By Rev. Stephen Baldwin, Ronceverte Presbyterian Church
OT: Isaiah 58.1-12
NT: Matthew 5.13-20
Sermons on this passage usually start at the beginning–salt of the earth, light of the world, city on a hill. We will get there, but I’m going to start at the end, because the end completely changes everything we think about the beginning.
At the end, Jesus concludes by telling his followers, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
“Good gracious, Miss Agnes!” as my grandpa would’ve said. The scribes and the Pharisees were supposed to be the MOST righteous people around. They were the ones who could read and write and had fancy degrees and fancy clothes and fancy titles. They personified righteousness in the ancient world in which these words of the Bible were written. Yet, Jesus expects the righteousness of his followers to EXCEED theirs.
By extension, that means Jesus expects our righteousness to EXCEED that of the scribes and Pharisees, too. Good gracious, Miss Agnes! How are we supposed to do that?
Well, let’s start with what it means to be righteous? We’ve come to assume it means purity. We’ve come to assume it means virtue. We’ve come to assume it means better than. Righteous.
Jesus says our righteousness must exceed that of the Pharisees and scribes. So we’ve come to think we must be purer, more virtuous, better than the best.
But here’s the thing. That’s not what righteousness means at all. Not even close.
Righteousness in the Greek of the New Testament means “acceptable to God.” To be righteous is to be acceptable to God. It doesn’t take fancy degrees or fancy clothes or fancy titles to be righteous. It doesn’t take heroism or virtuous good deeds for all the world to see. All you have to do to be righteous, to be acceptable to God, is to be.
You are acceptable to God, just as you are. The saint and the sinner, the rich and the poor, the fancy and the filthy. The guy with the dirty mouth and the guy with all the right words. Righteousness is being acceptable to God.
You are righteous. You are acceptable to God. Flaws and all. This idea that you have to be pure to be acceptable to God is everywhere in our world, and it’s as old as time. We are acceptable to God just as we are, for God created us just as we are.
Now, that doesn’t mean God doesn’t have expectations of us. God does! That’s where the beginning of today’s passage comes in. Salt of the earth. Light of the world.
“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot. You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden.”
In other words, God is saying, “Go be who I created you to be! You are acceptable to me just as you are, so go be who you are! Be salty in a bland world! Be light in a dreary world!”
This topic came up in a conversation I was having with a friend recently. I have no doubt that he is a good person. “Salt of the earth,” you might say. He would give you the shirt off his back, he checks on you when you’re having a rough day, he lives a principled life. Yet he refuses to walk through the doors of a church. Absolutely will not do it.
One day I asked him, “Why not?”
He said it’s because he’s been told he doesn’t dress nice enough for church, doesn’t smile enough, doesn’t make enough, doesn’t give enough, doesn’t say enough, doesn’t do enough.
“That’s ridiculous,” I said to him. “God loves you just the way you are.”
“God may, but the church thinks I need a makeover.”
And that’s when the light bulb went off for me. The church was getting in between him and God, due to a warped sense of righteousness.
It broke my heart. And reminded me of the age-old wisdom that…“the church is not a museum for saints, but a hospital for sinners.” It is a place for the righteous to work on being salt and light.
Being righteous isn’t some fancy or magical thing. It’s a much simpler thing. The righteous are acceptable to God, and God accepts us when we are who we were created to be. Not when we put on a show or a front, but when we are who God created us to be.
Be salt. Be light. Be righteous, for God accepts you just as you are. Amen.