Towards A Greater Righteousness

This coming Sunday is the 6th Sunday of Ordinary Time. The gospel reading is from the discourse popularly known as the Sermon on the Mount. In yesterday’s post we considered how Jesus expects his disciples to act as representatives of the Kingdom, offering a framework for understanding. In today’s post we will consider how that framework offers a path towards a great righteousness found in covenantal relationship with God.

I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter into the kingdom of heaven. In v.20 Jesus calls for a greater righteousness. Eugene Boring sees vv.21-47 as offering six concrete instances from which the disciples can discern a way forward to that greater righteousness.  In Jesus’ teaching a three-fold structure appears (what follows is quoted from Boring, 189):

Reaffirmation. Matthew reassures those who fear that Christians advocate the abolition of the Torah that this is a misunderstanding. Jesus’ commands do not transgress the Law, but radicalize it—they go to the radix, the root of the command. The one who puts into practice what Jesus teaches in Matthew 5 will not violate any command of the Torah, which is not abolished but reaffirmed.

Radicalization. The fulfillment of the Law brought by the advent of the messianic king does not merely repeat the Law, but radicalizes it. The ultimate will of God was and is mediated by the Law, but sometimes in a manner conditioned by the “hardness of heart” of its recipients (cf. 19:3-9). The legal form fostered a casuistic approach, which Matthew opposes, since it does not go to the root of the matter (i.e., is not radical), but touches the surface, not the heart, of the ethical problem. (For Matthew’s opposition to casuistry, see 23:16-21, the longest “woe” against the Pharisees, entirely “M” material.) Jesus’ teaching deals with the inner springs of human conduct, which Law as such cannot regulate. Like the prophets of Israel, Matthew declares the unqualified will of God, which sometimes deepens or broadens the Law, expressing its ultimate intent, and sometimes qualifies or even negates its limitations, while affirming the ultimate will of God to which it pointed.

Situational “Between the Times” Application. The call to live by the absolute will of God is not a counsel of despair. Prophets announce the absolute will of God and leave it to others to work out how this can be lived out in an imperfect world. Jesus spoke in this prophetic mode, and it had been continued by Christian prophets, including those in Matthew’s tradition and church. But Matthew is a scribal teacher who is concerned not only to declare the absolute will of God as expressed in Jesus’ radicalization of the Torah, but also to provide counsel for day-by-day living for imperfect people who fall short of this call to live by the perfect will of God. Thus, without negating the call to perfection, Matthew selects other sayings of Jesus from his tradition that provide situational applications for disciples who both believe that the kingdom of God has come with the advent of Jesus and pray for its final coming (6:10). The new age has come in Jesus, but the old age continues and Christians live in the tension between the two. Disciples can take the antitheses seriously as models for their life in this world in the same way that they take the advent of the kingdom of God seriously as both present and yet to come. Most important, for Matthew, commitment to the messianic king means more than proper confession; it results in a changed life (repentance). But the messianic king, who makes these demands and who will use them as the criteria of the final judgment, which he will conduct, both lives them out himself during his earthly ministry and continues with the community in its struggle to discern and do God’s will in ever-new situations (28:18-20). In the first set of three antitheses (5:21-32), the reality of Christian existence “between the times” of the Messiah’s appearance and the eschatological coming of the kingdom is addressed by giving examples for the creative application of Jesus’ teaching by his disciples. These examples are not casuistic new laws, but models for the disciples to adapt to their varied post-Easter situations. In the second set of antitheses (5:33-48), the concrete models are omitted, and the disciples are left to their own responsibility to be “Jesus theologians.”

This makes that point that movement towards righteousness as expressed in a deepening of relationship with God – not by external observance alone – but by a conscious movement of conversion to the deeper observance to the root (radix) of things: seeking out the Divine will it in fullness in order to live that out in the world.  In other words, to more fully be the people of God – that is, to be the covenant people that God has always intended them to be.

And perhaps most radical of all, let us not lose sight, this portion of the Sermon on the Mount also marks Jesus’ assertion of authority.  But it is not simply claiming a new contribution to the exegetical debate among rabbis, Jesus is making a definitive declaration of the will of God. Such a claim demands (and receives, 7:28–29) the response, “Who is this?”

Image credit: Cosimo Rosselli Sermone della Montagna, 1481, Sistine Chapel, Public Domain

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