Jesus was always surrounded by people who had nothing left to lose. As they learned they could trust him, he attracted “sinners” and prostitutes, tax collectors and Palestinians, wealthy women and line workers. They sat closer and closer. But almost always, standing at the edge of the crowd, keeping a safe distance from the inferior classes, were the religious authorities. The ancient version of social commentary bloggers. They were the people with carefully cultivated reputations for perfection. And Jesus knew their presence was shaping the whole conversation about a new routine.
The old routine was pervasive. He needed to help people understand that something new was possible. That it was, in fact, necessary.
So let’s do a little exercise that Jesus describes.
Pick the most spiritual person you know. The one that knows all the rules. The one that keeps them all. The one that has spent his whole life studying and then living out that study. The one who has cleaned every bad habit out of her closet. The one that prays every day. The one that has a quiet time every night. The one that has memorized more of the Bible than you have read. The one that, try as you might, has no faults. (I mean, really has no faults.)
Pick the person that is so good that you decide that there is no hope for you. The person that you try to argue with about God and they win every time. The one that seems to have no questions, no doubts. The one that knows the answer every time in Sunday school. The one that has just the right video to recommend for that problem, that has the right verse, that knows the right song, that sings with the right choir.
You know that person?
Jesus says that they aren’t going to heaven. So neither are you. Neither am I.
Of course, he doesn’t stop there. Or, more accurately, he doesn’t end there.
He starts with, “unless you are far more righteous than that person…” Those people, who were called Pharisees by the people listening to Jesus this day he was sitting on a hillside talking, were the perfect people. And when Jesus says that even they weren’t righteous enough, a murmur must have wafted through the crowd. People must have looked around the edges of the crowd for a Pharisee. People must have felt a mixture of fear and despair.
Jesus had said the Pharisees didn’t measure up (fear). He said no one did (despair). Though he’s not talking about it here, not yet, it’s remarkable hope that he was going to offer himself to be our righteousness.
An earlier version of this post is included in Learning A New Routine: Reading the Sermon on the Mount a Little at a Time