Two Kinds of Righteousness?

 Epiphany 5A ‘20

9 February 2020

Matt. 5.13-20

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church

North Little Rock, Arkansas

The Rev. Carey Stone

“For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. “Amen. – Matthew 5.20

My wife and I are frustrated about something, our light fixtures on our front porch keep going on the blink. Each fixture takes three flame-shaped bulbs and shortly after replacing them they start to go out. Sometimes one or two of the bulbs will go out leaving it partially lit, and at other times the whole fixture will simply go dark. At first, we thought the trouble was with the bulbs so we would go to Kroger and buy new bulbs, replace them only to be disappointed once again. Something was affecting the flow of electricity within the fixture itself – somehow the fixture was being short-circuited. Until the electrical problem is fixed at its source is fixed the beautiful fixture’s purpose to bring light to the darkness won’t be fulfilled.

Jesus made a very powerful statement to his first century followers and the echo continues to ring in the ears of his 21st century followers: “You are the salt of the earth and you are the light of the world.” There doesn’t seem to be any room for debate here these are straight declarative sentences. He didn’t say “you could be” or “you might be” no, he said to his followers, “you are the salt of the earth and the light of the world.”

It’s hard to overstate the importance of salt in the first cen. As a seasoning, salt could literally be added to roadkill and turn it into something savory. It was used as a preservative to keep fish and other foods from spoiling. It was used to purify and to heal wounds.  In more modern times we have discovered that salt helps keep our mental states stable and balanced. If we lose too much salt, or fail to take in enough of it our minds can become fuzzy and disoriented to reality. 

Since the time of the first humans who managed to harness the energy of fire, the value of bringing light and warmth have proven necessary for our very survival. It kept the early explorers from freezing to death, and lit their path through dangerous and unfamiliar terrain.

Salt and light were and still are two things humans simply cannot live without. So Jesus in the gospel today is not just trying to give us the big head when he calls us salt and light, he is telling us the fact that the human race cannot continue to thrive without the body of Christ being active in the world – to bring seasoning, saving, healing, cleansing, reconciliation, and illuminating power to bear in the world around us. Just like my light fixtures the dark spiritual forces want to find ways to short-circuit our lights and to keep them from shining, and to ruin the salt where it loses its power to season and make things better.

I believe Jesus points to one of the key strategies of the dark powers to dim the light and ruin the salt. Their tactics involve the use of propaganda and misinformation to disconnect the Christian from The Power Source – God, and to get people to operate under their own power, and feeble ideas which have never been a match for the prince of darkness.

Jesus alludes to one of the biggest strategies used against believers, which is to get them to operate in their own strength, and to base their sense of being right with God on their own moral performance.

The scribes and the pharisees were the spiritual athletes of the first century. These were they who practiced at seeing how good they could be by keeping the rules and all the law. When they did manage to keep the law rather than a sense of humility it gave them a sense of superiority. They could look down their nose at those who were struggling more than they were. But no one could ever finally keep all the law without sinning. Jesus’ stern warning is issued in today’s gospel reading, “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and pharisees you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.”  

Has God painted us into a corner? Are we destined to live like spiritual yoyos constantly going up and down based on our behavioral report card?  Why in a very real sense does it seem that Jesus is asking us to do the impossible? To keep the law to near perfection 24/7 in order to be righteous.

To be righteous is to be made right with God and throughout the biblical narrative there has always been two kinds of righteousness - self-righteousness and God’s righteousness. The prophet Isaiah spoke of self -righteousness when he wrote: “But we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousness are as filthy rags; and we all do fade as a leaf; and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away (64.6) The scribes and pharisees were the masters of self-righteousness. They would go around touting the law and looking down upon others who couldn’t keep the law (of course they weren’t able to keep it either)!

Periodically throughout Church history various teachers would come along attempting to interject self-righteousness as the pathway to salvation. This is certainly what Martin Luther came up against during the reformation. Listen to what he wrote in the early 1500’s that’s just as relevant today as the day he wrote it: “The Son of man came not to destroy men’s lives but to save them. The carnal nature of humans violently rebels for it greatly delights…in boasting of its own righteousness…Therefore it pleads its own case, and it rejoices that this is better than its neighbors.” This kind of righteousness is based on self-achievement and leads us to either pride or despair depending on what kind of day we’re having!

But the righteousness of God comes to us a gift. Again, Luther wrote: “Righteousness comes to us by grace alone, in preaching, and in the sacraments…The gospel is precisely the news that the surprising possibility exists for humanity, that God accepts sinners not through some exertion on their part, but freely, and for Christ’s sake.”

In my time as a priest I have seen the powerful effects of trying to live by our own self-righteousness has upon our being salt and light to the world. Just like my light fixtures our spiritual connection becomes short-circuited and we don’t live in the joy of salvation but in the dread that God may be mad at us and we might just not make it to heaven after all.

The only way for our righteousness to exceed that of the scribes and pharisees is to finally realize that we have no righteousness of our own all we will ever need  comes to us a gift feely given by a God of love: “For by grace are you saved through faith, and that not of yourselves it is the gift of God, not of works lest anyone boast.[1] Amen.



[1] Ephesians 2.8-9 KJV

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