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Better Than the Best

February 17, 2014

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

The Olympics, of whatever season, put on display the talents of athletes from around the world who set the standard for everyone else in their sport. That’s especially true of those who win medals. They are, in that time and place and in the estimation of the judges, the best of the best.

So it was with the Pharisees in Jesus’ day. They were the ones who set the bar high spiritually, who displayed the discipline of an athlete or a warrior in the struggle for justice and against anything that opposed God. That may come as a surprise, since I suspect 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. The critical, dismissive attitude and negative bias come from its having written in a day when Judaism and Christianity were splitting and not particularly friendly with each other. We also have been influenced by descriptions like this one from Thomas Merton, the great Catholic mystic, who said a Pharisee is “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 scholar 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 not because he didn’t like them or thought their main purpose was wrong. As we might do with our friends or family members whom we love, he took them to task so often because he saw that they had such great potential and were wasting opportunities to achieve it. They were missing the point—tragically so. He knew it was true, as someone once said, that “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 illustrates his approach with a few concrete examples or case studies, most of which 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 each example.

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.

But that’s not the sort of anger Jesus has in mind here. Instead, 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. Even if we would not go the lengths that so many, too many others have in our day with school and convenience store parking lot shootings, crime, and assassination attempts, 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.

Name-calling is one expression of this sort of anger. This is not labeling and exposing someone who is incompetent and having him or her removed from a project or pointing out someone who is doing wrong and bringing him or her to justice. This is the kind of name-calling that turns people into objects, into inferiors, into nothing. Jesus cites two instances from his culture. The insult he talks about is labeling someone as “Raca,” which was a Semitic term for “brainless idiot,” no doubt equivalent to some English words that we all know but I can’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. You lose a part of your soul, like Tom Riddle splitting his every time he killed in the Harry Potter movies. Humanity is nurtured in community, not in brokenness.

So, anger. Now to the other specific cases. Adultery is not just an overt act with someone else’s spouse. Jesus says it’s the lust, the drive to possess, the coveting of another human being as if he or she were an object. More broadly, it’s the burning urge to control, to have power over people or circumstances. It’s the lack of respect for boundaries, the opinion that my needs and wants are more important than yours, and I may invade your space and take what I desire. But lust of any sort is disastrous, and the exact opposite of what we need. As Frederick Buechner once wrote, “lust is the craving for salt of a man dying of thirst” (Wishful Thinking: 54).

The prohibition of divorce, which was directed specifically at men in that culture, also had to do with refraining from turning a woman into an object. The practices and rules about divorce varied among cultures and legal systems at the end of the first century. But for our purposes this morning, we can simply note that in Judaism, only men could make the decision to divorce, unlike in Roman and Greek culture. Historically, it was incredibly easy for a man to divorce his wife. He could do it on the slightest pretext. According to one school of thought, if a wife burned dinner, a husband could get two certified witnesses and say three times in their presence “I divorce you,” and the woman would be out on the street with no resources.

Jesus’ sayings about adultery and divorce are meant to protect women from such callous disregard for their security and physical and emotional well-being, from being turned into objects to be thrown away when they were no longer useful or pleasing. By extension, they are about caring for those in any day and culture who are vulnerable to abuse of power, since women in that society had few rights and options. How ironic and tragic that our Lord’s saying about divorce was turned into a restrictive, oppressive rule for both women and men by legislators, churchmen, and ordinary people who did not begin to understand his meaning in his cultural context and didn’t try to.

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, fueled by TV news; by the Internet, especially social media and blogs; and by the near total breakdown of civility and courtesy in our society. So maybe Jesus’ words touch us a little more.

We make promises and vows all the time, from marriage to mortgages to baptism and ordination, perhaps even in court as witnesses. But when we do that, we’re always relying on God’s help, since we don’t really have the power to make good on our promises. Only God is completely faithful. We want to fulfill our obligations, and we do, to the best of our ability. But don’t we often or even always hold something back, maybe tiny, in the deep recesses of our hearts? We might want to make sure there’s an escape; we may have some mental reservation. And sometimes we paint ourselves into a corner with our speech, perhaps because we say too much without thinking.

In each instance we’ve looked at, our Lord recommends positive, sometimes radical, difficult action. About anger, he calls his disciples to active reconciliation. We are to come to terms on the way with our neighbor, 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, but we have done nothing to repair it. So, in essence, Jesus says if that’s the case, don’t go to church that day. Instead, go find that person and sit down with him or her 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 the instrument of sin. Some in history have actually taken him literally about dismemberment, but I think he’s speaking metaphorically of radical, painful action. What feeds psychologically and spiritually our desire to possess, to own, to take whatever we want, to have power? And what is the focus of that need? We need to identify both the soul problem and the immediate focus, and then take steps to deal with them, no matter how difficult or inconvenient.

Concerning our speech, Jesus recommends complete simplicity. Be upfront and honest. The truthful person is know by the quality of his or her actions, not by the quantity of 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’ve told you before how I remember my paternal grandfather saying “I swear it on a stack of Bibles.” That’s when we knew he was lying through his teeth. Jesus says don’t be like that. 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 still 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 that we aren’t satisfied with outwardly good actions. Our hearts must match what we say and do. And we need to take serious steps to avoid sin. But most of all, we are better than the best when we listen 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).

Whatever the specific cases, the higher, better righteousness is always all about this One in whom we hear God’s Word. It’s 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 act like our Lord as we are on the way with our neighbor in this journey called life.


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