Now eagerly desire the greater gifts. And yet I will show you the most excellent way.
-I Corinthians 12:31
There are few practical roadmaps to show us how to generate and integrate grace in our lives. When I decided to make grace my touchstone, I unknowingly fell back on flawed Christian teaching that has left many of us throwing up our hands and declaring grace an unachievable and impractical goal. I imagined that by engaging in Olympian amounts of prayer, meditation, church attendance, and consumption of spiritual texts I would be so filled up with the love of God, I’d just overflow with the stuff. I’d be a veritable human Pez dispenser of grace. The contempt coursing through my veins would drain out of me, and I’d be a new person. I’ll cut to the chase. It didn’t work.
-Kristen Powers, Saving Grace
We do not become righteous by doing righteous deeds but, having been made righteous, we do righteous deeds.
There are only two kinds of [men]: the righteous who think they are sinners and the sinners who think they are righteous.
Inner righteousness is a gift from God to be graciously received. The needed change within is God’s work, not ours. The demand is for an inside job, and only God can work from the inside. We cannot attain or earn this righteousness of the kingdom of God; it is a grace that is given.
Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.-Matthew 5:19-20
When I embarked on a journey through the Sermon on the Mount, I knew there would be Mondays that would leave me saying, “Huh?” Today’s one of those days.
Let’s get right to it, with that bit about righteousness exceeding that of the scribes and Pharisees. As I scanned commentaries, I found I’m not the only one who finds this perplexing. The whole narrative of the gospels seems to be that the scribes and the Pharisees, the really religious people of the day are clueless. (Let’s just say I hear that as a caution to those of us who serve as clergy.) Little children and promiscuous persons and tax collectors and outsiders have more understanding of the kingdom than religious leaders. Is Jesus saying that we need to try to be more righteous than the scribes and Pharisees, whose hypocrisy is in plain view? Are we supposed to follow their script when Jesus has called them blind guides and whited sepulchers? That’s one possibility.
Another possibility is that Jesus is asking disciples to consider these questions: What race are you running? In what stream are you swimming? What do you think will get you where you want to go? What do you value?
If you want to play the scribes and Pharisees game, which is to try to get your theology right, try to get your practice right, try to cross every “t” and dot every “i”, to never make a mistake, go for it. But that’s a big mountain to climb, that teeth-gritting effort to be a spiritual super-hero. Trying to make sure we get it all right can be a rat race and it’s been noted that the problem with winning a rat race is that at the end, you’re still a rat. We can enter into that kind of righteous rat race, if we so choose. It can all be so exhausting.
But there is another way, which in my mind is what the Sermon on the Mount is laying out for us. That way says that the way to the righteousness of spiritual over-achievement is simply the way of love (which is the commandment Jesus embraces). It begins with understanding righteousness not so much as a moral checklist as a matter of relationship, being rightly related. And that way (St. Paul called it a more excellent way in the lead-in to his hymn about love in I Corinthians 13) exceeds the righteousness of scribes and Pharisees. By way of a sneak preview, the verses we’ll look at in the coming weeks talk about lives lived in righteousness. Jesus says it’s not as much a matter of outward actions as it is a matter of the heart that sets us in right relationship with God and with each other.
If this is indeed what Jesus had in mind (and folks, I could be wrong), then we are called to pursue a righteousness that comes by faith in the power of God’s grace to make us what we were created to be. It begins by recognizing that we can’t do this on our own, by our own willfulness. We need help because we will fall short. It continues with expressions of gratitude (which we observed over the past weekend) that it’s not all up to us. We will with God’s help. And then it finds expression in the practice of love of God and neighbor, the two being inseparable, the two commandments that sum up all the law, even the least of the laws. That practice is a reflection of the grace that has been shown to us. When we all get around to that kind of practice, I imagine that is what the kingdom of heaven will be like.
Give it some thought, give it a shot this first week of Advent.
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