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A Breath of Fresh Air for a New Year

In my Dec. 30, 2017 sermon, I posed Jesus’ challenge in Matt. 5:20 as a new year’s resolution challenge: “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” At first glance, this challenge may seem daunting given their reputation of squeaky-clean and meticulous piety. A closer look reveals a type of righteous behavior that replaces that of the scribes and Pharisees.

Matt. 5:20’s challenge is the crux, the focus statement of the sermon on the mount which, as an interrogative would look like this: “How do you exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees?” In Matt. 5:21-26, the first succeeding block of text, Jesus begins to unfold his answer. Actually, his answer goes all the way to the end of Matthew 7. We will limit ourselves to the above-mentioned text.

Using “How?” as guide, let us note how Jesus develops his answer. First, Jesus brings up an old, universally accepted commandment as case-in-point (see v. 21). Second, he plumbs the depth of every person’s obedience (see v. 22a)—but not as one might expect. Rather than listing every possible scenario which might constitute a murderous act, Jesus plumbs the attitudes of the heart where murderous spirits lie. Third, upon entering the heart, he exposes certain attitudes that are as liable to judgment as the physical act of murder is (see vv. 23b-26).

In relation to the third, Jesus reveals anger (orgizo) as culpable spirit deserving judgment. In succeeding illustration, Jesus will reveal corresponding attitudes relating to other commands. Contempt for people (a low-burning form of anger) is also culpable. He says that these need to be addressed, not just as pre-murderous spirit that could lead to the physical act of murder, but simply as disobedience deserving judgment. Jesus’ point is that a violent spirit is as culpable as a violent act, and must be grappled with.

Moreover, one must plumb one’s heart for the presence (or the lack) of peacemaking characteristics (cf. Matt. 5:9). Jesus does not stop culpability with the presence of a violent spirit. He digs deeper in search of a character of peace. It is one thing to address one’s anger and contempt for people. It is quite another to reach out to them to help them grapple with their own violent spirits directed towards you—regardless of whether this person is a sister/brother or an enemy. Jesus holds everyone responsible in preventing murderous acts and attitudes not just in one’s own self but in others also, by initiating reconciliation.

What a breath of fresh air!

Pastor Mel Baga, DMin