Saturday, February 4, 2017

Good Enough Righteousness?

Matthew 5:21-37, the gospel lesson appointed for the 6th Sunday after the Epiphany, is clearly a working out of verse 20 in this same chapter:  "For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven."  Jesus makes increasingly clear that, as he said, he did not come to abolish the law or the prophets, "but to fulfill" them.  This quickly disabuses us of any notions we might have of "cheap grace" (Bonhoeffer), and gives us reason to take seriously the ethical standards of following Jesus.

(The following questions are not meant to be exhaustive, but only to unearth some of the issues most important to Law and Gospel preachers.  These questions are part of a method I lay out in 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 is clearly raising the standards for his disciples.  He is calling into question any nonchalance the community might have concerning the Law.  He is condemning even hidden sins, and calling all to repentance and greater integrity.  This Word then functions primarily as Law, alerting us to our need for repentance.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  Clearly there is no word of grace, no announcement of what God has done in Christ, no gospel here.  The Word which proclaims that Christ has been the One whose righteousness exceeds all other righteousness will have to be found elsewhere and brought to bear on this text.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  Throughout the Sermon on the Mount we are the listeners, the disciples.  We are the ones who are likely to be found saying, "I may not be perfect, but I never killed anyone," as though that is the standard of godliness for a follower of Christ.  We are the ones who need regular reminders that to follow Christ means to take on a higher standard of concern for the neighbor and God's world, not look for loopholes.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  The Word functioning as a call to obedience is always the Word inviting us to live in a certain way in response to God's grace.  This text could be viewed as wholly that were it not for the repeated warnings about what failure to keep these laws entails.  Christ's followers are certainly invited in this text to the higher standard, but the text still functions primarily as Law.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  The whole message of this text must be considered in order to come up with a helpful couplet.  Several ideas:  presuming/repenting; minimal standards/Christ's standards.

6.  Exegetical work:  Mark Allan Powell, in his insightful work on Matthew's gospel, God With Us; A Pastoral Theology of Matthew's Gospel, argues that "ethical formation" of Christ's disciples is paramount for the writer of Matthew's gospel. (p. 64)  Powell writes that for "Matthew, the teaching of the church is primarily concerned with ethical formation and this is to take place within the community of faith rather than in the world at large." (p.69)  "Matthew's readers are expected to accept what Jesus says in chapter 5-7 not because it makes sense or rings true existentially but because Jesus himself is the authoritative agent of God."  "Matthew's Gospel assumes that acceptance of Jesus' ethical teaching is predicated on prior acceptance of the christological doctrine expounded in the narrative." (p. 70)

7.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  Chris Repp, in his analysis of this text, archived under Gospel A, 2011, does a nice job of pointing out the slippery slope that exists when we get caught up in "good enough righteousness."  He shows how Christ's commitment to exceeding righteousness frees us to be the people of faith we are called to be.  See the entire analysis at study.

Blessings on your proclamation!

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