The Biblical idea of Righteousness is a gift that keeps on giving. It has so many meanings that a preacher could give several homilies without repeating anything essential. Part of this is that several Hebrew words have been translated as one Greek word and this has eventually been translated into 2 English words righteousness and justification. To make it even more complicated they can be applied both to God and humanity. Yet the basic reason may be quite simple. Righteousness is about being in a good relationship with God, and human language; even inspired, will always be left wanting. Righteousness is both too broad and too deep.
Let us begin with Jesus’ warning that our righteousness must surpass that of the scribes and Pharisees and the examples he provides.
The righteousness of the scribes is that one should not kill, one should not commit adultery, we should divorce fairly, and should not swear falsely. These are all good things, and the world would be a much better place if people lived this way. The Jews earned their reputation for high moral standards in the ancient world through this kind of righteousness.
Now look at the righteousness to which Jesus calls us: we must still avoid murder but anger as well, we must not only not commit adultery but avoid lust as steadfastly. Even a divorce which has been legally executed is no longer righteous as divorce itself is forbidden. We must not only not take a false oath such as perjury, but we must always speak straightforwardly.
Treating Anger as murder goes well beyond the stated law and is a substantial modification but does not repeal the Law. Moses however allowed for divorce and Jesus is clearly repealing it. You have heard it said is the voice of the tradition, but I tell you is the voice of Jesus. Matthew’s community believes that Jesus as the God-man changed the relationship between God and humanity. He has made a new covenant that will require a new law.
We should first note that the actions Jesus now demands can be achieved only with his help. They require a change of heart which is a gift from the Spirit. Non-Christians may, of course, have this conversion. The Holy Spirit does not need our permission to bestow his gifts but we who know that we have this relationship have a responsibility not only to live it but to share it. Let us remember that this is part of the Sermon on the Mount. We began with the beatitudes. Those strange humanly paradoxical blessings in which we are told that what we have been taught to believe will bring human flourishing: earthly riches, human esteem, and social acceptance, should be shunned, and poverty, insult, and meekness which we might wish to avoid should be embraced. These blessings are given for and found in the Church and Matthew knows that they will heal his divided Church.
Matthew’s church was founded by Jews who were being replaced by a gentile-born majority. He knew however that Christianity is incomprehensible without recognizing and affirming its Jewish roots. His gospel acknowledges Jewish righteousness and holds that Jesus has fulfilled the law and the prophets not abolished them. Jesus’ ministry, death and resurrection are understandable only as the completion of the old covenant and indeed the true meaning and depth of the old covenant are understood only through Jesus. Christianity and Judaism are forever linked.
What he tells us today is not only for our bible study or for our personal use but for community building. There was great change occurring in his church and consequently, there was anger. Anger in small groups is extremely destructive and could murder the community itself. He clarifies this by using the example of bringing a sacrifice to the altar while harboring hostility towards a fellow church member. Eucharists in the early church were very intimate affairs and could become easily toxic if contaminated by anger.
Lust is always destabilizing, and Matthew is concerned that Gentiles will bring their laxer sexual mores into the Church. The early church would have forced people together and with predictable consequences if lust were ignored.
Divorce among the Jews was rigged against the woman and Christianity demands equality. If women can be disposed of quickly then they are not full members of the community. Matthew will develop this later in the Gospel (Matthew 19) so we will simply note that Matthew understands that divorce as it was then practiced sapped the vitality of the Church. History has proved that the church is strong when everyone is acknowledged and welcomed and weakened by exclusion.
Finally, to bring his church together people must be honest with one another. Matthew gives the example today of avoiding the truth without directly lying and we could add modern equivalents. This is not politeness this is evasion and prevents the work of the sprit.
Matthew is thinking primarily of church building, but these are solid guides for any community life. When elected leaders heckled the president during the state of the union address, I thought of those who called out “raka”, imbecile or idiot, in today’s gospel. And how many families suffer from members not being able to let “yes” mean “yes” and “no” mean “no”?
Righteousness not only allows us to make the Church more than an NGO with an ancient pedigree but provides us with a gift to share with others. We probably know many people whose righteousness is real but not Christian. If we lead lives which reflect the righteousness of Jesus, they will see that their own goodness and virtue have greater depth than they knew and can be perfected and fulfilled in Jesus. The righteousness of Jesus allows us to give the gift of joy to those we love no matter what their beliefs and practices. Last week we were told that we must be the light of the world. Today we are shown how to share a light that does not pass away.