Our gospel reading today comes from the Sermon on the Mount, a foundational text of teaching for what it means to live life as a Christian. The verses we heard today break into three sections: First, the importance of Salt and Light; Second, the Law and the Prophets; and Third, our expected level of righteousness.
I’m actually going to work through this back to front, so bear with me!
Exceed the Pharisees!
At the end of the reading, Jesus says “…unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom…” of God. This is the baseline for disciples. The scribes and pharisees were the ones criticising and opposing the first Christians. Jesus marks them out, and says “These are your targets. If you can be more loving, more generous, and better people than these, then you are going to enter the kingdom of God”.
Dare I say it, the bar is actually set quite low!
“Righteousness” is one of those church words that we all hear but don’t necessarily understand. In Matthew’s gospel, it basically means “doing things rightly”. If you can do the right things more than the pharisees, then you are doing well!
But what are the right things?
The Old Testament today
Moving up, we have a discussion on the Law and the Prophets. For us, this means the Old Testament. What exactly is the point of the Old Testament? Just an historic document? Just background information? Or is there a relevance? Very often we don’t read it, we skip over it – indeed today I chose the New Testament reading over the Old!
Bad me! Because in Matthew’s mind, and at the time Matthew was writing, the only Holy Scriptures anyone had, the only source of guidance, was the Old Testament! He thus fully assumed that every single Christian would be studying the Old Testament in a group of people to understand it.
Sadly, this is very much not what we do today. But when I was in Moscow, I visited a synagogue once, and it amazed me to see Jewish men after the service sitting at tables opposite one another, reading the Old Testament and discussing it; challenging each other with questions; debating the meaning. And as they were doing that, they were entrenching it deeper into their minds and bodies, and discovering the living meaning of the Word of God.
Personally, I wish we would learn to do that in our culture! And I hope in a little way that the Tuesday Pre-Lent course is helping us do that – yes, that is a plug for the course on Tuesday at 6.30pm on Zoom!
The problem Jesus had with the Pharisees and Scribes seems to have centred around interpretation. Of course this issue is very much alive in today’s church as well – how do we interpret some of the Bible? The Pharisees had taken the law and made each and every rule sacrosanct, and added a whole load of extra teaching to make sure that you were always behaving in such a way that you could not possibly break the Law of Moses.
Jesus, on the other hand, seemed to read beyond the laws themselves into where they were pointing. Thus a law like Leviticus 19:32, which says “You shall rise before the aged, and defer to the old” to a pharisee would mean that when someone older than you came into the room, you literally stood up out of respect. To Jesus, it meant that, yes, you show respect, but mainly you help them sit down, make a space for them, offer them a drink or food, and listen attentively and with respect to what they say.
Indeed, later in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says “You have heard that it was said ‘you shall not commit adultery’…but I say to you that everyone who looks with lust has already committed adultery”.
Thus the difference is pharisees observing the laws, but Jesus and Christians following and fulfilling the deeper meaning. It is one of ritual obedience and tradition verses heart motivation.
And this requires intense study, lots of asking and questioning, lots of reflecting on how the law applies to us nowadays, and discerning of the general thrust of scripture. Does Deuteronomy 25:4 just ban muzzling oxen when they are treading grain, or does it actually point to us caring for animals? Of course the latter!
We see later in Jesus’ life that if it meant caring for someone, he would break laws lower down the list in order to keep those higher up – he bends sabbath laws, because he was doing so for the greater benefit of others. But the point remains: the Law of Moses, the Prophets, the Old Testament, all still stand, and should be studied and discussed with others. Those who teach it will be called great.
Being Salt and Light
Thus we arrive at the top – salt and light! You are salt! Don’t lose your flavour. You are light! Don’t hide under a hat. Being a shining light, or being salt, means doing the good works of a disciple. Remember this passage comes after the beatitudes, when Jesus says Blessed are the peacemakers, the humble, the merciful, those who want right things to be done.
These are the good things and good works of being a disciple. Those who make peace, who show mercy, and who want the justice of God enacted, those are the ones who are salt and light and who are blessed.
When I was at university and learning about Thatcherism, we had a lovely but very stereotypically left-wing professor, Dr Strange. I asked him once “If the communist revolution is inevitable, surely people should encourage hyper-capitalism, globalism, and all the rest? It will hasten inequalities and lead more quickly to the revolution?”
He said that yes, there were indeed a group of hard-line Marxists in the 1980s who said communists should actively support Thatcherism and neoliberalism, because this would indeed just make thing worse, and thus cause people to rise up and overthrow the government, bringing about the communist paradise.
But Jesus is calling us Christians not to political revolutions that may or may not improve society. His call is that we serve him, and do good in the times in which we live. And that means, the presence of our care and love, of our ‘salt’ and our ‘light’, will have the effect of stopping society becoming as bad as it could be.
If you removed Christians from the United States, healthcare would collapse. If you removed Christians from the UK’s history, we would still have slavery and very likely still be feudal. Most of our schools would disappear. We would unlikely have many hospitals. Indeed, life would be so much worse that it’s hard to imagine.
Our salt and light blesses society. Sometimes, society will recognise it. Sometimes society will not; but either way, we are called to serve Jesus, not society. The outworking of our worship and obedience to Jesus blesses those around us.
That’s a lot of information! So let us recap:
Our level of righteousness needs to exceed the rather low baseline of the pharisees, who were quite hypocritical.
We need to embrace the Old Testament and really take joy in studying it, but do so in a group, so we can draw out the deeper meanings and the general thrust of teaching. We need to look for the heart motivation and avoid the ritual obedience.
And that helps us be Salt and Light. When we know which direction the scriptures of God are pointing us, then we can be salt and light in our society. And the influence of us doing the right things in our daily lives is actually having a huge impact on our wider society.
So let us ask ourselves – is there enough light coming from our lives? If someone put me under a basket, would anyone notice?
Are we makers of peace? Do you show mercy to people in difficulty? Can I say I live my life in a humble and respectful way?
Or am I a pharisee…? I must exceed them to enter God’s kingdom…and it is so easy to become one of them. So let us stay vigilant, and ensure we are being salt and light.