Let’s be blunt; I’m not good enough. Jesus says, “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” I’ve been doing some reading lately on first century Judaism and am ready to conclude that the scribes, Pharisees, Essenes, and even, the Sadducees, were a lot better folk than the average church going Christian is today. They, at least, sought to know the commandments of God and worked at obeying what they had been taught. This meant fasting, tithing, attending week-long religious celebrations, and setting aside hours each day for prayer. If God grades on the curve, I still fail.
The core commandment of the Old Testament is: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5)The grace that God extends to us in Jesus Christ reconnects us with this fundamental law. Through salvation our sins are forgiven and we receive new hearts capable of love. The question remains, “how does our righteousness exceed the religion of Jesus’ opponents?”
Look at the use of the word ‘light,’ both in Jesus’ teaching (Matthew 5:14-16) and in Isaiah’s (58:6-8). Manifesting the ‘light’ of God’s love and grace by our love for others is the way our righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees. Jesus demonstrates this by stating that the great command is to love God with all our heart… (Deut. 6) and “to love our neighbor as our selves.” (Matthew 22:34-39).
This means taking responsibility for the things those around us need. If they are hungry feed them. If they are sick or in prison, visit them. If they are being denied their basic rights and dignity because of race, gender, or sexual orientation, then stand with them in their cause. If poverty has them trapped, then help them find the pathway out of their distress. The prophets of the Old Testament, as well as the great voices of other world religions, knew how to be ‘Light’:
Loose the bonds of injustice.
Undo the thongs of the yoke and let the oppressed go free.
Break the things that bind people to poverty.
Share your bread with the hungry
and bring the homeless poor into your house.
When you see the naked, cover them.
Have the kind of conscience
that prevents you from hiding from your responsibility for all people.
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn.
(from Isaiah 58:6-8)