Who managed to be more righteous than a Pharisee last week?
Last Sunday, we examined Jesus’ instruction to his followers. You must be more righteous than a Pharisee or you cannot enter heaven.
This week we shall start to examine how Jesus followed up that remarkable challenge. Jesus very helpfully lays out six examples of what it looks like to live a life of extreme righteousness in the remainder of Chapter Five of the Gospel of Matthew.
It is widely recognised that the Ten Commandments are a superlative and succinct ethical code, the best ever composed in any religion. Jew or Gentile, believer or unbeliever, all can agree on their excellence. They accurately reflect the intrinsic moral framework of every human and it has been seen as good sense to make them the foundation of most civilised societies.
Just as the Pharisees were considered the most righteous people in the world, the Ten Commandments were considered the most excellent laws.
Jesus is giving another view. Just as his followers have to be more righteous than the Pharisees, so we also have to keep a much higher standard than the Ten Commandments.
What we have reached at this point in the Sermon on the Mount is an extreme and absolutist intensification of the Old Testament law.
Our world, and all the previous worlds since the commandments were given to Moses, is selfish. It is ruthless. It is a world where common sense and experience teach us that self-reliance and self-preservation should govern our decisions. In this world, and from this point of view, what Jesus requires of us is absurd.
Jesus appears to be far too extreme. He calls his followers, you and me, to a way of kingdom living that we cannot manage without faith. We need faith. Without faith the words of Jesus cannot be obeyed.
Jesus explores this alternative way of living through six examples.
What follows from Jesus is not an exhaustive list of the things we must do and must avoid. That has never been Jesus’ way.
What Jesus sets out to do is to demonstrate how our new priorities should work. He sets out to show us some examples of application.
He does this through a basic structure.
First he quotes an Old Testament moral precept, introducing it by a phrase such as “You have heard that our ancestors were told” and “You have heard the commandment that says”. This divides his six examples into two groups of three.
Then he introduces his antithesis with the words “But I say”.
This is a quite incredible thing to say.
A Jewish rabbi was always entitled to express his opinion. He could always quote from the Scriptures or tradition. It was his job to interpret and explain. The prophets of the Old Testament would even speak on God’s behalf, using an expression such as ‘Thus says the Lord.’
When Jesus speaks the words ‘I say’ he is claiming extraordinary authority. He is speaking directly in the first person. He is speaking to his followers as someone who has supreme authority over them above all others. He is speaking in God’s voice.
And when Jesus says ‘you have heard but I say’, he is explicitly placing himself higher than Moses. He is saying he is greater than the prophets. He is saying that his words take precedence over even the most revered Jewish teachers of history.
In addition, the structure of his statements is radical. He is not advancing a discussion or entering an ethical debate. He is presenting his views as permanent, definitive, non‑negotiable, the ultimate moral authority for all time.
Another distinctive of the way Jesus sets out these teachings is that he constantly makes them personally applicable to his hearers, and to us. He involves us all the time in his teaching. It is never theoretical with Jesus. It is always inclusive. And so when he says to them, ‘But I say’ he adds the phrase ‘to you’. He is speaking to us directly. Although the word ‘you’ is missing from our English translation, it is there in the Greek.
It is a characteristic of Jesus to talk like this, such as Matthew 16:15 when he asked his disciples, “But who do you say I am?”
The teachings of Jesus demand a response from us. We cannot avoid this. They demand a lifelong response, and they demand obedience.
He is telling us how to live each day, and we must answer him. Yes, Lord, I promise to live the way you are showing me. Please help me in my weakness.
Jesus shows us six examples of how to live at this higher standard. They can best be described as messianic intensifications of Jewish moral standards.
Although the structure is simple and repetitive, the intentions appear to be complex and multiple. Jesus totally dispenses with the authority of tradition, he excludes the methods of legalism, he transcends the literal demands of the Old Testament, and he calls us and all his followers to a religion of the heart. Jesus also calls us to accountability to God in the secret places of our lives, in our minds and hearts, in the places that lie far beyond the reach of government legislation and enforcement.
Matthew 22 records how Jesus was tested on his theology by a Jewish religious teacher, a leading Pharisee, who asked him which was the greatest commandment. Jesus quoted Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18 in his famous reply: ‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’
These intensifications can be seen as application and exposition of the love commands.
But there is, as so often with Jesus, an extremism in this message. The extravagant language that Jesus uses leads to problems for us when we try to interpret and apply his teachings.
We have to steer a careful course under the constant guidance of the Holy Spirit. If we attempt a literal and naïve obedience to his teaching, we can quickly slip into bizarre behaviour. There is a danger of fanaticism and harshness that is unlike Jesus.
The other danger, which is the more common error in the West, is to be so sophisticated that we emphasise the hyperbole and turn down the radicalism so far that we are left with a mild endorsement of middle-class values. It is kind and compassionate to be sure, but at the same time safe, sterile and heartless.
We need to be strenuous in our efforts to avoid both these errors. It is hard work for us, because we have to think about how Jesus wants us to live and put in effort.
What we need to do is engage with these teachings. We need to read them and pray into them. I suggest you read these verses on your own and think about what they mean to you so that when we discuss murder the week after next you have some ideas already. And of course this is why being in a cell group is so important, because that is the best place to wrestle with this new lifestyle. Each week we come together to learn from each other how to be more righteous than a Pharisee. We come together to encourage each other in the difficult task of living out the love commands.
We are spending a long time on the Sermon on the Mount because it teaches us how to live as followers of Jesus, but you have to be involved. Jesus is talking to you and he is asking what you think. He is asking you to think about his words and how to apply them. So please do your part, starting with reading this passage during the week. Thank you.