THE RIGHTEOUS PERSON IN
AN UNRIGHTEOUS SOCIETY
I have two sons, both of whom work in the "real world." Neither of their work environments are influenced to any significant degree by the religious world. One is the director of a Chamber of Commerce, and one is an accountant in a major accounting firm. My older son preaches and teaches Bible classes; my younger son is a deacon in the Highland congregation in Memphis.
Both have talked to me about how far removed much of our teaching emphasis is from the day-to-day realities encountered when you do your non-religious job in a non-religious environment.
One of the great challenges that has always confronted Christianity is the challenge to address real life and real problems in the world and age of the moment. Most religious bodies fail to do that in every age. As Christ's church, we commonly do a less than desirable job of helping people use Christ's teachings to address real life and real problems of today. I am not talking about changing anything Scripture teaches. I am talking about realistically and understandably using scripture to address what is happening in people's lives right now.
It is too easy for any religion or church to initially decide what it believes, what the important issues are, where it stands, and to focus all future attention on dealing with the concerns of the religion or church's, not the spiritual needs of people as they struggle with life.
That is what Judaism had done in the first century. Centuries before they decided what they believed, what the important issues were, and where they stood. And in each new generation, the synagogue teachers focused on the concerns of Judaism. It did not focus on the spiritual needs of people
as they struggled with life.
In the sermon found in Matthew 5-7, Jesus dealt with the spiritual needs of people struggling with life. The teachings of the Pharisees made the struggle worse. Jesus addressed matters that would help people spiritually in the real world.
Last week we looked at the contrast between Jesus' description of a righteous man and the Pharisees' description. Tonight we want to look at Jesus' statement about the life of a righteous person in an unrighteous society. Please note that the Jewish society was a religious society, but, by Jesus' definition, it was an unrighteous society.
Read with me Matthew 5:13-20.
- In this reading, Jesus used two "you are" statements.
- In that day, in that religious society, for a Jewish teacher to say "your are" was unusual.
- In Matthew 7:28, 29 the writer notes at the end of the sermon that:
- The people were amazed at Jesus' teaching.
- And that they were amazed because Jesus taught them as a person who possessed authority.
- A number of statements recorded by the gospels note the fact that Jesus' teachings amazed people.
- In Matthew 13 Jesus was visiting in his hometown.
- Verse 54 states that people in his hometown were astonished.
- "Where did he get this wisdom? Where did he get the power to perform these miracles?"
- During the last week of his life, Jesus had some major confrontations with Jewish leaders in Jerusalem.
- In Matthew 22, the Pharisees asked him if it was proper for Jews to pay Roman taxes, and he silenced them with his answer.
- The Sadducees asked him whose wife a woman would be in the next world since she had been married to seven brothers; again, Jesus silenced them with his answer.
- The crowds of people who witnessed this give and take were astonished at Jesus' teachings (22:33).
- Once when Jesus was teaching in Jerusalem, John 7:32 states that the chief priests and Pharisees sent some officers to arrest Jesus because they disapproved of his teachings.
- Verse 46 says that the officers returned without Jesus.
- They asked, "Why didn't you arrest him?"
- The officers answered, "Never did a man speak the way this man speaks."
- Mark 11:18 states that the chief priests and scribes wanted to destroy Jesus--they were afraid of him because he astonished the multitudes with his teaching.
- Twice more it says that Jesus' teachings amazed the people because he taught as one having authority.
- Mark 1:21, 22.
- Luke 4:31, 32.
- Some of their amazement occurred because of the content of his teaching and the wisdom reflected in his teaching.
- But content and wisdom do not explain the amazement generated because he taught as one having authority.
- In the synagogues, or in virtually any study or teaching situation, there was an approved, accepted, correct way to teach the scriptures.
- Either the scripture to be discussed was read, or the topic to be discussed was stated, and the relevant scriptures on that topic noted.
- Then the teacher established the proper interpretation or understanding by establishing the position of the rabbis over generations.
- "This is the correct understanding because rabbi A said, and rabbi B said, and rabbi C said, " and so on.
- Any one who disagreed would do so by citing a different line of rabbis.
- No one dared to say, "This is the correct understanding because I say..."
- You did not talk about "my position" or "my understanding."
- That is, nobody did but Jesus, and what he said dealt with real world realities.
- Jesus was distinctive in his teachings, no only in what he said, but in how he said it.
- His concept of a righteous person was distinctively different from the common concept.
- Anyone who accepted his concept and devoted himself or herself to that concept would become a person who was distinctively different in that highly religious society--a society that was devoutly religious, but was not righteous.
- For a teacher to say to his disciples that "you are" the avenue through which God will accomplish His world purpose was unusual.
- He did not say that the word of God was the salt and light of the world.
- Nor that the scribes or religious teachers were the salt and light of the world.
- Nor that the priests were the salt and light of the world.
- Nor that the synagogue was the salt and light of the world.
- But, he said his untrained, uneducated disciples were the salt and light of the world.
- The world was not going to be saved or enlightened by Israel's religious institutions and teachers, but by those who followed him and his teachings.
- Both images of salt and light are simple but profoundly powerful.
- "You, my disciples, are the salt of the earth."
- Then a question to those disciples: "If the salt loses its taste, can you put the salty taste back in it?"
- Have you ever had a box of salt to spoil? Have you ever had a box of salt loose its taste? Of course not.
- Salt is sodium chloride, and as long as sodium chloride is sodium chloride it retains it properties which includes its taste. As long as salt is salt, it has its salty taste.
- Then what was Jesus talking about?
- Salt was a precious commodity in Jesus' day because virtually everyone needed it.
- They had no means of preserving food by freezing or canning--salting food, especially fish or meat, was one of the few means that they had to preserve it.
- As under any government, the best items to tax are the items people use the most.
- A salt merchant would pass a government check point and pay taxes on his salt--and lose a part of his profit.
- Too make up for lost profit, he would add other white crystalline substances to it.
- If the salt passed through several merchants, and each did the same thing each time it was taxed, the salt would become so diluted by other substances that it was too weak to preserve food. It was salt "that had lost its taste" because it was diluted.
- What can you do with diluted salt?
- It is dangerous--there many be too little to taste or to preserve food, but there is still enough to kill plants if you put it on the ground.
- You cannot throw it away without doing damage.
- Unless you throw it away where you want nothing to grow--so you throw it in the road.
- God would work through Jesus' disciples to save the world, or Jesus' disciples would become so diluted by the world that they would become dangerous and destructive.
- You are the light of the world.
- As light, you will be obvious, as obvious as a city sitting on a tell. (A tell is a hill; specifically, an ancient mound in the Middle East composed of remains of successive settlements.)
- The purpose of lighting a lamp is to help everybody in the room to see.
- So you don't hide the lamp under a basket (lamp's were small and gave off a very dim light), but you put it on a lamp stand--high enough to light the room.
- Don't hide the light you will radiate because of my teachings; don't be afraid to be distinctive.
- Let it shine. How? By doing good works.
- The good you do will be so distinctively different to the religious society that people will not be giving you credit.
- Your distinctiveness will be so unique that they will glorify God.
- The Jewish people were quite accustomed to watching religious people perform religious deeds--they were not accustomed to religious teachings making people good people who did good things.
- Jesus knew that he would be accused of trying to destroy God's law because his teachings and his method of teaching were different.
- If Jesus' teachings and presentation were:
- Presented in a style not used by anyone else.
- Reached different conclusions.
- Made God's message relevant to present realities.
- He knew that the religious leaders would declare that he was not teaching the truth; that he was not teaching scripture; that he and his teachings were dangerous; and that his teaching were destructive.
- And he was right--that is exactly what happened.
- Jesus stated clearly that his teachings were no threat to God's law.
- He did not come as a teacher to abolish (completely destroy) the law and the prophets--the way the Jews said "scriptures."
- He came to accomplish the ultimate purposes of the law and prophets--the law and prophets would achieve their basic purpose and goal in what he was doing.
- Nothing could destroy the law--it was impossible for the law not to achieve its God-given purpose.
- "Any disciple who uses my teachings to nullify even the least command of the law will be least in the kingdom of heaven"--not out of it, but least.
- "Any disciple who lives by and teaches the law will be great in the kingdom of heaven."
- Jesus knew, clearly understood, that the traditional teaching of the law had perverted the message and the intent of the law.
- His teachings would reveal and establish the correct message and intent of the law, for they would reveal God's message and intent.
- The law was not threatened by Jesus or his teachings.
- Then he gave this warning to his disciples who would commit themselves to being the righteous person he described: "If your righteousness does not exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven."
- The point is clear: unless their righteousness was greater than the righteousness of their religious leaders, they would not be a part of the kingdom.
- That brings up interesting questions.
- Could they know more about the scriptures than the scribes and Pharisees?
- Could they study more?
- Could they recite more commands or give more applications?
- Could they be more judgmental?
- Could they attend more religious assemblies and religious functions?
- Could they pray more?
- The rest of the sermon reveals the "how"?
- They can learn a more correct understanding of God's purposes and intents.
- They can learn correctly the message of God's teachings.
- They can have better motives and better hearts.
- They can practice the things God defines to be good: such as forgiving others, treating others as you want to be treated.
- Just as their righteousness must exceed the religious expressions of their religious environment, if we are to be Christ's church, so must ours.
- How will we do that?
- By knowing more than everyone else?
- By studying harder?
- By reciting more commands and more interpretations?
- By being more judgmental and hostile?
- By attending more assemblies and religious functions?
- By praying more?
- I sincerely doubt that is possible.
- How then?
- By committing ourselves to be the righteous person Jesus described.
- By learning God's real intents and purposes in His word.
- By better understanding the message of God through Christ.
- By having better motives and better hearts.
- By devoting ourselves to things Jesus stressed such as forgiveness of others, and treating others as we want to be treated.
We are salt and light only if Christ is in us and our lives are dedicated to doing the things he wants us to do. We are salt and light only if we let Jesus teach us and change us. Only because of Jesus can we be salt and light. Without Jesus, we are not salt, and we are a part of the darkness. Allow Jesus' teachings to make you a good person who does good things. And don't be ashamed of being distinctive when Jesus does that.
West-Ark Church of Christ, Fort Smith, AR
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Evening Sermon, 24 November 1996
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