Word for the day by Christian Education Forum
Reformation Sunday, The Church that has to be ReformedMatt 5:17-20
"Except your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. " (Matthew 5:20)
Dietrich Bonhoeffer makes a profound analysis of the Sermon on the Mount: "But 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." [Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, (New York: SCM Press, 1963), 137]. In Matthew’s Gospel the 'greater righteousness' is set in contrast to the ethical deficiencies of the established Jewish religion. The Scribes and the Pharisees interpreted the prophets and the law, but failed miserably in practicing the latter’s prescriptions. John the Baptist calls for deeds befitting repentance (3:8) and Jesus' teaching stresses the primacy of orthopraxis (right deeds) over orthodoxy (right faith). On Reformation Sunday, let us reflect on the nature of re-formation as a trans-formative experience. The Christian ethical standards are placed in continuity with the traditions of the law and the prophets with a ‘greater’ righteousness that exceeds that of the Scribes and the Pharisees.
The person and work of Jesus stood in direct continuity with the Old Testament. Fulfilment meant more than continuity. Jesus' historical presence meant a paradigm shift as well. That is why the New Testament is a 'new covenant.' Jesus taught, interpreted, and affirmed the orthodox Torah tradition and the vibrant prophetic ethics. Jesus made a severe critique of the Scribes and the Pharisees for their failure to follow the Torah's high ethical standards. The leaders blindly distorted the traditions and neglected justice and mercy (23:23). Rather, Jesus calls for a radical obedience to the divine commandments with love as the guiding ethical principle. The greater righteousness involves the transforming encounter with the righteous Lord who had come in fulfilment. Righteousness demands an accounting which ultimately requires an ethical auditing.
The disciple obeys the will of God. It occurs naturally as salt flavors and light shines. Jesus offers clues to his understanding of righteousness in the antitheses that follow (5:21-48). "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall not… But I say to you…'." It is important to attend to details of the law, but even a higher ethical standard is required. Jesus summarizes the Sermon on the Mount with the Golden Rule: "In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets" (7:12). It is getting aligned with God's will that will keep us in the path of righteousness.
God, empower us with your grace to lead a life worthy of repentance with a transformative moral vision exceeding the righteousness of the traditions.Amen
Thought for the Day
The ‘greater righteousness’ is not an ‘impossible possibility.’ It is not a negation but reformation of the religious traditions, a transformation leading to a higher ethical standard of the Kingdom of God.
Rev. Dr. Alexander M. Isaac
Associate Professor, Dept. of Theology & Ethics, United Theological College, Bangalore