February 9, 2020
(Isaiah 58:7-10; 5:13-16)
When it comes to righteousness, the Pharisees are tough to beat.
Jesus knows that these Jewish leaders are passionate about the law of God. Supportive of synagogues and schools. Attentive to purity rules and regulations. Focused on the resurrection, with a powerful hunger for heavenly rewards.
The Pharisees are the spiritual superstars of their day, exerting an enormous amount of peer pressure on the people around them. "I tell you," says Jesus, "unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven" (v. 20).
Jesus says that our righteousness has to exceed that of the Pharisees. Not just match it, but surpass it. How are we supposed to respond to this?
Peer pressure is a powerful force in our lives, and it can both help us and hurt us. Peer pressure can help us by inspiring us to do the right thing. Sit next to a good student in class, and her study habits can rub off on you. Watch your neighbors install solar panels on their roof, and you might be motivated to do the same thing.
But peer pressure can also hurt us. This happens when we are exposed to our very best peers and find ourselves becoming discouraged about ourselves. Their pressure might even cause us to quit. Of course, there is also peers who do not do right things and thus can also lead followers down the wrong path.
A 104-year-old woman was once asked by a reporter, "What do you think is the best thing about being 104?" She replied, quite simply, "No peer pressure."
Todd Rogers is a professor of public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. He has studied the peer pressure that comes from people who are a little better than us, as well as the pressure that comes from people who are way better than us.
In other words, the Pharisees.
Says Rogers, "When you are compared to people who are doing a little better than you, it can be really motivating." Someone who is conserving energy might inspire you to use less energy, and someone who is voting might motivate you to vote. But peer pressure turns negative when you are compared to people who are unattainably better than you. If you decide to train for a 5K race with an Olympic distance runner, for example, you are not going to be inspired. You are going to be really intimidated and probably drop out.
Rogers studied more than 5,000 students in a massive open online course. As part of the course, the students graded each other's work and learned from each other. What Rogers discovered was that ordinary students became far more likely to quit the course when they were paired with the best students. The ordinary students grading top-quality papers assumed that everyone in the group was brilliant and this made them feel inferior.
This is exactly the effect of the Pharisees on the people around them.
Remember what Paul said about his own accomplishments as a Pharisee? "If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more," he wrote to the Philippians. "Circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee" (Philippians 3:4-5). Paul was a top-performing Pharisee, unattainably better than many of the people around him. You can understand why his peers would feel inferior and want to quit.
But Jesus is not trying to make people give up when he says, "unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven" (v. 20). The Pharisees might be better than anyone else in terms of following religious rules and regulations, but Jesus has a new approach to righteousness that is not based on rigorous law-keeping. Instead, he wants his followers to be salt of the earth and light of the world, fulfilling the law in new ways -- as he does.
As Christians, we don't have to feel peer pressure from the Pharisees. Our righteousness comes about in a whole new way, one that avoids faulty assumptions about who are the top performers. Even Paul, the spiritual superstar who had tremendous confidence in himself, came to see that his achievements as a Pharisee were really losses "because of Christ" (Philippians 3:7).
So, what do righteous people look like?
They look like salt. Jesus says that they are "the salt of the earth." In the ancient world, salt was a valuable commodity used for sacrifice, purification, seasoning and preservation. Christians are to play all of these roles in the world and are to remain salty by staying true to their mission and avoiding contamination. "If salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored?" asks Jesus. It cannot, of course. Contaminated salt "is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled underfoot."
Note that Jesus doesn't say, "Try to be the salt of the earth."
He doesn't say, "It might be good for you to catch some classes at Salt and Light University to learn how to be salt."
He doesn't say, "Go to the rabbi and elders and have them lay hands on you to beseech God to grant you saltiness."
He doesn't say, "Take 30 minutes every morning to meditate and try to reach, and to be in touch with, your inner saltiness." Of course, he does want us to pray and meditate, but that is not what he is trying to teach here.
His comment is quite straightforward. "You are the salt of the earth. This is what and who you are. Don't forget it." His statement is not a command but a description. Too often, we're afraid that we're not "salty" enough, and when we get agitated like that, we're essentially making this all about ourselves instead of about Jesus. Whatever Jesus actually had in mind when he said, "You are the salt of the earth," we know that salt as an element has no value to itself. It's not about making salt better salt. Salt is salt. The value of salt is in its application to other things.
No wonder Jesus calls us "salt." We exist for others.
They look like light -- lighthouses, spotlights, flashlights, lamps, candles in the darkness. Jesus says, "You are the light of the world." Once again, being light does not involve sitting through a college class, reading literature on the subject or meditating about it. Jesus' statement is a description, not a command.
And, like salt, light does not exist for its own benefit, but for the benefit of everything it illuminates. Light provides warmth and energy to the world around it, and encourages life and growth. We do the very same thing when we act as the light of the world, and when we reflect the light of Christ to others.
"No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket," says Jesus, "but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house." Our righteousness as Christians depends on doing whatever we can to be lights to each other and to the world around us. We are to be open and honest instead of hiding in the dark. To offer other people warmth and encouragement instead of being cold and discouraging. Sometimes people need a shoulder to lean on and emotional support as opposed to words meant to encourage them to stay positive in a seemingly impossible situation. To be an energy source for others, so that together we can advance the mission of Christ in the world.
"Let your light shine before others," says Jesus, "so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven." Our challenge is to shine as a Christian community so that others will see what a life of love and faithfulness looks like. In a world of self-righteousness, we can be an example of Christ-righteousness -- right relationship, that is, with God and neighbor.
There is so much darkness all around us, so much loneliness and isolation. Righteous Christians can truly be a light to the world -- beacons of peace and reconciliation in a world that is so often full of conflict. If we perform such good works, people will see them, says Jesus. Then they will "give glory to your Father in heaven."
The Pharisees may have been the spiritual superstars of their day, but their righteousness was rooted in rules and regulations. Jesus respected their passion for the law, but criticized their failure to put it into action. He encouraged his followers to do what the Pharisees "teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach."
That said, the Pharisees were, no doubt, good people. They were not necessarily cruel, heartless or unpleasant. But, when all was said and done, they were trying to be good for the wrong reasons, and Jesus could not lift up the Pharisees as the norm for righteousness. "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!" he said. "For you tithe mint, dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith."
The Pharisees of the Bible cannot be our role models for righteousness, because they neglected the justice, mercy and faith that are part of a right relationship with God and neighbor. Nor can the 21st-century Pharisees who are alive and well in the church today, people who make other Christians feel unworthy through an excessive focus on religious rules and regulations.
We have only one role model for righteousness: Jesus Christ, the one who invites us to be salt and light. The one of radical love. He offers us the very best peer pressure, that which inspires us to rise to the challenge of advancing his mission in the world. As salt, we can talk with openness and honesty about who we are as Christians. As light, we can bring warmth and energy to the world around us.
You might say, "Well, if the Pharisees were the superstars of peer pressure, and that's a bad thing, what about Jesus? He was without sin, and yet you say that he is our 'role model for righteousness'."
Yes. The difference between the Pharisees' righteousness and the righteousness of Jesus is that one must work for the former, while the righteousness of the latter is a free gift. See Philippians 3 where Paul makes this clear. Paul wants to be "found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith."
No peer pressure. We need never worry about whether we're righteous enough. Worrying is what the Pharisees did. We're righteous enough and then some. When we put our faith in Jesus, when we take his example of radical love for all, then our righteousness is the righteousness of Jesus.
That's a righteousness that even a Pharisee would envy.
Let us pray.
Jesus reminds us that as Christians we are the light of the world and exhorts us through good works to shine that light in the sight of men that others may follow. We pray for the grace and wisdom to follow His word and with our charitable works bring glory to our Father in heaven. We pray to the Lord.
For God’s holy church, that in serving the homeless, poor, and the oppressed it may live up to Jesus’ call to be salt and light for the world. We pray to the Lord.
We pray for our young people that they be not distracted by the false lights of a superficial life but recognize that the true light can only be found through the example and words of Christ, our loving Savior. We pray to the Lord.
This Tuesday is the internationally recognized World Day of the Sick. Let us pray for all those who are sick in body, mind and soul, particularly those in our own parish and country. We pray to the Lord.
For leaders of nations, may they work for the end of social and economic inequality based on race, gender, sexual orientation and religion. We pray to the Lord.
On this St Valentine’s week, we pray for all those who are in loving relationships, that they remember that their love for each other is a reflection of God’s love for us. We pray to the Lord.
That as we continue our building and repairs a benefactor or benefactors will be led to our humble parish as we look to obtain the funding needed to finish the rectory and necessary repairs. We pray to the Lord.
For those on our parish prayer list, that they may find consolation through Christ’s healing presence. We pray to the Lord.
We bow our heads and remember in silence our own personal intentions and the intentions of those who have asked for our prayers (pause). We pray to the Lord.
Merciful God, you call us to be salt and light and to live as your righteous, holy people. We want to, Lord, but we fall short! We confess that there is good and bad, light and dark within our own hearts. We want to do what is right, but our fears and anxieties lead us to self-protection rather than vulnerability, to hoarding rather than freely sharing, to self-righteousness rather than compassion. Forgive us, O God. Restore us by your mercy that having received the gift of your infinite love, we might turn to our neighbor and give your love away. For the sake of Christ, we pray. Amen.
God Love You +++
++ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Chapel
San Diego, CA