It’s Not About Your Righteousness! (Kingdom Living #4)
Kingdom Living #4 - It’s Not About Your Righteousness!
Vineyard Church of Ann Arbor • Oct 11, 2015 • Rev. Donnell T. Wyche, Senior Pastor
Good morning and welcome! I’m so glad you are here with us this morning. If this is your first time or 100th time, we are glad that you are here today in our community. Whether you arrived here this morning because of an Internet search, because you were invited, or you already knew the way, we are grateful that you are here today. Our simple prayer for you is that you would experience welcome, that you would experience acceptance, and that you would find space to encounter the loving presence of the living God during your time with us this morning!
As we continue to make our way forward in the Sermon on the Mount there’s this really difficult passage of scripture in Matthew 5:17-20 right after the Beatitudes. Most commentators and scholars rush right pass it to “get to the good stuff”, but I want to pause to invite us to hear Jesus speaking to us.
“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. Truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:17–20)
As you enter into the text with me, notice how Jesus talks about the Mosaic Law. It’s as if the Law is really important. That maybe it’s more than just a list of commandments to be obeyed. He speaks of the Law as if it is “a program and prophecy to be worked out and fulfilled.” Consider this: What if the Law was to be considered a guardian, a schoolmaster, a custodian? Or better yet, what if the Law was supposed to act as our conscience, reminding us daily of who we are, who we belong to, and how we should order and direct our daily lives?
Over and over, I’ve said that Jesus accepts us just as we are, but Jesus doesn’t leave us where he finds us. Jesus calls us to trust him and follow him through the narrow gate into life. And what if the shift that occurs here in the Sermon on the Mount happens because Jesus is signaling that while everyone is indeed welcomed in the Kingdom, living in the Kingdom requires something from us and it starts with a surrender, a trusting that the life that Jesus offers is better than the life we currently live. Friends, we will not follow Jesus through the narrow gate, we will not open our hands to receive the gift of the Kingdom, if we don’t believe that the life that Jesus is offering is better than the one we are currently living.
Sit with that for a moment...
The Law - Reminding Us of Who We Are and Who We Belong To
So Jesus says, the Law is really important.
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets” (Matthew 5:17)
As non-Jewish Christians, you might struggle with the role and the purpose of the Law, especially as we attempt to consider how it helps us understand God, and live daily as followers of Jesus.
And yet Jesus says that when we learn to practice and teach these commands will be called great in the Kingdom.
On the surface, it seems that Jesus is saying that we would be better off obeying all 248 commands and paying close attention to the 365 prohibitions. Or maybe, he was saying pay attention because the Law & the Prophets point to something really, really important.
I have not come to abolish the Law, but to fulfill them. Who is he addressing? The non-religious have no clue about this “Law and these Prophets.” So, who is Jesus in dialog with?
I assume he’s talking to the really, really religious, the keepers of the traditions of Israel, the Pharisees. The pharisees were that group of people within Israel who were so desperate for renewal, revival, and the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God that they ordered their lives around keeping the Word of God–the Law.
They did this because, in their adherence of the Law and the Prophets, they believed that God would finally act on behalf of his faithful people and throw off the evil Gentiles who ruled and reigned over them.
It’s almost as if Jesus is on the defensive. “Do not think that I have come to...” Before we can make sense of what Jesus is unpacking here, we may have to back up and go back to the giving of the Law. If you have a Bible, turn with me to Deuteronomy 4:5-8.
After receiving the commandments from God and interpreting the implications they had for their daily life, Moses told the people of Israel,
“See, I have taught you decrees and laws as the LORD my God commanded me, so that you may follow them in the land you are entering to take possession of it. Observe them carefully, for this will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations, who will hear about all these decrees and say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.” What other nation is so great as to have their gods near them the way the LORD our God is near us whenever we pray to him? And what other nation is so great as to have such righteous decrees and laws as this body of laws I am setting before you today?” Deuteronomy 4:5-8
If we start with Deuteronomy 4, it helps us understand the Salt & Light verses that follow immediately after the Beatitudes:
You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot. You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven. (Matthew 5:13-16)
Scholars debate whether Israel ever received a commandment to be the salt of the earth or the light of the world. But as we look back to Moses in Deuteronomy 4, we gain insight. The Law and later the Prophets were given as a gift to the people. St. Paul, the church planter, talks about “the Law as our guardian until Christ came” that seems like something that’s good, helpful even. As I said earlier, think of the Law as your conscience helping to remind you of who you are, who you belong to, what’s acceptable and what’s out of bounds. As we enter the Law from this position, it seems like the Law might be useful and even helpful to us. Maybe the Law was God’s way of saying, “Don’t become like everyone around you! You’re different!”
Not, “You’re different for different’s sake.”
You’re being called out from among the people, you’re being called out to bear witness to those around you that the world under the rule and reign of God looks different.
What could he mean when he says he has come to fulfill the Law and the Prophets? Does this mean that he is going to do all 248 commandments and avoid all 365 prohibitions, or is trying to help us see and understand something? What if Saint Paul is right and the Law was our guardian until Christ came. What if Jesus is saying something like, “Watch me as I lead you into life. You think that in keeping the laws and avoiding the 365 prohibitions, you will find life. The Law and the Prophets won’t give you live because they were intended as a schoolmaster, a reminder of who you are and who you belong to...”
It’s Not About Your Righteousness
To make his point salient, Jesus closes this section of scripture with,
For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:20)
For those of us who are familiar with scripture, we may have developed a caricature of this prominent religious order at work in Jesus day, the Pharisees.
We tend to draw on our understanding that the Pharisees were just a bunch of “hypocrites,” a group of religious bigots, religious folks who just didn’t get it. It’s almost like we have constructed this picture of Jesus as a superhero who needs a consistent group of “bad guys” who can be his foils.
Over the course of Jesus’s public ministry Jesus will highlight the disconnect between what the Pharisees claim to believe and what they put into practice. But before he condemns them, Jesus uses them to make a very important point.
Let me push in here...
The Pharisees were among the most respected and revered religious group in the first-century. They had enormous influence over the cultural, religious, structural, and spiritual life of the Palestinian Jews during that time. Their commitment to God, the Laws and the religious ordering of human life was unparalleled.
This commitment was formed in a basic belief derived from Deuteronomy 30 that the greatest human flourishing happened when the whole person was fully connected to God. This belief led them on an adventure to not only obey the written law, but to develop a rich oral law tradition that they hoped would spark what was missing among the people, a spiritual awakening and renewal that would lead to transformation, repentance, and dependence on God again. At the core of this dream was a picture of a fully formed human made in the image of God, aware, and inhabiting the very presence of the living God in their midst–the embodiment of the Kingdom of God in their every day.
So when Jesus says that your righteousness must exceed that of the Pharisees, he was drawing on this understanding of this religious group.
He was also tweaking the religious people. Remember, Jesus is throwing open the Kingdom to everyone. If you are the really, really religious, Jesus is inviting all the wrong people into the Kingdom, and he was simultaneously saying something significant, you won’t get the Kingdom because you earn it either. If you think the Kingdom of God is about your righteousness (or your ability to maintain, honor, and keep the Law), then you have to be more committed to God’s justice in the world than the most prominent leaders at the time, the Pharisees.
This would have seemed impossible for anyone hearing it.
No one was more righteous than the Pharisees.
I love me some Jesus!
What’s Jesus doing here?
Jesus is inviting us to live in the tension of the Kingdom!
Entering the Tension of Kingdom Living
What happens when you live in the tension of a Kingdom that’s breaking-in? You start by recognizing that the world isn’t the way it’s supposed to be, yet you hear the challenge of Jesus calling you ... to live as if it were.
What if this was Jesus’ invitation? Don’t lord over the others how much better you are. Don’t withdraw yourself from the world to condemn it. Just learn how to live within the world as if the world was as the world was supposed to be.
What if the Sermon on the Mount was given to help us order, structure, and live our daily lives in the Kingdom of God?
What would happen, if we believed the good news of the Kingdom reality breaking into our everyday? What would happen if we put into practice the Sermon on the Mount everyday?
Would we become more trusting, less fearful?
Would we become more generous, less greedy?
Would be become more peaceful, less anxious?
Could we live lives free of anger?
Could we live lives free of fear?
Could we live lives free of lust?
What would happen if a people group looked like this, inhabited this vocation and lived everyday within this reality?
How would this impact us?
How would this impact our communities?
How would this impact our friends & family?
How would this impact our co-workers?
Remember what I said last week when I quoted Luke 18:17:
"I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the Kingdom of God like a child will never enter it" (Luke 18:17).
We get into the Kingdom with our hands open. We have to let go of everything we believe qualifies us and everything that think disqualifies us.
I’ve created a handout for you this week. It’s a sheet of paper divided into three columns. The left most column has the scripture we studied today, you are invited to rewrite the passage in your own words as means to extract what it means using your own words, then the rightmost column invites you to consider what you must do to obey. I’d like you try this week and tell me what happens.