The Rev. Dr. Andrew R. Guffey
5 February 2017
Isaiah 58:1-12 1 Corinthians 2:1-16 Matthew 5:13-20 Psalm 112:1-10
In the name of the One, Holy, and Living God. + AMEN.
“For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5.20).
Last week, I talked about the Beatitudes as a handbook for resistance in these times. I said the Beatitudes stand as a summons—to be peacemakers, to hunger and thirst for justice, in short, to do justice, love mercy, and walk circumspectly with our God. I said that justice is our watchword, and that justice is Good News. And I quoted Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who said that for those who mourn, “Sorrow cannot tire them or wear them down, it cannot embitter them or cause them to break down under the strain; far from it, for they bear their sorrow in the strength of him who bears them up, who bore the whole suffering of the world upon the cross. They stand as the bearers of sorrow in the fellowship of the Crucified.” And maybe you were thinking then—maybe you are thinking now—really? How can I not be exhausted by this? I’ve been to three rallies this week, and I’m constantly seeing news about the latest detrimental thing Trump has done! And now I’m supposed to be more righteous than the Pharisees and scribes somehow. That sounds like an awful lot of work.
Last week I quoted a number of biblical passages that talk about treating the refugee as a citizen, about caring for the refugee and the orphan, about showing mercy and doing justice toward those who are the least among us. And today Jesus says, Yes, that’s right. Do not think that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets. Whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called the least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
In the context of all of this, Jesus says, “Believe me, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” First, let’s get this out of the way. Jesus is not talking about how to make it to heaven after you die. His view of what the kingdom of heaven is was quite a bit larger than that. By kingdom of heaven, Jesus means, God’s reign, the life of promise that God has held out to us since the beginning of creation, a life of blessing, whether now in this body or beyond the grave. Jesus is talking about what it means to live—to really live—which means to live in the presence of God. When he says “Kingdom of heaven,” Jesus means, what it’s like to live into our greatest joy, our most profound well-being.
Great, let’s assume that’s something we all want. Then, how do we reach out for that joy, for that well-being? One might think following a set of rules could get us there. Isn’t that what the Law is for, the Ten Commandments, the Bible (in a really awful view of what the Bible is for)? Isn’t that what you just said the Beatitudes were last week, Andy?! Guidelines for living according to God’s kingdom? Rules are fine, ordinances are fine. But they depend on something larger.
The historical Pharisees were probably not all that bad, really, but in the story of the Gospels, they are routinely, along with the scribes and legal experts, those who subverted their responsibility by means of the Law—kind of like a rich man claiming he’s going to make America great, but who hasn’t paid any taxes for twenty years or contributed to charities or any other instruments that make for a common good in this country. They were those who could bend the rules to work for them, rather than submitting to and delighting in what is right.
Being righteous, following justice, in other words, does not necessarily mean following the rules. It means be ready and eager to respond to God, always on the look-out for what God is up to in the world.
Consider the text from Isaiah. Again, the message is clear. Being right with God means “removing the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,” it means feeding the hungry and clothing the naked. In other words, our reconciliation with God is bound up with our reconciliation with each other and our ability to love our neighbor—in being eager to respond to the needs of others, in knowing compassion. Here Isaiah is speaking on God’s behalf to God’s people. He is told to “Shout out!” and not to hold back, but to “announce to my people their rebellion.” God says: “Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God.” Elsewhere God says of his people that “they draw near with their mouths and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me, and their worship of me is a human commandment learned by rote” (Isaiah 29:13). It’s not a compliment.
They are fasting, making their prayers, following those rules, but they’ve stopped responding—they’ve become unable to respond in compassion—they’ve become irresponsible. God has to draw them back through interrogation: “Is such the fast that I choose…? Is it to bow down your head like a bulrush? Will you call this a fast?” What are you doing?” Look at the refugees at the gate and tell me you wouldn’t swallow the whole damn bowl of Skittles! Hold on to these rules loosely and open up your hearts to my Muslim children. “Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly. Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer; you shall cry for help, and she will say, Here I am.”
So what should we be doing? The answer to that question is actually pretty simple: strive to be a first responder, because that’s who God is and what God is about. God is always doing something—God is always keeping watch with those who work, or watch, or weep, giving rest to the weary, blessing the dying, soothing the suffering, pitying the afflicted, and shielding the joyous. When Jesus says to become more righteous than the Pharisees, he doesn’t necessarily mean you have to pray with your legs, as Howard Thurman would put it, or that you have to march in every march, shout at every rally. But he does mean you have to respond. I pray with my legs a lot more often than I used to, but only because I am responding to God’s invitation. That’s also why I pray, why I sing, why I study. Because allowing myself to remain a passerby or a spectator is rebellion. God is always inviting us to respond, to act for others, especially those most in need, because that is God’s party.
So how is God inviting you to respond? Maybe you are inspired to pray your legs off, or to become Isaiah with your voice sounding out like a trumpet. Maybe you are driven to fight for policy reform, or to become an immigration lawyer, a conservationist, a doctor, or, God forbid, a priest. Where do you see God at work, and how can you use your talents to join that work that God is doing? However it may be, let us encourage one another constantly to choose what is right over following the rules, to get a little salty, and to be lights shining in the darkness!