Fulfilling righteousness

5 February 2017
Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany
Epiphany 5A (RCL)
Isaiah 58:1-12
Psalm 112
1 Corinthians 2:1-16
Matthew 5:13-20

Jesus began his ministry in Matthew’s Gospel by proclaiming, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven has arrived.” I contend that the word we translate ‘repent’ means something more like ‘go back to school, retrain your mind.’ Matthew’s own Gospel is the textbook he intends us to use to retrain our mind. The opening paragraph of the Sermon on the Mount (the beatitudes) invited us to reconsider how a community is constituted — by constraints on behavior (the ten commandments) or by holding up exemplars for honor, which overturn the usual system of honor. This paragraph now invites us to relearn what righteousness is.

Jesus counters the then current understanding (a misinterpretation of Paul) that freedom in Christ implied a disregard for the Torah (instruction). Not one iota, or even a tilde will be stricken from the law. Jesus has come, not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it, and unless our righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, we will not see the kingdom of heaven.

Our tendency is to see righteousness as an attribute of individuals. The caricature presented in the Gospels ascribes this tendency to the Pharisees. In their desire to ‘hedge the law’ to make it possible for people to keep the commandments even under the most difficult of circumstances could be see as an overweening concern with keeping oneself separate from all forces of corruption. And, even if it wasn’t applied by the Pharisees to individuals, it was certainly applied to the nation: Israel must at all cost avoid any contact with anything that might render her unrighteous.

The concern for ethnic and religious purity in the Old Testament springs from the same source. The prophets came down hard on such an understanding of righteousness, and pointed instead to righteousness as an attribute of community, rather than individuals. The passage from Isaiah 58 is a ringing example of such a view. Fasting will gain us nothing, as long as the thong of the yoke remains tied tightly around the necks of the oppressed. Righteousness speaks of a balance and fairness in relationships within the community, rather than a quality adhering to an individual, or even a nation.

Immediately following the Beatitudes, Jesus tells us that we are the salt of the earth, and the light of the world. In Jesus’ day, salt was precious and of course no less important to human life than it is now, though we have too much of it. A little bit of salt flavors a whole pot of stew; we are the salt of the earth.

We are also the light of the world, the shining city on the hill. But no one lights a lamp and hides it under a bushel. This is an odd image. The only reason for hiding a lamp under a bushel is to keep its light for oneself (like reading with a flashlight under the covers). Rather, one puts it on a lampstand, so that all in the house may be illuminated. If righteousness is assumed to apply only to individuals, then we have put our light under a bushel.

It’s a daunting task to be the light of the world, but the image Jesus uses is rather homey. After lighting a lamp, one sets it on a lampstand, so that the household may be illuminated. The way we live our righteousness before the world is to share our light with those immediately close by. If enough of us do this in our own houses, the city on the hill cannot be hid.

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