The “How To” Part of the Sermon on the Mount
Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. — Jesus (Mt. 6:1)
The Righteousness of peacemaking, pure heartedness, and inclusive mercy, is developed by intentional disciplines.
“Self-righteousness” is such an effective term for despising hypocrisy that, unfortunately, it undermines its antithesis: actual righteousness. Righteousness is something Jesus affirms. When he is challenged about his decision to be baptized he tells John that it is a righteous thing for him to do. When Jesus gives the beatitudes he mentions the blessedness of righteousness in people twice. When he begins to describe what he is talking about in fulfilling the purpose of the Torah he is clear that he wants people to have more righteousness, not less.
The righteousness Jesus promotes is practical and personal. He starts with describing a transition from anger or avoidance toward an active practice of doing what you can to bring about peace with others. He goes on to compare the unrighteousness of creative religious workarounds to questions of marital faithfulness to the radical simplicity of integrity as righteousness. He then completes his brief description of what he means by righteousness by describing radical mercy. It is blessed to be committed to mercy such that we intentionally include enemies and outsiders. Righteousness is growing up in the love of God such that it not only flows into us, but it also flows out from us.
(See Matthew 5)
Religious Righteousness 101: Alms, Prayers, and Fasting
When I joined a church as an adult I was taught several essential practices:
- Attend every church service.
- Pray before you eat.
- Give at least 10% of your income to your local church.
There were plenty of other aspects to being a good Southern Baptist, like read your Bible daily, and share your faith often, etc., but the baseline was clear. I remember as a newlywed skipping an evening service and struggling with the implications. Yes, we had gone to Sunday School, and to the worship service that morning, but…
For the audience of Jesus’ sermon, the essentials were giving alms, saying prayers, and fasting. Jesus addresses each one with a rather derisive tone toward the theatrics of religiosity. He calls out the dangers of hypocrisy and uncritical thinking. What he does not do is suggest we abandon religious practices. What he insists is that we pursue various practices as intentional spiritual disciplines.
Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness enough to give their resources to make a difference. Blessed are they who are humble enough to be mindful, in a personally articulated way, that God is the source of life for themselves and for others. Blessed are those who mourn over what is not right enough to prioritize reflecting on what matters rather than just assuaging their anxiety with food and comfort.
(See Matthew 6:1–18)
To be continued…