5th Sunday after the Epiphany
Laurie and my son Jackson became enamored with learning to play the piano at age 16 and taught himself how to play. Imagine Jackson's reaction when he went to study classical piano at Bard College if his piano professor had said, "Jackson, unless your ability to play the most challenging piano music exceeds that of the greatest pianists of our time, then there really is no sense in your playing the piano at all."
Jackson would almost certainly have despaired and probably given up on the piano altogether.
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. For truly I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven." This must have widened the eyes of the disciples. After all, no one was better at law-keeping than the Pharisees.
How could the disciples hear 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? The truth is Jesus didn't seem to think much of the attitude of the religious leaders of his day. He regarded them as shams and nitpickers who loved rules at the expense of loving people. In fact, 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.
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 needle. But if such hyperboles could not be taken literally, that doesn't mean the point behind them is any less vital or relevant. Jesus seems to be pointing to the impossible only to hint that with God all things are possible.
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 grace.
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 broken people are salt and light. That was their status. They had no more earned that status than they at that very moment really understood it, but there it was: salt and light.
To receive this gift requires a child-like openness to receive and go with the new thing God was doing in this man Jesus. The entire Gospel of Matthew is about God's upending conventional expectations and ordinary ways of doing things 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 begins teaching us that in the opening family tree of Jesus. In that genealogy of Jesus, you get the usual suspects of lineage; but Matthew includes Tamar and Rahab and Ruth and Bathsheba as reminders that God was able to work through a lot of people we might not think God would use 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.
Jesus eventually came in for his fair share of public harsh criticism from the religious authorities. He was a far cry from righteous 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 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 you'd have to be God himself to do any better. It all seemed backwards and upside-down and was surely unexpected.
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. Then, everyone could get back to their previously held view where righteousness involved rule-keeping and not much of 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 the cross and cried "It is finished!" and so drew all people to himself in gracious and perfect love.
You get to be salt and light by grace, but still Jesus had to worry about salt losing its savor and light being hidden. And mostly the way that happens is when we, too, let rules 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.
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.
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 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.