Righteousness in the Sermon on the Mount

Posted: July 29, 2010 by Scott Kistler in Biblical Studies, Christ & Culture, Discipleship/Sanctification, Ethics, Matthew
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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.

  1. I commend the Leithart take as well. I taught through the Sermon on the Mount and was irenic towards the various views. It begins with grace in the beatitude on the poor in spirit. It shows us our need for grace in justification because we will never measure up, but it also shows us our need in sanctification because Jesus means what He says.

    As for struggling with limitations on giving to all who ask, I covered that in a recent sermon. Essentially, the poor beggars at that time were legitimately poor and generally known in the community. Today, I push more for institutional charity, but obviously leave room for individual charity. I gave $11 to someone yesterday and found out that it was likely spent on alcohol and cigs. I will not give him money anymore. For me, it was an investment I was willing to make is he needed it. I trust that god will take care of me and no longer think of the $11 as a loss, even though I was short money this morning at the coffee shop.

    The OT gleaning laws required minimal work from the one in need, they would actually have to gather the food and only enough for the day. As far as giving to beggars, it was usually for folks denied a loan because it was nearing the 7th year and there was no collateral. BTW, it was a sin for folks to withhold loans that were near the 7th year. Basically we are talking about people who can’t pawn anything off because they have nothing but are in need for essentials, which is also key in this. Essentials are food, clothing, and shelter.

    Also, institutional charity can be conditional. We look first to immediate family, then to the circumstance, and then give as we feel led. This is inferred from Paul’s discussion about “true” widows. Weight is also given to their piety.

    Indiscriminate giving is not good. I think the early Church took on the institutional role as a minister to the poor. The wealthy voluntarily gave and the church distributed.

  2. Scott Kistler says:

    Rick, those are good words. I recently read “When Helping Hurts” by Corbett and Fikkert which addresses some of these issues and I’m hoping to write something up about it soon. It’s a really good entry into this field and really grounds the questions of poverty relief in Scripture and good theology.

    The OT laws are really good to keep in mind; they challenge the ways that we’re prone to think about things when we just use “private property” or “it’s our responsibility to help the poor” as our guidelines, if our definitions aren’t biblical.

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