Matthew 5:13-20 (NRSV)
13 “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.
14 “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 15 No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.
17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. 19 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. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
Sometimes in my work I worry that I’ll get lost in the business of re-packaging Christianity. I’ve done the rounds of the different expressions of Christian worship and community life and I’ve see value in them all, but how do you communicate the gospel authentically when the gospel people can’t even agree about how to express it properly?
In the reading this Sunday, Jesus shares different facets of the gospel with people coming from a variety of perspectives. In the opening of the Sermon on the Mount Jesus addresses the weary. What use is a gospel that can’t speak meaning into mourning and oppression? At the point that this Sunday’s gospel reading picks up, Jesus speaks to those who need a reason to be here on this earth. He shares rousing words indicating our co-responsibility with God for the fate of our universe. You are salt and light!
The message that seems written for this age comes next: Jesus preaches a gospel to those who are weary of their religious tradition. As they listen to this firebrand, I imagine lights come on behind the eyes of indifferent Jews, sick of being judged by the teachers of the law. Maybe in our time they would be the nominal Christians drifting off to ashrams to find themselves, convinced that their own religion has nothing to offer… But Jesus says to them, “I am not saying anything new!”
His next step makes me reflect on what I do. Sometimes I push the pile of Books of Common Prayer to the side in our school chapel for a night and print off a more accessible service sheet instead, one with a cartoon. On camp, instead of traditional intercessions, we might do some sort of creative prayer (more fairy lights!!). Sometime I just want to cling to tradition and wait for people to wake up to its beauty. How are we supposed to present the gospel in a modern world that often seems indifferent?
Considering his penchant for a parable, this is an unusually preachy message by Jesus’ standards. He tells them they cannot abandon the old Law, in fact, he says, they need to get serious about following it. It’s not an approach I’ve tried.
**A pub. Saturday night. With school friends.**
Friend of a Friend: So what is it that you do again?
Me: Oh, I’m a school chaplain and I work for the church.
FoaF: Right! So you’re fairly religious then?
Me: Yeah, I suppose so.
FoaF: Fair play. Yeah, I used to believe as a child, but I don’t have much faith in organised religion now. When I was travelling I did a bit of meditation and stuff, so like, I’d say I’m spiritual, but not religious.
Me: That’s interesting. But you are wrong. Have you considered reading the Bible every day and actually following its laws very stringently. Like, even more strictly than priests do?
FoaF: You know, I suddenly really need the loo...
Me: (silently prays with a knowing look) You can thank me for that one later, Jesus.
I jest, of course, but that last part of the gospel reading is very important.
You must be more righteous than the scribes and Pharisees.
The challenge Jesus gives is not accusatory. He is not saying that these people haven’t been holy enough. We know countless spats with the Pharisees and scribes will follow where Jesus will contest the way in which they have taught the Law to the people. Jesus is presenting the challenge of the gospel and simultaneously explaining that if they have not been attracted by this challenge, then they must have only received a corrupted version of it. He is calling them into a life more challenging but also purer and more fruitful than the one the establishment has presented.
I am certainly no expert about the “right way” to worship or to share the gospel with others and as I say, I’ve seen value in all the expressions I have experienced. What I have taken from this passage is that practicing Christians occupy a more similar position to the Pharisees than to Jesus in this story, so if our aim is to reach out to disaffected church people, then maybe we’re supposed to be saying, “We get this life of faith wrong. The scripture is there for anyone to read. Come be holier than we are and we’ll see if any of us gets a better insight into the Kingdom of Heaven.” However, since most church communities are not routinely followed by crowds of people up onto mountains, maybe we’ll have to put some energy into making these conversations happen.
Emma Rothwell currently divides her time between the Church of Ireland Dioceses of Meath & Kildare where she is the Diocesan Youth and Children’s Officer and Wilson’s Hospital School where she is the School Chaplain.