that good fruit comes from good trees.6 When we accept God’s grace and follow Jesus, becoming the church, we seek to become good trees so that we produce good fruit from the inside out. God works within us, enabling us to become good trees.
If we see our righteousness this way, we realize that, even though verse 20 might send a shiver up our spines, we don’t respond to Jesus’ call to follow out of fear. We respond, rather, with the recognition that God transforms us so that we can become righteous. Verse 20 bluntly tells us to lead a life of discipleship.
We seek to become righteous because Jesus has given us a mission. Jesus tells us that we are the salt and the light of the earth. We can use our imaginations to conjure up understandings of salt and light.
We know that the world needs both. If salt adds flavor, we know that many people in life find little joy. Jesus calls us to become the salt for those without joy. If salt also irritates, as salt in a wound, then those who oppress others need an irritant.
If the church serves as the light of the world, we help the world see both its sin and the grace of God, who takes away sin. The darkness of the world often hides God, so the church enables the world to see God. If we are the light of the world, we enable the world to see hope in the midst of its despair.
If we need to allow God to work within us to make us into good trees, we do so because the world needs us. As good trees who display righteousness, we give the world a moral example. We enable the world to see that suffering, conflict, and cruelty do not define us. We rise above the despair of the world so that we can show the world a better way. We can show the world that we do not give up in despair, but we choose to show love, to act with integrity, to worship with devotion because of what God has done for us.
Our salvation isn’t a competition, but each day we can go for a personal best. Even if our righteousness doesn’t exceed anyone else’s, may we commit ourselves that today our righteousness will exceed what it was yesterday.
1 Matthew 23:13.
2 Matthew 5:3.
3 Matthew 7:28.
4 Acts 15:5.
5 Luke 13:31.
6 Matthew 7:17.