Friday, June 07, 2013

The Great Surprise—The Message of the Sermon on the Mount

Part Two: Surprising Righteousness

Matthew 5:13-20

What does it mean to be “righteous”?  When I was a kid (a little kid!), there was a popular singing duet: Bill Medley and Bobby Hatfield, better known as The Righteous Brothers.  You know them for songs like “You’ve Lost that Loving Feeling” and “Unchained Melody” (you know, that song from the movie Ghost).   

The story is that they got their name when performing in Los Angeles as part of another group.  When they finished their duet, a US Marine in the audience shouted, “That was righteous, brothers!”

Righteous?  In case you haven’t heard it, sometimes “righteous” means really cool.  As it, “Chuck Norris is righteous, man!” 

In the Bible “righteous” basically means “right with God.”  But it means more than that.  It’s not just a legal relationship—“right with God”—it also implies a way of living.  People are called to live in righteousness.  Godward, that means to live with faith in God and love for God; toward other people that means to live with mercy, fairness and genuine concern for others: that’s righteous living.  The classic Old Testament text that expresses this is Micah 7:8:

He has showed you, O man, what is good.
    And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
    and to walk humbly with your God.

Unfortunately, the beautiful simplicity of this teaching ground to almost a halt by the time of Jesus.  What God intended as a living relationship gradually degenerated into an ugly thing—something we call a religion.

The Jesus way is a kind of anti-religion.  Religion loves to create a complex system of rules and regulations.  And religion is run by the rule makers, who gain power by their knowledge of all those rules and regulations.  If you’re a Pharisee of any era, you have power over other people’s lives because you are there to say, “This is right and that is wrong; I am right and you are wrong.  You had better shape up.” 

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gives his description of a different way to live.  It’s a God-filled way of living, and it catches everyone by surprise.  As we saw the last post, it starts with surprise blessings.  What people thought was far away—God’s love, God’s blessings, God’s presence, God’s power—was declared to be near. 

As we saw, the opening blessings are not so much calls to live in a new way as they are announcements to people of humble faith that God sees them, loves them, and that the kingdom of God is open to them right now.  It’s not a call to shape up, get your act together, do this and that; it’s a foghorn of grace in the hazy mist of legalism.  It is wonderful, amazing, good news. 

And that carries over into the surprise righteousness of today’s portion, Matthew 5:13-20.  Here Jesus brings some of the same good news into understanding righteousness and then really surprises us on what righteousness is.     

If I had to sum up this portion of the Sermon on the Mount, I’d say this: You are salt, you are light; now be salt…be light…be righteous, and that is the best kind of righteousness.  That so far surpasses any other kind of righteousness. 

What He does is declare you are salt; you are light.  When you trust God, that’s what you are; but be careful; don’t let the salt go sour; don’t let the light go out; that is the true righteousness that surpasses any legalistic notion of righteousness. 

Here’s the passage:

13 “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 by men.

14 “You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 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. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father 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 I tell you the truth, 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. 19 Anyone who breaks 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 practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 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.

When you are the kind of God-directed, God-loving, God-believing, God-trusting, God-desiring people that Jesus describes in the beatitudes, you are salt and you are light.  These are symbols that brim over with the idea of true living righteousness. 

You are the salt of the earth.  What does that mean?  Salt has to do with preservation and transformation.  You are the light of the world.  Light has to do with knowledge, illumination and wisdom.  Righteous people will do both: they preserve or transform their moral environment, and they bring the knowledge of God, the wisdom of God, the good news of God into their environment.

Now, the Pharisees would have told you that they do that.  But Jesus didn’t call them the salt and the light.  Why?  Because they thought being salt and light was being purity enforcers and knowledge dispensers.  The truly righteous simply are salt and light; they don’t dispense salt and light.  The Pharisees threw salt in people’s eyes and then shined flashlights into people’s faces.  There was nothing natural about the way of righteousness of the Pharisees.  We’re not talking about something that could be sensed from their character or their way of life.  Their righteousness was lodged in their rule-keeping. 

And that’s why Jesus can say to the salt and light people, hey, your righteousness has to surpass that of the Pharisees and teachers of the law. 

I sometimes think of it like this: the Pharisees had a coat of spray paint on, and the color is Old Testament law.  Looks pretty good, but it’s just a layer of spray paint.  It’s millimeters think. 

Salt and light people have really changed lives.  The love of God has really gotten deep into their lives.  They hunger and thirst for righteousness.  The love of God for them is like the air they breathe: it’s all encompassing, all surrounding.  It’s life to them.  It fills life with the weight of glory but does not burden them the way law-keeping burdens the Pharisee.  It’s God Himself they seek, not another mitzvah (commandment) to do. 

This way doesn’t abolish the law; it fulfills it.  It doesn’t torture the text of the law to find ways to get around it; it practices and teaches the commandments in ways the Pharisees could scarcely imagine or even understand. 

So, Jesus says, people of God—you are salt and light; that is who you are.  But He warns there are ways to lose your saltiness and there are ways you can hide your light.  If you are righteous (in the way Jesus means), this is who you are.  But we have to take steps to live out that righteousness.  Let’s explore that.

First, He warns that salt can lose its saltiness, and then it’s not worth anything.  What is salt for?  Historically, in Jesus’ time the main use of salt was as a preservative.  It was used for flavor.  It was used to cleanse and disinfect. 

What salt does, in a word, is that it has a positive impact on its environment.  The presence of salt makes things better.  Very simply, Jesus is saying that His people have a call: wherever you are, you make things better.

The way that we do that is through Christ-like character expressed through Christ-like deeds.  Here’s a simple way to think of this: let’s use the “fruit of the Spirit” list from Galatians 5:22-23a:

22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control.     

When you’re being a “righteous salt person”, you’re bringing love into your environment—whether that environment is a marriage, a family, a place of work, a school.  You’re bringing joy there.  You’re a source of peace there, and of kindness and goodness.  You’re faithful: people know they can rely on you.  You’re gentle: people don’t worry that they’re going to say something and that you’ll go off on them like a landmine.  You have self-control.  That’s salt-righteous living.  You preserve and transform you’re environment by your presence. 

But Jesus warns us, “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 by men.”   If salt becomes too diluted, it becomes worthless for the job of preservation and transformation.  In Jesus’ time, diluted salt was used to harden the soil for paths in fields.  That’s a pretty lowly come-down for salt.  I don’t think we should over-symbolize this except to say, it’s far too easy for us to go from being used by God to preserve or transform an environment to being just almost useless.  And the difference from one to another is almost always seen in not expressing the fruit of the Spirit.

One mean word, one unkind act, and you can blow your testimony.  In a work environment, if people know you’re a Christian by the Bible on your desk and then blow your stack, it can take years to get your credibility back—if ever.  In a community, if there’s a sex scandal or an embezzlement at a church, it drags down the witness of the whole church in that community.  And in the whole culture, if the church of Jesus is better known for what it’s against (say abortion or same-sex marriage) than what it’s for, then there’s a problem.

No, we don’t change what we believe, but we make every effort to lead with what is salt.  That’s true for us as individuals as well as for us as churches.  For example, I know of a church in one county that has made it their mission to see every child in foster care in their county adopted into loving homes.  To see that happen, they are working with other solid churches in the county.  They now have the reputation as being the church that loves foster kids.  That’s being salt.

So the surpassing righteousness of Jesus and His people is like salt: preserving or transforming our environment.  Here’s another aspect that Jesus tells us of: the light of the world (Matthew 5:14-16):

14 “You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 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. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.

Light has to do with knowledge, illumination and wisdom.  Righteous people will do both: they preserve or transform their moral environment, and they bring the knowledge of God, the wisdom of God into their environment.

In the Old Testament, light so often has to do with the word of God, as in Psalm 119:105:

Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path.

The light is the truth of God; when that gets written down, inspired by the Holy Spirit, we get the word of God.  What Jesus is saying is that the truly righteous are those who individually and collectively show what God is like: what His love and redemption looks like.  If we over-simplify a little bit, “salt” has to do with character, and “light” has to do with witness or the words we say that point people to God.

I recently read Word versus Deeds: Resetting the Scales to a Biblical Balance by Duane Litfin, former president of Wheaton College.  He points out, very well, and very Biblically, that you can’t have deeds without words, and you can’t have words with no deeds.  You need salt (character and deeds) and you need light (words).  You need Christ-honoring deeds and Christ-honoring words.  You really can’t preach the gospel with you deeds, but you can be salt.  You can create an opening for the gospel with salt (deeds) and then you actually share the gospel in the words that point to Jesus, to the bloody cross and the empty tomb that sets people free.

You are the light of the world: that’s our identity.  That’s who we are.  But it’s easy, again, to back off from who we are.  Light can be seen, and it enables truth to be seen.  Ever stay in an unfamiliar room overnight, and you just about break your leg if you have to get up in the night?  That’s the world without the gospel.  That’s your friends and family members without Jesus.  They are trying to get through life without light.  No wonder the story of their life is one busted shin after another. 

A city set on a hill: many Bible scholars think that Jesus had his adopted hometown of Nazareth in mind.  Nazareth is set on a hill, and from the modern Israel Route 65, you can see Nazareth from miles away.  Jesus says, hey, that’s you.  People should be able to see the light that comes from you from a mile away.  A lamp on a lampstand: in the simple homes of Jews in Jesus’ time, people would make a notch on the wall or on a support beam to place a simple olive oil lamp.  If you could afford it, you’d also buy a little piece of shiny metal to set behind the lamp to act as a mirror to increase the light from the lamp.  Jesus says, don’t hide the light of God under a bowl; that doesn’t make sense. 

We have truth that the world desperately needs to know.  This is part of righteous living as much as the deeds implied by being the salt of the earth is part of righteous living.  Deeds and word, salt and light, they march hand in hand, and it’s in deeds and word that the righteous life is lived. 

What words?  Do not be ashamed to name the name of Jesus, people.  In Romans 1:16, Paul expresses the same:

I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile.           

That’s being the light of the world. 

Soon Ok Lee was a prisoner in North Korea.  She was a committed communist, but went to prison because she would not break the rules to provide extra clothing to a party official.  She spent five years in prison, enduring torture and humiliation for that supposed “crime.”  She was not a Christian, but observed Christian prisoners there.  In prison, Christians were known as “superstition believers.”  Because of their belief in heaven, they were never allowed to look up during their confinement, and were forced to keep their eyes to the ground.  “Once a month, the believers were placed in the yard in front of all the prisoners and asked to deny their faith,” she writes.  “Since they would not deny their faith, they were given the most difficult work assignments such as cleaning the toilets and removing human excrement.”

One day she witnessed six Christian prisoners transferring over a ton of human excrement from the toilets to a large tank.  It was the monsoon season, and these prisoners were working in the pouring rain.

A woman named Ok Dan Lee climbed up on the tank to open it, but slipped on the slick surface and fell into the tank.

“Sister, can you come out?” one of her friends shouted to her.

“I’m having a hard time,” she gasped, as she struggled to keep her head above the waste.

“Let me come up and help,” her friend said. An officer tried to stop her, but she climbed up the tank and jumped in to save her friend.  Then another woman climbed up the tank and then another.

“In all, four women jumped into the tank to help their friends,” Lee recalls.  “Each of them tried to push the others up first.”  But they were trapped, so the officer below ordered the tank door be shut, cruelly sealing their fate.  “The door was closed and the women were left in the tank.  No one ever tried to take the bodies out.”

The actions of these women left Lee searching for answers.  “When I saw their love, it raised questions in my mind that I could not erase,” she writes.  “How could they die for someone else?  What was it about heaven that was worth the cost?”

Lee saw more evidence the Christians received greater abuse than other prisoners, yet she was struck by their attitude.  “In some instances while believers were being beaten, they would stand up halfway and begin to sing hymns and say ‘Amen.’  The guards thought they were crazy and took them back to the electric torture room.  I never saw any of the believers return from that room.”

“They did not only not falsely accuse others, but were willing to take the blame for another.  They even died for other prisoners.”

On one occasion she saw the warden launch into a tirade because a Christian would not deny his faith.  His fury was so intense Lee thought it looked like “he had been taking drugs to make him high.”  He began to stomp on the Christian, reminding the other prisoners, “This is going to happen to you if you ever believe in heaven.”

Then the warden ordered all 6,000 prisoners in the camp to walk over the body of the Christian.  “It was unimaginable how he died.”

Several years later, after Lee was released and then escaped to South Korea, someone gave her a Bible, brought her to church and she made Jesus her Lord.  She had been exposed to the salt and to the light, to deeds and words that she would not deny.  That, people, is the true righteousness that surpasses that of any system of law.  That is our call.  That is our privilege.  That is our joy and glory.

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