We are in the section of the Sermon which I titled Righteousness Affects Your Obedience. It comes between two statements by Jesus which act together to show the unity of this section. The first is, For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:20) and the second, You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:48) Righteousness – true righteousness – is beyond what the religious leaders of Jesus’ day taught and practiced, it is the very perfection of God.
To expand on the idea that righteousness affects your obedience: In the first section, we saw there was a difference between how the scribes and Pharisees viewed murder and how Jesus viewed it. The teaching they heard had only to do with the physical act of murder, to a degree understandable since no one can read someone else’s thoughts. Jesus, however, warned people of their inner selves. As he said later, clean the inside of the cup so the outside will be clean.
A person is a whole person. Even though we sometimes talk of “parts” of a person (ie people consisting of body, soul and spirit), that is more as a theological or philosophical convenience. When a person acts, the whole person acts. A righteous person will not be content with outwardly righteous acts when he knows inward reality conforms to their unrighteous alternatives. This next section, one of the better known teachings in the Sermon, also has that outer/inner contrast but there is a twist.
You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to desire her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away! It is better to lose one of your members than to have your whole body thrown into hell. If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away! It is better to lose one of your members than to have your whole body go into hell. (Matthew 5:27-30)
This is one of the most well-known passages in the Sermon. The old “lusting in the heart” thing. Some of you may be old enough to remember that in 1976, then presidential candidate Jimmy Carter, thinking he was witnessing to a reporter after the end on an interview, went into this passage and the story was published that Carter admitted he had committed adultery “in his heart”.
This section continues the idea of the previous section that your inner thoughts indicate your righteousness. As verse 8 of this chapter said, what is required is a pure, or undivided, heart. One cannot point to a lack of physical actions as righteousness when inwardly unrighteousness is indulged.
I had said there was a twist. I think another thing brought out by this section is the inadequacy of using a “checklist” approach to morality. So often people approach the Christian life as if it is a list of what’s naughty and nice. Do not murder? Check. Do not commit adultery? Check. The Pharisees had the checklist in spades. One result of the checklist approach is you relate to your list, rather than God, or even to yourself. This aspect of the work of Christ, I believe, is brought out in Hebrews, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God. (Hebrews 9:14) The checklist puts one’s conscience into service of the works rather than God. The imputation of true righteousness frees you from that service so you can serve God.
Another thing about the checklist, it forces a narrow focus and not an integrated view. The Pharisees quote one of the Ten Commandments You shall not commit adultery. (Exodus 20:14) what is missed with that is that only a few verses later, it says You shall not covet (Exodus 20:17). People commonly think that Jesus here was making the Law harder when in reality he was teaching the Law. Adultery? No. Coveting? Um, eh. Later on in Romans 7, Paul talks about this same thing, coveting, which caused his pharisaical house of cards to fall. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. (Romans 7:7-8)
The call of Jesus’ teaching, I believe, is to judge ourselves with true discernment. Our inner lives seem much harder to control than our actions and it is there that we need the power of imputed righteousness to free us. And we join with the two-fold prayer of the Psalmist, Teach me your way, O LORD, that I may walk in your truth; unite my heart to fear your name. (Psalms 86:11)