Preached on February 5, 2017 at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Snohomish, Washington
Fifth Sunday after Epiphany, Year A
This week we are continuing our journey through chapter 5 of Matthew’s gospel. You may remember that last week, we started out with the Beatitudes: blessed are the poor in spirit and those who mourn; blessed are the meek and those hunger after righteousness; blessed are the merciful, the pure in heart, and the peacemakers; blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.
And that was paired with the passage from Micah – What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.
You may also remember that I suggested that Jesus was teaching the twelve what it meant to be disciples. That these are the people he came to be with, people whom the world may have judged had been abandoned by God.
Disciples are invited to come along with Jesus, to participate with God in bringing about the kingdom of heaven where God’s deepest desire is the well-being of all humanity, of all creation.
This week, we hear Jesus continuing to teach the twelve and any who would want to be his disciples just what that means. Matthew’s gospel sets very high expectations for discipleship. It’s not something you can do in your spare time!
First, I’d like to point out that Jesus sets discipleship squarely within Judaism. “I have not come to abolish the law,” he says. “Not one stroke of a letter, even, will pass away from the Law until heaven and earth pass away.” He goes on to say that “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
That sounds pretty extreme. What might he mean by that? As usual, let’s have some context. Israel has been under occupation of one power or another pretty much since they returned from exile in Babylon. Matthew is writing after the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple. Now there are a number of ways to respond to this situation.
The Pharisees know that they will never be able to stand up to the Roman Empire to regain political power in their own land. But they can try to preserve their religious and cultural identity. They do so by withdrawing from the world and devoting themselves to study of the Torah and the prophets and scrupulously following the Law and religious practice.
It is interesting to look at our passage from Isaiah alongside the gospel. In Isaiah, God is chastising the people of Israel for performing religious rituals for ritual’s sake without them having any effect on their lives and how they interact with their families, their neighbors, or their employees.
Religious practice is intended to be transformative. “This is the fast I seek,” God tells them, “Loose the bonds of injustice, free the oppressed, share what you have with those who are in need. Then your light will shine like the dawn.”
So perhaps the righteousness that Jesus is referring to is more than perfectly performing rituals or scrupulously following the letter of the law. It could be that he means that we should pay attention to relationships and how our choices affect our neighbor, our family, our colleagues. When we advance our own interests at the cost of the well-being of someone else, we’re not in the kingdom, no matter how well we follow the law.
Now with that in mind, let’s think about the beginning of this portion of Matthew. Jesus is teaching the twelve what discipleship means. This teaching actually starts with the last bit from last week. Jesus switches from the third person of the “Blessed are those who…” to the second person.
Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
He continues, “You are the salt of the earth; you are the light of the world.” They already are; it’s not that they have to strive to become salt and light. They are salt and light through the grace of God.
I wonder what that means, though? Let’s see, salt and light are basic necessities of life. So, Jesus is saying, the world needs you. Go and be the salt, be the light that God has created in you; don’t hide from the world – even though the world may revile you and persecute you.
The work of the church, the work of discipleship is to make Christ present in the world. It’s about allowing what we do here, Sunday mornings, and in your own personal devotions, to transform you, to transform your lives. What does being salt and light mean in your life, in your relationships; because each of us has unique gifts from God.
Now, let’s go out and be the salt and light the world needs and so, transform the world.