The radical righteousness that Christ explains in the Sermon on the M0unt is tough to understand and just as hard to apply. Peter Leithart takes a shot in an article in Credenda Agenda. He notes some interpretations: Christ wanted to replace the law, Christ wanted us to have better attitudes while following the law, or Christ gave us an impossible guide to righteousness so that we know our own sin. Leithart disagrees: Christ meant us to do what he said.
Leithart argues that God wants our lives to follow the pattern of his restoring righteousness that redeems sinners and the creation: “The life that Jesus requires surpasses the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees because the practices, habits, and actions of disciples break through the perverse customs and habits of sinful humanity and bring the kingdom of God onto earth.” This can be seen in the way that Matthew 5:21-48 is structured:
As Glen Stassen has convincingly argued, this section of the sermon is not a series of antinomies but a series of triads. On murder, Jesus doesn’t say, “1) You have heard, do not murder, 2) but I say don’t hate.” Rather, He says: 1) You have heard, do not murder, and those who murder are liable to court; 2) but I say that anger and insults leave you in danger of the court and even of hell; therefore 3) leave your offering and go be reconciled to your brother. Only section 3 is an imperative. Jesus commandment is not: “Don’t be angry.” Jesus’ commandment is: “Go be reconciled.” That is the greater righteousness. Jesus never commands us to avoid anger. He teaches how to defuse anger so that it doesn’t escalate to murder. In that way, we share in the establishment of God’s kingdom of peace….
To be righteous as Jesus is righteous, it’s not enough to avoid anger or lust. Jesus is not giving us a transformed set of purity regulations – “Avoid this, avoid that, don’t touch that!” He gives us a set of positive commands. To practice the righteousness greater than that of the scribes we have to obey Jesus’ commands in order to break through the chains of lust so that we can cultivate chaste relations with the opposite sex. It’s not enough to avoid hating enemies; you need to do good to them, to break through the habits of hatred, counter-hatred, escalating hatred, that destroys life.
He also discusses lust, retaliation, and generosity to one’s enemies. He concludes:
Our instinct is, Get real, Jesus! His demands may all be great for a perfect world, but we don’t live in a perfect world. We live in a hard world, and you’ve got to cut some corners, break some eggs, defend yourself, take a little bit of vengeance, if you’re going to survive. Jesus says, No. The whole issue comes down to trust. Do we trust our Father to give us what you need? Do we trust that we’ll still have clothes if we keep giving them away, that we’ll still have bread if we are generous, that we’ll still have a face if we keep letting our cheeks be used as a punching bag, that we’ll still have dignity if we give things away to our enemies?
Jesus says: Trust your Father, and obey my commandments. Trust your Father, and live out the righteousness of that faith. Trust your Father, and live the redemptive, transforming righteousness that surpasses the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees.
This interpretation has a lot to commend it. As my friend Kevin is really good at pointing out, there’s still the question of whether there are limits to these attitudes (for example, giving someone money for drugs based on the command of giving to those who ask). We’ve talked about this here and here.