Monday, February 3, 2014

Comparative Righteousness

Did you see the Volkswagen Super Bowl commercial that portrayed its German engineers as getting their wings every time a Volkswagen reaches 100k miles? I didn’t catch the whole thing the first time around, so I watched it again. You can, too (see the Youtube clip below). The part I remembered, though, is the scene right at 30 seconds when two engineers are standing in the bathroom at adjacent urinals. Size, it seems, matters.

In Sunday’s gospel lesson (Matthew 5:13-20), a comparison of a different sort seems to be at the heart of Jesus’ exhortation to his disciples, and the result of the comparison most definitely matters:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. 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. 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. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

How much righteousness do you need? More than that of the scribes and Pharisees, it seems.

Comparative righteousness. It flies in the face of everything this Grace-over-Law, Pauline-primacy, universality-of-sin, total-depravity preacher believes about the gospel. What do you mean, Jesus? Our righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees? What kind of a I’m-holier-than-thou comparison game are you instituting? Did I read that right?

Well, I turned to the Greek. More specifically, I turned to a resource that mostly sits unused on my shelf: Gerhard Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. (In case you aren’t familiar with the whole tradition of latent if not explicit anti-Semitism in much of German New Testament scholarship before the middle of the 20th century, let me simply say that quoting Kittel invites a whole host of criticism that I don’t intend to invoke. So let the reader understand that I get it. And, although he has some wonderful insights into how Greek words have made it from OT tradition into the NT, there’s a reason he usually sits unused on my shelf.) Kittel has a whole subheading devoted to Matthew’s use of the word for “righteousness” (δικαιοσύνη). Paul might use “righteousness” as a “pure gift from God” and, thus, an integral piece of his “doctrine of justification,” but Matthew (and most of the other non-Pauline NT writers) use it as “the right conduct of man which follows the will of God and is pleasing to him.” Uh oh.

Kittel, who is decidedly German-Protestant, qualifies this and attempts to explain that such “right conduct” is “plainly regarded as a gift which God gives to those who ask for it.” That would make me feel a little better if it really were that plain. But it’s not. And I don’t want to fall into the trap (perhaps his) of reading Matthew 5:20 as if it were Romans 3:22. “Your righteousness,” Jesus tells us, “[must exceed] that of the scribes and Pharisees.” Exceed. Be more than. Outdo.

As I prepare to preach on Sunday, I feel called to wrestle with this text—perhaps as the original hearers did. Pharisees and scribes were the do-gooders of Jesus’ day. Yes, they get a bad rap in the gospels, but the prevailing opinion in Jesus’ day was that they were the “holier-than-thous.” They said their prayers and went to synagogue and gave their offerings and lived a religious life that everyone knew about. I’m guessing human nature hasn’t changed over the past 2,000 years and that they were just as popular then as similar characters are today. But to suggest that our righteousness must exceed that of the “holier-than-thous” is throwing everything into a scramble. What is real righteousness? Where does it come from? How much do I have to do with it? Is it (as I typically think) purely a gift from God? If so, how does my righteousness ever exceed that of someone else? Are these two different concepts of righteousness coming to a battle in Matthew 5?

I think this will be one of those weeks in which I’ll keep struggling with the text all the way up until (and beyond) Sunday morning.

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