14 “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.
17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. 19 Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:13-20 (ESV)
“For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the Kingdom of heaven.”
Thankfully for you, your righteousness is Christ’s righteousness. His righteousness exceeds, it far surpasses the righteousness of the scribes and the Pharisees. His righteousness does not relax the commandments not does it teach anyone to do the same. Rather his righteousness fulfills the law and the prophets as only the love of God can do. His righteousness fulfills the law with his atoning death for our sins on the cross. It is this love he shares, it is this righteousness he gives in the forgiveness of sins that imparts its saltiness to us. Indeed it is this love that salts us for sacrifice and makes our entire lives a pleasing aroma to the Father in heaven. Lives that are no longer lived for us, but for him because as Christians we live everyday knowing that to live is Christ and to die is gain. So it is that in Christ you are the salt of the earth, and the kingdom of heaven permeates everything you do.
“Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees.” It perhaps jars our ears a bit to hear this. The scribes and the Pharisees were such bitter enemies of Jesus Christ it is hard for us to imagine them as righteous, or to see them as so many did in the first century. They were men zealous for the law, careful to make sure that they upheld the law. They fell into every trap known to man, but traps that still catch so many who try to make their righteousness exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees. They prayed constantly, three times a day at a minimum. They fasted every week. They kept the Sabbath in strict fashion. They never touched anything unclean. They never ate a thing that wasn’t kosher. When Jesus said their righteousness had to exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees the poor farming and fishing folk in hearing must have died inside. Oh, they knew the faults of the Pharisees better than anyone. But they also knew their accomplishments.
Most of the people in hearing would have been those that quietly gave up on the pursuit of righteousness and felt they had all they could do to try put food on the table and raise their children to be passably decent human beings and not get sideways of the law, end up crucified outside of town. They were the kind of people described in Tim McGraw’s song “How I’ll always be,” Talking about taking the backseat on Sunday morning after a Saturday having a couple beers with his friends. The kind of people we colloquially call the salt of the earth. It’s just a nice thing to say about someone. They struggled with their temper, When Jesus launches into the rest of the sermon and talks about hating one’s brother, lusting after their neighbor’s wife, not making oaths and loving your enemies. Then they began to understand how far they fell short of the mark, and perhaps even how far short of the mark the Pharisees and Scribes fell short.
The biggest problem is love. How many of us find that lacking? How many of us wonder that if perhaps we had just had a little more we wouldn’t have an ex to cut us to the core? How often do we wish we could actually love our enemies and perhaps even imagine we do as we pray for the conversion of Afghanistan but feel as if our heart has been stabbed with an icicle when that testy customer comes through the door, or the coworker we can’t stand decides to nuke pink salmon in the lunchroom again? Perhaps that Pharisee that is always trying to give you unwanted advice for how to live your life?
See this was the problem of Scribes and Pharisees. I mean it’s a little problematic to throw up your hands and say “that’s how I’ll always be” even if it is more or less true. Though always is a long time, and the Holy Spirit is on your side. It’s even more problematic to go the route of the Pharisees, to think that perhaps you can cut here, fudge there and emphasize this and that. Don’t erase the jot and tittle, just move them around a bit to suit yourself and think you have accomplished God’s law. Then pass by on the other side when life has bludgeoned your neighbor and left him crying for water on the side of the road.
Then perhaps we realize how lucky we are to have Christ whose righteousness far exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees. He didn’t come to abolish the law and the prophets. He didn’t remove a jot or a tittle from the Old Testament, but he fulfilled it all in love. In love he came and died for you who were enemies of God. In love he saved you from the law whose jot and tittles were enough to kill and shut you out of the kingdom of God like so many foolish virgins pounding at the door. And even now it is with this love he salts you in baptism. It is with this love he never tires of sharing the forgiveness of sins because that is how he’ll always be. And with that love he lives for you and in you and through you in everything you do, the salt of the earth just trying to get by.
Now the Peace of God that surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen