Each week when we gather at 8am, celebrating the Eucharist using Rite 1, I remind the congregation to hear the words of Jesus: Hear what our Lord Jesus Christ saith: Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets. Those of you who attend that service may wonder from time to time why we read that. It certainly has roots in the passage we read today. Matthew has just recorded the Sermon on the Mount, and now we are listening as Jesus continues His teaching. Telling His disciples and others in His audience that they are to be salt and light in the world would have sounded as weird to them as it does in our ears today. Sure, they like us would understand parts of the metaphor. Salt, especially in the ANE, was extremely useful. In some cultures, it was even accepted as payment. The same is true today. Those of you who have met bishop Samuel from Nzara may recall that he pays his clergy in salt. Salt is still useful today. It flavors food; it melts ice (when the temperature is above zero, anyway); it preserves food; it softens water; it even is integral in the making of bacon! How’s that for value?! And the value of light is apparent to us all. Next time the power goes out at night and you cannot find a cell phone or flashlight to illumine your way, remember this passage. Light eliminates darkness.
Of course, Jesus was speaking in metaphorical terms as He warned His audience. Darkness has crept over the Land; Israel has been enslaved by the Pharisees and teachers of the torah. Part of the reason for His Incarnation is to make the righteousness described in the Sermon on the Mount possible. Jesus came, among other reasons, to show us the value God places on us and to remind us that He has plan for us. That plan, as Jesus notes, was first revealed in Scripture. Given the unrighteousness of the Pharisees and teachers of the law, though, it is no wonder that Israel is confused both about the torah and His stated purpose of ushering in the Kingdom of God.
We have talked before of this, but one of the issues facing Israel is the simple fact that the Pharisees and teachers of the torah have added interpretations which they believe rise to the same importance of God’s Word. Jesus will pick fights with both groups on this ground. They wrongly believe their words to be on par with God’s. A great example about which we will read later this year is the pledging of money to the Temple to avoid caring for elderly parents. The claim of the youngsters is basically, “sorry, mom and dad. I would take care of you but I made a pledge to the Church.” Jesus will condemn the Pharisees and teachers for ever thinking it acceptable to withhold financial assistance to one’s parents because the money that could be used in their care was “pledged.” The Pharisees misinterpret that the offering is more important to God that the care of the elderly parents. Worse, they teach their interpretation as equal to God’s. Just as then, we know some churches that do this now. Fortunately, Jesus is having none of that.
In a remarkable claim, Jesus asserts that He came to fulfill every jot and tittle of the torah. We do not have jots and tittles in English, but our translation gets it. I always think of it as dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s. The jot was the smallest letter of the Hebrew alphabet (yod); the tittle was the least stroke of a pen--the serif which turns the Hebrew language into Morse Code in many of our eyes. That little accent mark actually differentiates many Hebrew letters.
Think about the implication for just a second. Did God really care about the small pen strokes of a letter or a mark? Jesus affirms that He did. Should we be that surprised? No. If He cares for the sparrow and numbers the hairs on our heads and even calls us each to specific ministries as we have discussed the last couple weeks, we really should not be surprised that He cared about each stroke of a letter when He breathed His Word. Think on this passage next time someone tries to convince you that God was not really concerned with the details recorded in Scripture. Jesus claims He was concerned with the smallest stroke of a pen. Jesus has been raised from the dead and glorified by His Father in heaven. Whom will you believe?
So, the Pharisees and teachers of the law had it right? Hardly, most of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law got it backwards. They were the woe’d ones in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, representing the very unrighteousness which He compared against the righteous. Part of the reason God gave His torah (to a redeemed people on Mt. Sinai) was to reveal His standard of righteousness. There are other purposes of the law, to be sure, but the one being discussed by Jesus today is the need for God’s people to understand the call to righteous behavior. How can we be salt or light if we do not know what salt and light are? How can we be a kingdom of priests if we do not understand God’s call on our selves and those around us?
What the Pharisees and teachers of the law most misunderstand, as well as many whom we encounter in our daily life and work and even we ourselves, is the idea that we are responsible for our own righteousness. Human sin causes us, as it did those whom Jesus teaches against in this passage, to believe mistakenly that we can make ourself righteous. The Pharisees and teachers against whom Jesus teaches were not evil in the sense we want to believe. They were men just like us. I give ten percent. I go to synagogue every week. I make the appropriate sacrifices. I have enough money to pay my bills. I am in good health. I bet God is really glad I choose to follow Him. I bet He is really glad I am not like . . . They and we come to believe that, because we are doing mostly the things we should be doing, we are good people, worthy of redemption, worthy of God’s favor. Think of the parable of tax collector and the Pharisee. Whom does Jesus commend?
Part of what separates us from the world is the transformation that begins the moment we are gifted with the Holy Spirit. When we undergo the sacrament of baptism, we claim Jesus as Lord and know that He will empower us with the Spirit (think a couple weeks ago about John’s comparison between his baptism and the baptism of the One who comes after!). That coming of the Spirit marks a tremendous event in our lives. From the moment of the Spirit’s arrival, we begin to be changed. Theologians call this the process of sanctification. To be sure, it is not a straight line graph of increasing holiness. It is, however, a remaking of our hearts and mind. Jesus will call it in other places a circumcision of the heart. To outward appearances, the Pharisees and teacher of the law will appear as righteous as those who will claim Christ as Lord. The difference, of course, will be in that the believer’s actions result from that transformation occurring within. Like the tax collector in the parable, the believer comes to understand that he or she is not worthy of God’s grace. The law will remind them time and time again of their unrighteousness, and it will remind them, too, of the grace given by God as their hearts are changed to effect the behavior demanded by God. Put differently, it is easy not to commit adultery or not to commit murder, if one only looks at the physical acts. It is another thing entirely not to feel lust when we see an attractive member of the opposite sex or not to hate those who hurt us, as Jesus will teach us next week. And that is what He means when He tells us that our righteousness must exceed that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law. The change He wants for us is in here, in our hearts, and it cannot be effected by our efforts. It can only be caused by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. It can only be caused by God’s grace.
How counter-cultural is our message? Think for a second of this passage. Jesus teaches us that it is not enough not to kill, not to commit adultery, not to violate any of the laws revealed by God. That external action is not what God desires in us. You take no pleasure in sacrifices and burnt offerings. What God truly wants in us is to love the things He loves, to desire the things He desires, and to become that kingdom of priests the world so desperately needs. The sooner we figure out that we cannot effect that transformation and get out of His way, the quicker He will get to work on our hearts and make us into that light and salt so desperately needed in a world at odds with its Creator.