Today's commentary and reflection from Dr Ian Elmer cuts to the heart of the challenge facing any modern Christian as much as it cuts to the heart of the people Jesus was addressing two millenia ago: what standard of thinking and behaviour are we called to by our beliefs — and by our very existence?
How Can One be "Righteous" and "Perfect" before God?
In Matthew's famous "Sermon on the Mount", Matthew's Jesus offers his interpretation (halakah) of the Jewish Law (Torah). Distinguishing his halakah from that of the Pharisees, Jesus warns his disciples that "unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven" (Mt 5:20).
Following this statement, Matthew's Jesus outlines a program of behaviour that amounts to a radicalisation or spiritualisation of the Torah. In the view of Matthew's Jesus, the truly "righteous" person will not just not murder, but will also eschew anger (Mt 5:21-26); will not just refuse to commit adultery, but will not lust after another person's spouse (Mt 5:27-28). Matthew's Jesus condemns previous "legal" practices such as divorcing your spouse (Mt 5:31-32), swearing oaths (5:33-37), seeking retribution from evil doers (5:39-47). Such, according to Matthew's Jesus is the way to "perfection" (Mt 5:48), righteousness (Mt 5:20), and, ultimately, salvation (Mt 5:29-30).
To our modern sensibilities, this list of "dos and don'ts" seems incredible, even unachievable. How is one to avoid anger or lust? And, even more difficult is Jesus' injunction should your "right eye" or your "right hand cause you to sin" you should "tear it out" or "cut it off and throw it away"; after all, "it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell" (Mt 5:29-30).
Such a statement constitutes one of the so-called "hard sayings" of Jesus. It is confronting. It challenges our assumption that Jesus was a gentle man, meek, and particularly mild in his judgement of others' failings. We are not comfortable with a Jesus who demands moral "perfection" as the means to salvation.
The problem, as I will argue here, is that we all-too-often read these "hard sayings" out of context. And, in this case, the stringent moral demands Matthew's Jesus makes in his Sermon on the Mount must be read against the background of Judaism and the various understandings of the term "righteousness" that were current in first century Palestine.
Righteousness in Jewish Thinking...
In Jewish thinking, one did not become "righteous" by acting virtuously or doing good deeds per se. Although, Jews could and did recognise that some Gentiles could act righteously, by-and-large "the righteous" was a term reserved for members of the Jewish people who lived and acted in accord with the Mosaic Law. Righteousness was attained by living in accord with divine law and order — both the Laws given to Moses and the order given to creation.
In this sense, "righteousness" meant "living right" or in accord with the obligations of one's place in life, which also included YHWH. Hence, the scriptures abound with two related themes. On the one hand, we have innumerable references to the righteousness of YHWH, which is understood primarily as references to the divine impeccable holiness and the conformity of divine actions to the inherent holy nature of YHWH, which is defined by the attributes of justice, compassion, mercy, and fidelity (e.g., Is 45:21; Ps 22:31; 40:10; 51:14; 71:15–24; Ho 10:12; Am 5:21–24; Mc 6:5; 7:9; cf. Pss. Sol. 2:15; 8:23; Bar 5:1–2; Sib. Or. 3:704; Josephus, Ant. 2.6.4; 11.3.6).
The second theme relates to the first, in that humans are called to be righteous in the same way as YHWH is righteous; or, as Matthew's Jesus puts it "You must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Mt 5:48). What is meant here is not that one's actions can always be faultless or unimpeachable, but that in one's actions one must aspire to live in accord with one's nature — which, in biblical thought, proceeds from the view that humans are created in the image and likeness of YHWH (Gn 1:27).
It is in the nature of humanity that, in being created in the image and likeness of YHWH, humans can and must aspire to be "like God", even when (and especially when) they fail to act ideally. One becomes "like God" by seeking to conform one's life to the will of YHWH as expressed in creation and in Scripture (e.g., Gn 18:19; Lev 19:36; Dt 6:25; Is 5:16; Ps 1:4–6; cf. Pass. Sol. 2:34–35; 3:3–12; 15:1–13).
The Jewish people, as the ones chosen and gifted by God with a particular revelation, are privileged by having the Mosaic Law to guide their actions. But Gentiles too, as Paul (Rm 1:18-32) notes, have access to divine guidance via the "invisible attributes of eternal power and divinity" that inform the created order of the world and especially human being.
Ethics and morality flow from the nature of the relationships between YHWH and humanity, and between YHWH and Israel. Created in the image and likeness of YHWH, and/or graced with the revelation of the Torah, humans generally and Israel in particular attain righteous by fulfilling the obligations inherent to human being; and the ethical stipulations of the Torah confirm and conform to (what today we would call) the "Natural Law".
Righteousness in Jesus' Teaching...
As a general rule, the Gospel writers all agree that Jesus spoke of righteousness in a manner akin to his fellow Jewish teachers, as a righteousness that derives from conformity with God's will as expressed in the Scriptures; or, at least, Jesus' peculiar interpretation of the Scriptures.
Jesus' understanding of righteousness or right living is founded upon his apocalyptic vision of the coming reign of God, when a new world order would be established rejuvenating and reinvigorating the original (i.e., Garden of Eden) relationship with YHWH (Lk 7:18–23; 11:20). Jesus draws on the contemporary Jewish eschatology, which imagined God's kingdom is a righteous kingdom (Ps 97–99; Is 11:1–5; cf. 1 Enoch 62:1–16), claiming that participation in the kingdom of God entails an ethical obligation (Mk 1:15), just as covenantal participation required obedience in Mosaic Law (cf. Lev 19:36; 24:17–18).
In his interpretation of righteousness, Jesus was most likely dependent upon John the Baptist who, according to the Gospel writers, taught a message of personal renewal and rededication to the Torah, which entailed a call for righteous behavior (Mt 21:32; Mk 6:20) manifesting itself in repentance (Lk 3:7–9), mercy, and the pursuit of justice (Lk 3:10–14).
Jesus, however, goes beyond both John the Baptist and the Jewish Scriptures as describing the path to righteousness in terms of his own teachings. In so doing Jesus redefines the term in a manner parallel to what we find in the Dead Sea Scrolls, where the instruction of the "Teacher of Righteousness" sets a new standard for the sectarian community at Qumran (CD 4:7; 20:20–21; 1 Qp Hab 2:2; 7:3–5).
It has long been recognized that Jesus movement first emerged as one more Jewish sect in a religious phenomenon, Second-Temple Judaism, which was already highly sectarian. Hence, the Jesus of Matthew, for example, claims that his teachings represent the genuine and definitive "fulfillment" of the "Law and the Prophets" (Mt 5:17). Moreover, Jesus' own ministry, which demonstrates his messianic status, also show that Jesus himself fulfils the requirements of righteousness and his life becomes the standard of moral conduct (Mt 5:20).
Henceforth, according to Matthew, the righteousness of God's people is determined by conformity to the teachings of Jesus, which in turn fulfill the revelation of God's will in the Jewish Scriptures.
In Matthew, the righteousness expected of Jesus' disciples is a righteousness that is vastly superior to the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees (Mt 5:20). Unfortunately, in the wake of the Protestant Reformation Matthew 5:20 was often understood to mean that, whereas the Pharisees and scribes taught a righteousness that was merited by their quantity of good deeds, Jesus taught a righteousness that was given by God. Hence, Jesus' righteousness is superior.
Today, however, there is a growing consensus among scholars that the debate Jesus had with the scribes and Pharisees was not over earning merit before God. Rather, it was about Jesus' place in God's plan for redemption. Consequently, the righteousness Jesus demands is superior, not because scribal and Pharisaic righteousness is necessarily an attempt to earn salvation, but because Jesus demands behavior that conforms to God's standard as revealed by himself.
Matthew's Jesus expects Jesus' followers to be righteous in their conduct (Mt 5:6, 10), to do God's will (Mt 7:12, 13–27) and to pursue justice (Mt 23:23; 25:37; Jn 7:24). According to Matthew's Jesus, only those who are righteous are finally acceptable to God (Mt 10:41; 12:37; 13:43, 49; 25:46; cf. Lk 14:14; Jn 5:30).
But, even here in Matthew, there is continuity with the Jewish Scriptures in that righteousness is not an outward conformity to the Law or an appeal to ritual observances. Rather, righteousness is the necessary fruit of a commitment to "right living" as taught and lived by Jesus Messiah — which in any event represents universal values as manifested by such things as almsgiving (Mt 6:2–4), prayer (Mt 6:5–15) and fasting (Mt 6:16–18).
The link between commitment and obedience is illustrated by Jesus' words at the end of the Sermon on the Mount: "Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them" (Mt 7:21–27). By contrast, Jesus' sectarian opponents, the "scribes and Pharisees", whom Jesus describes ironically as "righteous" (Mt 9:13; Cf. Mk 2:17) are condemned because they rely more on outward signs rather than genuine commitment.
It is at this point that we can now understand the so-called "hard sayings" that require a much higher standard of commitment than the mere observance of the Mosaic Law.
According to Matthew's Jesus, the righteousness of the Pharisees and Scribes is not sufficient because it lacks genuine heartfelt commitment (Mt 5:28; 23:28; cf. Mk 7:6-7; Lk 5:30, 32; 15:7; 18:9; 20:20) and, accordingly, it is ill-founded. Moreover, since the coming of the kingdom will bring about a renewal of the relationship with YHWH, the standards of behavior set by the scribes and Pharisees is no longer adequate. YHWH has brought the Mosaic Law to fulfillment in Jesus (Mt 5:17–48), and those whose heart is right and whose standard is the fulfilled Law of Jesus, the commitment to obedience is complete (Mt 5:48).
Those who are marked by the righteousness of Jesus will be approved by God and will enter the kingdom (Mt 5:6, 10; 6:33; 7:21–23; cf. 12:36–37). Those who aren't, are destined for damnation.
The usage of righteousness in Matthew's Sermon on the Mount is similar to the usage of the term in the Qumran literature: it is an eschatological righteousness pertaining to a particular group of God's people. The vision is both apocalyptic and sectarian. Righteousness as it appears in Matthew is messianic (Mt 5:17), deeper than the old standard (Mt 5:27–30) and innovative (Mt 5:38–42).
So when Matthew's Jesus speaks of seeking to be perfect (Mt 5:48), he is speaking of the response of the whole heart, mind and body; a total or thorough commitment to God's will — not sinless perfection. Humans being human will fail to live rightly. But for Matthew's Jesus the pursuit of righteousness is derived by seeking to obey God's will in all aspects of life – personal, social and communal (Mt 6:33). It is not simply a matter of morality or right practice, but a matter of seeking to live rightly; or as Matthew himself puts it, it is found via constancy in the "practice of piety" (Mt 6:1).
To conclude, I would relate a piece of wisdom that was given to me by a priest friend some years ago. I asked what he thought of heaven and hell, which figure so strongly here in Matthew's Sermon on the Mount. He suggested that in Matthew, heaven and hell were not so much places of reward and punishment, but rather places where one's life option is eternalised.
Those whose lives are spent in the "practice of piety" will have that option eternalised; they will be found to be righteous — that is, their lives conform to the kingdom values. But those who seek self-righteousness via "religiosity" (as my friend put it) will have that life option etrenalised. There is no place in the kingdom those who are self-congratulatory. It is only those who "hunger and thirst for righteousness who will have their desires fulfilled" (Mt 5:6).
It is only with a modicum of hyperbole and irony, therefore, that Matthew's Jesus counsels cutting off hands and tongues should they cause one to sin (Mt 5:29-30). The point is that salvation is found in a total commitment of heart, mind, and body. There can be no half measures. After all salvation is a whole person phenomenon. It is not possible to divide aspects of one's life into sacred and secular compartments, between Sunday-go-to-church and the work-a-day-week. One's whole life must be "on message".
Bibliography and Further Reading:
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©2010Dr Ian Elmer