Pastor Dale E. Austin Matthew 5: 13-20
At the risk of sounding like a contemporary cliché, there are moments when we might feel that Jesus is calling his disciples – calling us – to an extreme, almost unattainable level of holiness.
It seems that everywhere we turn these days, we’re hearing about “Extreme” something. There are dozens of variations on extreme sports. Advertisers push their product as being extreme in some way. Everyone seems to be trying to outdo everyone else in their efforts to see who can be the most extreme at whatever it is that they are trying to do. We’ve almost reached a point where we might begin to wonder if the word “extreme” even means anything anymore.
Some of Jesus’ directions to his disciples sound extreme, even impossible. . . or at least incredibly unlikely.
To tell his listeners that the need to be salt or light – that’s not so bad. The metaphor is generally understood and everyone realizes that Jesus is asking us to help bring out the best in others, and to allow the light of God’s love to shine through us like a lighthouse, helping to guide others in the right direction so that they can be drawn to God. So far, so good.
But then, in this passage, Jesus ups the stakes by telling his disciples that their righteousness will have to exceed that of the Pharisees if they expect to measure up. From our perspective, perhaps that doesn’t seem like so much. After all, we’ve learned to view the Pharisees in a negative light. We see their hypocrisy. But in the minds of the majority of Jesus’ listeners, the Pharisees and the Scribes represent the epitome of faithfulness; they are seen as paragons of righteousness. Of course, neither group does much to discourage such a concept. They enjoy having people look up to them, wishing to be as good and holy as these revered individuals. The Pharisees and Scribes enjoy the pedestal and the vantage point that it gives them, looking down on those around them. But the point to all this is that when Jesus tells his disciples that their righteousness needs to go even farther, to them this is getting pretty extreme. They had to be asking themselves, “How do we go beyond what we see as the ultimate in righteousness?”
Yes, the Pharisees are highly revered as good people, holy and righteous in all respects. But Jesus knows better. He’s not fooled by their public displays of piety. Like the passage in Isaiah 58: 1-9a which we heard this morning, Jesus sees that same hypocrisy in his own time. He sees their attitudes toward and treatment of the common people. Like everyone else, he hears the Pharisees talking a really good line. But he also sees them looking down on the masses as being unworthy of their time or energies. These are the ones who would tell the poor, “The only reason that you’re poor is that you’re lazy.” They would tell a person who has been out of work for a year that he needs to get serious about looking for a job and quit loafing all day – even though this person has applied to every business in town and then some, but no one is hiring. Jesus sees beyond the Pharisaic façade of holiness to the cruel and thoughtless treatment of their neighbors. That’s why he tells his listeners that their righteousness has to exceed that of the Pharisees. It has to be genuine, from the heart and not just for show. It’s not a matter so much of degree, but rather of quality. That’s the difference.
On the surface, Jesus’ direction sounds extreme. “Your righteousness must exceed the righteousness of the Pharisees.” At its heart, however, it is simply a request for sincerity, integrity and genuine compassion. Now that’s not so hard to achieve, is it?
But it’s not so simple, either. It requires constant self-monitoring and self-evaluation. Not easy. It helps to have a group of friends who can help to keep us honest with ourselves, much like the early class meetings of Methodism. They met regularly for the purpose of checking up on each other’s spiritual growth and discipline. A common question was, “How is it with your soul?” These group members held each other accountable if they began to slip into the type of hypocrisy which characterized the Pharisees. They helped one another to remain faithful in all of their actions as well as their words. They served as a check on one another to help keep everyone on the right road. In short, they helped one another to maintain the type of faithful integrity and sincerity which Jesus intends with his call for what many would have heard as extreme righteousness.
It’s not really all that extreme. It’s just real, with no pretense. What you see is what you get. And that’s what Jesus is really asking of each of us. We don’t have to become a super-follower. We just have to be genuine.