I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. —Matthew 5:20
The Sermon on the Mount seems, at so many points, impossible to live. It must have seemed the same to Jesus' first hearers. The Pharisees were focused on purity before God. The name, Pharisee, means “set apart” or “separated,” and they sought to distinguish themselves by the lengths to which they would go to be pious. How could anyone’s righteousness exceed that of the Pharisees?
Some have felt the point of the Sermon on the Mount was to offer an impossible picture of righteousness that leads us naturally to the recognition that we need a Savior. Perhaps. But I see it capturing an ideal, something that is always beyond where we are, but yet a vision of piety for which we are meant to strive.
The piety Jesus calls us to moves beyond obeying the letter of the law. He asks that our hearts and motives and words be holy. Consider these things Jesus teaches in Matthew 5: It is not enough not to murder, we’re not meant to speak with anger or hatred towards another. It is not enough to avoid adultery, we’re not meant to look at another with adultery on our hearts. In a time when divorces were freely granted to men who could set aside a wife for any reason, Jesus taught that our vows were meant to be kept. We’re not meant to need to swear an oath, our word should always be our bond. While the law allows us to seek retributive justice – an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, we’re to turn the other cheek when wronged. And though common wisdom allowed for the hatred of enemies, Jesus commanded that we love our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us.
I do not perfectly live up to these words of Jesus. I sometimes speak in anger. I occasionally find lust knocking at the door of my heart. I’ve stretched the truth and found it hard to turn the other cheek. At times I’ve not wanted to pray for, much less love, my enemies. But while I don’t perfectly live up to what Jesus has taught, these words represent the ideal to which I strive. They define for me the man I want to be. And, as I noted in yesterday’s reading, they often form the prayers that I pray: “Lord, forgive me for falling short of your will, and help me to become this man that you’ve described in the Sermon on the Mount.”
Perhaps you could pick one of the pericopes (paragraphs or sections) from the Sermon on the Mount that you struggle with, and begin to pray that God will help you become the woman or man God desires you to be.
The Pharisees excelled at following rules and outward forms of religiosity. Jesus called us to have hearts that were pure, and to practice acts of love, mercy and faithfulness. This is what it means to have a righteousness that exceeds the scribes and the Pharisees.
Lord, I fall short of the ideals you’ve set out in the Sermon on the Mount. But they do reflect the person I wish to be. Help me, by your Spirit, to become the person you long for me to be. Amen.