Saturday, January 28, 2017

A Better Righteousness

It is no surprise that the emphasis on righteousness continues in Matthew's gospel, in which even the baptism of Jesus was done to "fulfill all righteousness".  This week's gospel text, Matthew 5:13-20, appointed for the 5th Sunday after the Epiphany, lays to rest any idea we might have that Jesus is antinomian.  Verse 17 says it explicitly, "Do not think [in case you are!] that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill."  Or, as some translators have said, "I have come to reveal  the true meaning of the Law."

(The following questions are an attempt to bring to light some of the fundamental concerns of Law and Gospel preachers.  These questions are taken from the appendix to my brief guide to Law and Gospel preaching, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from or amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  Jesus, the Word, is announcing a number of things in this text.  At the outset he announces the identity of the disciples:  they are salt and light.  This is to say, their identity in Christ is already established.  They are called to live up to their identity.  Next, Jesus announces that he has come to fulfill the Law thus his listeners are disabused of any notion they have that they may do as they please.  He tops it off by issuing a challenge:  "Your righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees."  These announcements function in different ways. The announcement of our identity in Christ is a gospel function:  We are given the good news that our righteousness is not what establishes our identity.  The Call to Obedience comes as we are called to live up to our identity as salt and light.  The announcement that our righteousness must be extraordinary functions as Law since it brings us face-to-face with our proclivity to do as we please, as well as our mistaken notion that a righteousness based on the rules of the scribes and Pharisees is sufficient.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  There is no explicit Gospel word here which announces what God has done in Christ.  That we will need to bring in from different sources - probably Pauline.  Also an explicit word which instructs us in the particulars of being salt and light is not present.  Our imaginations will supply this.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?   As always in the Sermon on the Mount, we are the disciples, those who listen to these words.  We are those who are mistaken about the righteousness that Christ demands, and about how we are to live.  We are those who need to know that our identiy in Christ is secure, despite our unrighteousness.

4.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  The first two metaphors are our best guide here:  good for nothing/nothing but goodness; under the bushel/on the lampstand.

5.  Exegetical work:   Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his classic work, The Cost of Discipleship, does a profound analyis of the Sermon on the Mount.  Here are a view quotes pertaining to these verses:  "There is a 'better righteousness' which is expected of Christians.  Without it no one can enter the kingdom of  heaven, for it is the indispensable condition of discipleship." "The call of Christ, in fact Christ himself... is the sine qua non of this better righteousness." (p. 135)  "There is no fulfillment of the law apart from communion with God, and no communion with God apart from fulfillment of the law."  (p. 138)  Luther devotes an entire volume to his commentary on the Sermon on the Mount. (Luther's Works, vol. 21)   Here are a few pieces from that work:  "[Jesus came] for the very purpose of correcting and conforming the teaching of the Law in opposition to those who were weakening it by their teaching." (p. 67)  "[Christ intends] to show [the Law's] real kernel and meaning... in antithesis to the glosses which the Pharisees have introduced, the shells and husks which they have been preaching." (p. 70)  The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible defines the Pharisaic interpretation of the Law in this way:  "A perfectionism of purity and purification by the meticulous observance of the ritual requirements of the Levitical code."  (vol. III, p. 775)

6.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  Cathy Lessman does a nice job of showing how when we "junk" God's law, God's law "junks" us.  The good news is that Christ throws himself on the trash heap at Golgotha thus producing in us the righteousness that only Christ can provide.  Look at the complete analysis archived under 2011 Gospel A for the 5th Sunday after the Epiphany at study.

Blessings on your proclamation!

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