Text Study for Matthew 5:13-20 (Part Two)

“For I am telling you that unless your justice greatly exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you shall certainly not enter into the Kingdom of the heavens” (Matthew 5:20, my translation).

The “Kingdom of the heavens” (KOTH) appears as a phrase in the Matthean account over thirty times. That total doesn’t include the tangential, indirect, and incomplete references to the KOTH. Moreover, the Matthean author devotes an entire chapter (Matthew 23) to the “woes” of the scribes and the Pharisees. This relationship between the practices of the scribes and the Pharisees and “justice” is a significant concern for the Matthean author and community.

Since this phrase occurs so many times and has such a prominent place in the Matthean account, interpreters will need to clear up some misapprehensions on the part of our hearers. This is not about some “heaven” in another place and/or time. “Heaven is God’s space, where full reality exists, close by our ordinary (‘earthly’) reality and interlocking with it,” N. T. Wright reminds us. “One day heaven and earth will be joined together for ever, and the true state of affairs, at present out of sight, will be unveiled” (page 36).

That understanding, of course, will cause some confusion and discomfort to people who are accustomed to thinking of “heaven” exclusively as “pie in the sky in the sweet by and by.” For that reason, I think I will lead my people through a Bible study on resurrection during the Easter season. But for now, it bears some mention for the sake of ongoing clarity.

Wright has a good summary paragraph in this regard. “The life of heaven – the life of the realm where God is already king – is to become the life of the world, transforming the present ‘earth’ into the place of beauty and delight that God always intended. And those who follow Jesus are to begin to live by this rule here and now. That’s the point of the Sermon on the Mount…” (page 37).

Robert Smith puts it this way. “To say that this kingdom or sovereign rule is ‘of heaven’ or ‘of God’ is not to locate it in the heavens above but to assert that it has its source in heaven or in God, that it comes as a gift from above, and that it is something wholly different from earthly kingdoms and sovereignties” (page 48).

Warren Carter offers some overview and summary of what the Matthean author might mean by “greatly exceeds.” This language assumes that the scribes and Pharisees “think justice important and ascribes some doing of it to them, but somehow it is not adequate” (page 142). This is not about replacing or superseding the justice of the scribes and Pharisees. This is, as Jesus notes, about “fulfilling” it.

In this regard, I think it’s helpful to read Matthew 23:1-7. “Then Jesus was speaking to the crowds and to his disciples as he said, ‘The scribes and the Pharisees are seated upon the chair of Moses. Therefore, all of that which they might say to you, you shall do and  observe, but you shall not do according to their works; for they are saying also what they are not doing’” (Matthew 23:1-3, my translation).

Here is the problem Jesus identifies. The things the scribes and Pharisees prescribe from the teaching chair of Moses – the Torah (law) – are appropriate for the crowds and the disciples. But the key is that they have to do it, not just hear it. That, in the Matthean account, is consistently the “more” that disciples add to the conduct and practice of the scribes and the Pharisees.

“The inadequacy is perhaps clarified first of all by recalling that in the imperial society Pharisees and scribes belong to the societal elite,” Carter writes, “the governing group in alliance with Rome, with a vested interest in maintaining, not reforming, the current, hierarchical, unjust societal structure” (page 143).

Whether that is true of all the scribes and Pharisees is a contested point among scholars. The Matthean author is engaging in some stereotyping here, and the interpreter must be cautious not to translate this into anti-Judaism or supersessionism. However, it may be the case that some scribes and Pharisees fit the image portrayed. It’s important in this regard first of all “to do no harm” when it comes to blanket descriptions of “the Jews.”

The problem with the justice of the Pharisees, Carter continues, “may be that it leaves the status quo of Roman domination intact. They do not practice,” Carter writes, “a transformative ‘justice, mercy, and faith’ as an alternative way of life that challenges the status quo and reflects the presence and triumph of God’s empire over all, including imperial ways” (page 143).

“The Pharisees quite understandably tried to observe the law without that observance being recognized as subversive to those who ruled them,” Hauerwas argues, “Yet that is exactly what Jesus will not let those who would be faithful to God’s calling of Israel, those who would be his disciples, do or be” (page 67).

What follows in the balance of Matthew 5, then, is a series of examples. These examples illustrate some of the ways that disciples can indeed greatly exceed the justice of the scribes and the Pharisees. As Carter notes, the exceeding will be described in Matthew 5:48 as a “perfection” or “wholeness” or “completion” that resembles the character of “our heavenly Father.”

To enter into the KOTH, then, is to “participate in the completion of God’s purposes already encountered in part in Jesus’ proclamation and healing” (page 143). This is not “works righteousness,” as some Protestants might worry. “The saved, the ransomed, the redeemed are empowered to practice righteousness and are summoned to it,” Robert Smith writes. “Matthew’s portrait of Jesus will disappoint anyone who imagines that discipleship should mean escape from morality into spiritual experience” (page 93).

Rather, as Smith writes, “from every page of Matthew’s Gospel, a consistent picture emerges. Jesus pursues the divine intention in the Law (whether written or oral), and not only pursues it but practices it, and not only practices it but teaches it, and teaches it,” Smith concludes, “not only in his earthly ministry but also as the resurrected one (28:19)” (page 92).

“The sermon, therefore,” Hauerwas writes, “is not a list of requirements, but rather a description of the life of a people gathered by and around Jesus. To be saved is to be so gathered” (page 61). Just as we make theological mistakes when we separate the person and work of Christ, so we make ethical mistakes when we separate the “person” and “work” of the Church.

This refusal to separate faith and works produces a faith community that refuses to remain invisible to the larger culture. Hauerwas points to Bonhoeffer’s argument in this regard. “Visibility and difference is the result of being pulled into the way of life made possible by Jesus,” Hauerwas writes, “So the Sermon on the Mount is a description of a way of life of a people, a people of a new age that results from following this man” (page 63).

Following this man leads us to a specific place in history and geography – another mountain in the Matthean account. “Jesus does not seek to violently overthrow Rome, because his kingdom is an alternative to the violence of Rome as well as to those who would overthrow Rome with violence,” Hauerwas continues.

“His kingdom, however, cannot avoid being subversive. That subversion is the righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees,” Hauerwas argues, “and as such is a subversion that will result in his crucifixion, for rather than violently overthrowing the old order Jesus creates a people capable of living in accordance with the new order in the old” (page 67).

Mark Charles and Soong-Chan Rah connect the imperial theology of Christian invisibility to the realities of White Christian Nationalism. Those realities are rooted in the deformed theology of White European Christian exceptionalism and supremacy. That deformed theology has been in process since the reign of the Emperor Constantine and continues to drive our current racist realities in the Western world. It is a deformed theology that produces, underwrites, and even celebrates Christian “invisibility.”

“Christendom is the prostitution of the church to the empire that created a church culture of seeking power rather than relationships,” the authors write. “Jesus laid down his life, but the empire must save its life. Jesus emptied himself, but the empire must protect and expand itself. There is a fundamental conflict between the goal of the earthly empire and the direction of the kingdom of God. Greatness in the world and great in the kingdom of God,” they conclude, “stand in opposition” (page 66).

This paragraph is much closer to the Sermon on the Mount than most of what passes these days for “orthodox” (White”) theology. Buckle up, preachers. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.

References and Resources

Carter, Warren. Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading (Bible and Liberation). Orbis Books. Kindle Edition.

Charles, Mark, and Rah, Soong-Chan. Unsettling Truths: The Ongoing, Dehumanizing Legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery. Intervarsity Press, 2019.

Hauerwas, Stanley. Matthew (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Smith, Robert H. Matthew (Augsburg Commentary on the New Testament). Augsburg, 1989. Wright, N.T. Matthew for Everyone, Part 1: Chapters 1-15 (The New Testament for Everyone). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

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