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Better Than the Best

February 14, 2011

“Better than the Best” Matthew 5:17-37 © 2/13/11 by Tom Cheatham @ First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

Think for a moment about a sport you follow, whether basketball, football, tennis, golf or some other. Who are the top athletes, and what standards of performance have they set? Or perhaps you would rather reflect on books you like or movies you want to see again and again. Who are the authors or actors who consistently rate high on your list for top quality work? You could do the same exercise concerning chefs and restaurants or service providers for anything from plumbing to cell phones. How have they raised the bar so that they become the measure of everyone else’s competence, reliability, and value?

When I think of the giants in my hobby—playing guitar—there’s no question who is on the list: Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Chet Atkins, Les Paul, Django Reinhardt, Michael Hedges; the list can go on and on. The same with theology. Some names naturally come to mind: Douglas John Hall, Walter Brueggemann, Paul Tillich, and Jurgen Moltmann. Preachers: Tom Long, Fred Craddock, Barbara Brown Taylor, Eugenia Gamble. These are the very best at what they do, just as the people you named in sports or books or what have you are the ones who set the tone and standard for their fields.

So it was with the Pharisees in Jesus’ day. We’re used to thinking of the Pharisees as hypocritical men who were largely insincere and unkind. And we can thank the New Testament for that notion, along with descriptions like this one from Thomas Merton, the great mystic: “a righteous man whose righteousness is nourished by the blood of sinners.”

Over against this model of the Pharisee as vampire, though, stands the more accurate assessment of Eduard Schweizer: “The Pharisees practiced a magnificent obedience; in addition to all their taxes, they donated ten percent of their income, down to the last penny, to charity; they let themselves be butchered defenselessly rather than make light of God’s gift of the Sabbath; they suffered the most horrible forms of martyrdom not to surrender their Bible; they knew that life is truly human only when God is more important than anything else” (The Gospel According to Matthew: 109).

Yes, Jesus was sharply critical of them, but only because he saw that they had such great potential and were missing the point—tragically so. He knew it was true, as someone once said, “you can’t get much better than they” were. Our Lord was not asking then, he’s not asking now, that we do better than the worst or the mediocre or even the very good. He is insisting that his disciples be better than the best. He has raised the bar very high indeed. “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.”

But what does this higher righteousness look like? Jesus helps us out with several concrete examples, any one of which makes us wonder if we can ever be and do what he wants. Before that, though, our Lord talks in a general way about keeping and breaking commandments. It’s pretty clear that for him this is serious stuff, as it should be for us. Breaking a commandment is bad. But teaching someone else to do it and how to do it is worse. The Larger Catechism talks about “aggravations” to sins, and leading someone else astray is definitely right up there with the worst of them. It’s sure way to get a ticket to the cheap seats in the kingdom. Notice: you’re not thrown out, but you won’t know here and hereafter the full benefits God has for you. On the other hand, keeping the commandments and teaching others to do so brings blessings beyond measure, which Jesus sums up as being called great in the kingdom of God.

This material also has a good bit to say about the spirit and the letter of the law. Christina Aguilera infamously messed up the national anthem at the Super Bowl. Asked about her mistake with the lyrics, she said: “I can only hope that everyone could feel my love for this country and that the true spirit of its anthem still came through” ( utm_source=Triggermail&utm_medium=email&utm_term=Daily+Brief&utm_campaign=daily_brief). Perhaps some people in Jesus’ day or ours would say the same about obeying God. “I hope everyone can see my love for God, even though I messed up big time when I’m supposed to know what I’m doing, and the spirit of my faith came through.” Well, sometimes the spirit and the letter need to match. Just trying hard or having a good heart isn’t quite enough.

The things we do have consequences, maybe long after the action. In science, that’s called “the butterfly effect,” in which some small, seemingly insignificant motion sets up a chain of events that can result even in disaster.

At a camp one summer in Alabama, crews of staff and youth worked on repairing buildings. Nobody was a skilled carpenter, so nothing was square or done to exact specifications. But the leader of the camp was an easygoing guy, and he just said “That’s close enough.” A couple of years later, a group led by an experienced builder was making further renovations on those same buildings. I remember his frustration as he complained that nothing was square, and he had to adapt to the poor workmanship. Time and energy that could have been spent elsewhere were wasted on fixing what careless people had done.

The gospel is gift. But it is also demand. Jesus calls us to excellence, to pay attention to little details in relationships, in ministry, in life. And the gospel is demand as gift, because our Lord trusts that we can do what he asks, that we are capable, responsible, caring folk who want to follow his commandments. We are moral agents who can live the life of radical demand and faithful love to which he summons us.

But if we pay attention to detail out of love and faithfulness, so also do we know that there are particular areas of human life that will challenge even the most dedicated believer. Jesus names them, and they all have to do in some way with common aspects of everyday life, namely speech and relationships, both with each other and with God.

Most of the specific examples have at least two parts. For the one, there’s a statement of some popular or traditional wisdom about the matter, whether anger or marriage or being a witness in court. For the other, our Lord calls for positive, sometimes radical, action that represents the response of people committed to a righteousness exceeding that of the Pharisees. Let’s look at some details.

First, there’s anger. The popular wisdom condemned murder, but apparently saw nothing wrong with anger, rage, and name-calling. “Sticks and stones,” you know. And indeed, anger can be a force for good when it’s channeled in the right direction against the wrongs of society and church. Even name-calling, when we expose someone who is incompetent and have him or her removed from a project or someone who is doing wrong and bring him or her to justice. But that’s not the sort of anger Jesus has in mind here. It’s the seething rage that boils under the surface like flowing lava looking for an outlet. It can be directed at a convenient target in road rage or child and spouse abuse. Even against ourselves in some self-destructive act. The classic commentator William Barclay once described it as “the anger of a man who nurses his anger to keep it warm; it is the anger over which a person broods, and which he will not allow to die” (Matthew: Vol. 1: 138). The Greek term for anger here is suggestive. Its root is the same as our word “orgy.” This is anger out of control, indiscriminate, without thought for consequence. It’s anger we enjoy, indulge out of base instinct, and revel in. It’s the anger that arises out of irrational fear which leads to hatred and back again. It’s the anger that spells the end of marriages and friendships and breaks community in churches and nations. As the author Maggie Scarf has written: “Anger, like nuclear waste, remains toxic. Unprocessed and undischarged, it simply remains where it is—but the threat of its emergence is constant” (“Intimate Partners…,” The Atlantic, November 1986: 93).

Anger is the root of murder and attempted murder. Jared Loughner reportedly was upset with Gabrielle Giffords about some perceived slight for years before he shot her in the head in Tucson. And even if we would not go the lengths that Loughner and too many others have, we have no doubt been angry enough to want to kill or at least ruin someone’s reputation for what they did to us or those we love.

How often, for example, have we called someone a name that turned him, her or them into objects, inferiors? Jesus cites two instances from his culture. The insult he talks about is calling someone “Raca,” which was a Semitic term for “brainless idiot,” no doubt equivalent to some English words that we all know but I won’t repeat here. The other one, “fool,” is not just somebody who’s silly or doesn’t think things through. It’s a moral degenerate.

The terms have changed and are applied not only to individuals but whole groups of people. But the effect is the same. They objectify. They cut off the possibility of understanding and harmony. They feed anger and the cycle of violence. They hurt the name-caller as well as the one insulted, because when you call someone a name, a little bit of your humanity is lost in the voicing of hate and prejudice. Humanity is nurtured in community, not in brokenness.

So, anger. Quickly, now, to the other specific cases. Adultery is not just an overt act with someone else’s spouse. It’s the lust, the drive to possess, the coveting of another human being as if he or she were an object, the lack of respect for boundaries. The prohibition of divorce, directed specifically at men in that culture, also had to do with refraining from turning a woman into an object. In that day, it was incredibly easy to divorce one’s wife on the slightest pretext. If she burned dinner, you could get two witnesses and say three times in their presence “I divorce you,” and the woman would be out on the street with no resources. Both Jesus’ saying about adultery and the one about divorce are meant to protect women. By extension, they are about those in any day and culture who are vulnerable to abuse of power, since women in that society had few rights and options.

Finally, our Lord talks about swearing as a witness in court and making vows, which are just specific instances about the use of words. We live in a day when words are spun to mean something they don’t, when talk is used repeatedly to manipulate people and stir up hatred, when truth is scarce and we don’t know what or whom to believe. People have been lying and cheating and equivocating and failing to disclose for centuries, but it seems such behavior is more widespread today. So maybe Jesus’ words touch us a little more. He reminds us that any vow is ultimately arrogant, because we don’t have the power to make good on our promises. Only God is completely faithful. We always hold something back, maybe in the deep recesses of our hearts, not because we don’t want to keep our promises, but because we are flawed creatures without the ability to follow through. We long for an escape or have some mental reservation. And sometimes we paint ourselves into a corner with what we say. Why do that to ourselves?

In each instance, our Lord recommends positive, sometimes radical, difficult action. About anger, he calls his disciples to active reconciliation. We are to come to terms with our neighbor on the way, the one who has something against us. Our worship is tainted when we know that there is someone whom we have wronged and the relationship needs to be restored. So, in essence, Jesus says if that’s the case, don’t go to church that day. Go find that person and sit down with them and talk it out. Make things right. Take the initiative to do whatever it takes. Or the consequences may be most unpleasant.

About lust, the drive to possess, Jesus calls us to remove from us the instrument of the sin. Some in history have actually taken him literally about dismemberment, but I think he’s speaking metaphorically of radical, painful action. Is the instrument that feeds your sin your TV or the Internet? Or being around a certain person or persons? Then do whatever you can to avoid the problem, from changing the channel to installing blocking and monitoring software to cutting off contact, not going certain places or even changing jobs, if a coworker is the object of lust.

Concerning our speech, Jesus recommends complete simplicity. Be upfront and honest. The truthful person is know by his or her actions, not by his or her words, after all. Such people don’t need a lot of props and qualifications and assurances to convince others they’re trustworthy. I remember my grandfather saying “I swear it on a stack of Bibles.” That’s when we knew he was lying through his teeth. Be instead the kind of person who by simplicity of demeanor and speech and consistency of action is known as honest, the sort who stands by his or her word even at great cost, the person whose handshake means something. Let your yes be yes and your no be no, and let them come from an undivided heart.

So being better than the best means paying attention to letter and spirit, going deeper than the surface, and taking specific action to correct our lives. But finally, it means listening to Jesus alone. Over and over, our Lord counters popular tradition with his own saying. “I say to you.” It is his authority that guides us. Not the Book of Order or the Book of Confessions. Not the way we’ve always done it. Not even the Bible. Those are important and to be taken seriously. But Jesus Christ is the ultimate authority we have in Christian life.

Confronted with claims that the state should be listened to as the ultimate arbiter of truth, a group of Christians in Nazi Germany said this: “Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death. We reject the false doctrine, as though the church could and would have to acknowledge as a source of its proclamation, apart from and besides this one Word of God, still other events and powers, figures and truths, as God’s revelation” (The Theological Declaration of Barmen).

The higher, better righteousness is in fact all about this One in whom we hear God’s Word. It is embodied in him. What sets the righteousness of the disciples apart from the righteousness of the Pharisees is the person of Jesus. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, the higher righteousness is not “a duty owed, but a perfect and truly personal communion with God, and Jesus not only possesses this righteousness, but is himself the personal embodiment of it. He is the righteousness of the disciples” (The Cost of Discipleship: 141). Because of Jesus, you and I have the power to demonstrate for all to see the righteousness of the kingdom, to do and to act like our Lord as we are on the way with our neighbor in this journey called life.

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