Reflections on the Sermon on the Mount: Matthew 5:17-20

Have you heard Ryan Stevenson’s new song, “No Matter What”?  The first time I heard it, it stopped me in my tracks.  I was captivated by the opening lines.

A lot of us grew up believing

At any moment we could lose it all

And at the drop of a hat

God might turn His back and move on

Have you ever felt like this?  I know that I have. In fact, I have been feeling this way a lot lately.  And reading texts like Matthew 5:17-20 does little to ease the spiritual anxiety that I feel or to encourage me to bring that anxiety to Christ.

Jesus’ claims about his relationship to the law of Moses are not really my problem.  I know that some parts of the old system of relating to God have passed away.  Hebrews makes it clear, for example, that the atoning sacrifice of Christ makes continuing animal sacrifices unnecessary (and perhaps even counterproductive).  So, I can generally rest a bit easier on this part of Jesus’ argument (although the note about those who either do or do not teach obedience to the law in v. 19 does give me some pause).

No, it is what Jesus says in v. 20 that causes me so much consternation.  I translate it this way: “For I tell you that unless your righteousness exceeds that of the legal experts and Pharisees, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”  

Sometimes, when we are faced with such a daunting statement from our Lord, we comfort ourselves by saying, “Oh, well, the scribes and Pharisees really weren’t very righteous.  Jesus never has anything good to say about them.” But I think that such attempts to medicate the anxiety that Jesus’ words rightly inspire are misguided. Sure, Jesus regularly condemns the hypocrisy and misplaced priorities of the religious leaders he encountered.  Nevertheless, other historical documents, including the writings of Paul, inform us that the “legal experts and Pharisees” were generally earnest people who wanted to do the will of God. In many ways, they were far more scrupulous about obeying the commands of God than most modern Christians.

So if we cannot simply justify ourselves by demeaning the “legal experts and Pharisees,” then what are we to do with Jesus’ words?  After all, if this is the standard that God will use to determine who enters the kingdom of heaven, then I think we can rightly ask “Then who can be saved?”  

A few days ago, I stumbled across an old sermon by Billy Graham in which he dealt (if somewhat indirectly) with this question.  Graham noted that no one can enter “heaven” without righteousness, and he presented a boat load of biblical evidence to back up his claim.  Then he noted the profound lack of righteousness in people. Finally, he argued that Christ provides to us the righteousness that we need in order to enter God’s Kingdom and be God’s children.

Now, Graham’s argument is fraught with complications (as I believe he was aware), and it may seem more at home in Romans or Galatians than in Matthew’s Gospel.  Still, it has a ring of truth to it. I cannot explain to you exactly how it is that Christ’s righteousness accrues to our benefit but I have seen it at work in my life.  I have experienced the forgiveness of a God who has every right to throw me away like the trash that I sometimes am but who chooses to treat me as a treasure instead. I have experienced the transforming work of God’s Spirit, pulling me out of old habits and setting me on a new path.  I have experienced the “mind of Christ” at work in my own mind, pointing out the flaws in how I understand and interact with my world and giving me new ways to think, feel, perceive, and act.

Christ’s words in v. 20 are radical.  But they have to be if they are going to lay a proper foundation for what he will say in the rest of chapter five (and throughout the rest of the sermon).  As his followers, we can take heart from the mercy that he shows to those who are in need and from the faithfulness that is the hallmark of his character.  Nevertheless, we also have an obligation to allow his words to disturb our comfortable, self-directed lives and to inspire in us a vibrant and effective moral imagination.  We will fall short of his absolute standard (cf. Matthew 5:48), and that should fill our hearts with fear and trembling (cf. Philippians 2:12).  And yet, even in the midst of that failure, we must trust that he can and will forgive us (cf. 1 John 1:9-2:2).

Published: Jul 24, 2018


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