Righteousness Redux: What Is the Point?

pomegranate photo

Since diving into the “moral teaching” section of the Sermon on the Mount we’ve spent several months detailing out Jesus’s teaching on personal responsibility, on anger and contempt, on lust and fidelity and the sacredness of marriage, on honesty and oath-taking and seeing everything as sacred.

Every one of these reorientations toward the law of God is powerful and insightful and has the seeds of radical culture change within it.

But what is the point?

It’s All About the Inside

These teachings reach back to Moses, delve the depths of our hearts, and lay out a way of life that is suited to the kingdom of God, a way of life that submits to God’s authority in every part of ourselves.

And that ultimately is the point, and the point I don’t want to lose sight of: that this isn’t about learning more and harder rules, and working harder and more scrupulously to follow them;

rather this is about becoming a reconstituted people, changed from the inside out, living a life that is holy and sacred and set apart because we love God and because we have received from him the greatest gifts imaginable.

It’s important in the midst of the moral teachings, where Jesus is so exacting, not to forget that these are not a list of things we must do to become acceptable to God but instead a way forward for us, a vision of what life can be empowered by the Lord’s Spirit, a higher and more life-giving way that is given to us as a gift.

It’s All About the Gifts

We can’t forget that this entire teaching began, not with a call to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, but with a blessing on the spiritually impoverished, the grief-stricken, the struggling, and the starved:

and the promise to them, to us, is that God will give us his kingdom. He will draw near to us, he will give us an inheritance, and he will personally feed our hunger and our thirst.

“Those who are persecuted for righteousness are blessed,” Jesus finished that list, “for the kingdom of heaven is theirs.”

The Mystery of the Kingdom

For Jesus to tell thousands of people, in his own day, and by extension hundreds of thousands and millions and eventually billions of people, that a kingdom has been given to them is puzzling, because we do not perceive of kings as being all that plentiful.

Kingdoms can only rightfully be said to be given to rulers; peons live in them, but the kingdom isn’t theirs. We can understand the kingdom of God in terms of an empire, where Jesus is King of Kings, big King over little kings, but how many little kings can there really be room for?

A lot, if Jesus is to be believed.

This is part of the promise and the challenge of the Sermon’s moral teachings: We are not used to believing we have as much authority over ourselves as Jesus indicates we do. We “can’t help” being angry; we can’t help lusting; we can’t help it if we get backed into a corner and tell white lies. Christendom concurs: we’re victims of original sin, unable to battle our base urges with anything like real success. That’s why we need Jesus.

And that’s true. The Bible is clear that none of us will get entirely clear of sin in this life (see 1 John 1:8–10).

Yet with his description of “surpassing righteousness” in our actions and hearts, Jesus indicates that part of being given a kingdom is being given the authority to battle victoriously against our worst enemies, beginning with ourselves.

Worship leader Misty Edwards talks about the inner life of human beings as “an edgeless galaxy,” a universe within a universe. Looking out on a crowd of people one is looking at countless universes, countless little spiritual planets in connection with each other and with God and yet discrete.

And maybe that’s what some of this “kingdom” business is about: that each of us has a realm, and it’s our job to bring our realm to Jesus and submit it to the rulership of heaven, and when we do he will give us a throne in our hearts and lives and empower us to sit on it well.

Pulling It All Together

When you think about it, that’s one of the thrusts of this whole moral section: that we need to stop trying to control one another and instead focus our efforts on taking dominion over ourselves.

We must cease viewing ourselves as victims and begin to believe we have power and agency in our own lives, because in Christ, we do.

If you don’t know where to start, begin back at zero. At poor in spirit, mourning, meek, and hungry. In that place receive the kingdom anew, and press forward again: to transformation, to authority, to life as a king under the blessing and authority of the King.

“Whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven,” Jesus said. And when he was resurrected (much later in the story), “Go into all the world and teach all nations, teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20).

Grace does not set us free just from sin’s consequence but from its power. That we might live above contempt, above anger, above lust, above fear, above covetousness, above dishonesty and finagling and always having an angle—this is not just a pipedream. This is surpassing righteousness, and it is the way of the kingdom.

It will transform our world as it transforms our lives.

(This is Part 50 in a series on the Gospel of Matthew, which you can access here. Unless otherwise marked, quotes are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.)