The Problem with Excessive Righteousness

This morning I’m filling in at Caldwell Presbyterian Church in Lake George, NY. (The assigned text for the morning began at Matthew 5:21.) Here’s the sermon:

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

When I first this in preparation for this morning, the first thing I thought was, “Jesus sure sounds cranky in these verses.”

So I read it again, and I realized, Jesus isn’t just being cranky here. He’s using a line of reasoning called reductio ad absurdum. Thats a fancy way of saying Jesus is showing us how absurd and misleading the Pharisees’ way of getting to heaven is if you follow it to its extreme.

Following the rules is important, Jesus says. They’ll keep you from getting killed. When you’re driving, stay right of the double yellow. But they won’t get you into heaven. They won’t even make you a better person.

But the Pharisees and scribes said to get to heaven you had to follow the rules. Not just some, but all the rules. And they had rules for everything. First, they extracted 613 rules from the Law of Moses. Then they made up thousands more rules for how to properly follow the original 613.

If you want to get to heaven by following rules, Jesus says, you’ll have to follow more rules better than they do.

I don’t know about you. Maybe you’re good at following lots of rules. I’m not.

I can’t remember to take my shoes off by the door before I walk into the house.

I often can’t remember all the rules. Especially not all at once. I have trouble walking and chewing gum.

Where does the salad fork go in relation to the dinner fork and the dessert fork? Someone told me once. I can never remember.

I know I’m supposed to wash my hands after handling raw chicken. I know I’m always supposed to come to a complete, full stop at every stop sign. I try to remember. I’m sure I’ve messed up a time or two.

Be honest. How many people in this room have never ever, in your whole life even once, exceeded the speed limit? I’ve only known one person who I’d believe if she told me she’d never been speeding. Then last summer she accidentally ran her car into the side of the post office. Hit the gas pedal instead of the break. Her driving record now includes destroying federal property.

Being righteous the way the Pharisees said you have to is hard. If you think you can be more righteous than them, good luck.

Say you’re a tailor. You have to put your needle down a half-hour before sunset. Otherwise, you might accidentally take a stitch after that last ray disappeared on the horizon. Caught you red-handed working on the Sabbath. Guilty.

Some groups still try it the Pharisees’ way today.

You can’t carry things on the Sabbath. That’s pretty basic.

But what’s the difference between wearing and carrying. A woman’s hair clip, for instance. Is it something you wear or something you carry in your hair. If carried, then it’s a burden and forbidden on the Sabbath.

According to their rules, a woman (I’m not sure about men) can go out in the back yard of her house wearing a wig. That’s wearing. But not in public. That’s carrying. Actually, it would be concealing and carrying. That might be a felony, too. Not sure. Depends on which state and if you have a permit.

Say you’re watching the big game on Sunday afternoon and you want to get a snack from the fridge. If you’re going to be righteous like the Pharisees, you have to disconnect the refrigerator light before you open the door. You’d have to have already unscrewed the bulb before sundown Saturday night. Why? Because if the light were to come on, you’d be violating the injunction against “kindling” on the Sabbath.

You don’t light fires in your refrigerator, of course. But light bulbs get hot. Rules are rules, and it counts as the same thing.

Letting warm air into the refrigerator is also a problem. That causes the compressor to activate. The compressor would “spark,” also a Sabbath violation.

Now that you know this you’re probably worried about how you’ll get your beer and cheese dip this afternoon. I can see it on your faces. Last night you should have replaced the fridge thermostat with a timer to run the compressor motor at set intervals. (I hope you thought to do that last night.) That way your work on Saturday is what lit the spark, not your opening the door this afternoon.

If you’re a nurse or doctor and you must apply an antiseptic to the skin on the Sabbath, be sure to use a nonabsorbent nylon swab. Please don’t use cotton. Cotton could absorb the medication and you’d be guilty of dying cloth.

By now, I hope you’ve realized that following more rules than these people is impossible.

It’s not just Pharisees and their descendants that have rules.

Not too long ago, a whole generation was driven from the church by rules about hair length and hem length. Rules about segregation. Rules about abortion. Rules about sexual purity. Some of that wrangling over rules continues to this day.

People say they’re just doing what’s right. People say they have good intentions with all these rules. They may even believe it. But it kinda comes across as being about the rules. Even worse, it comes across that they’re making up rules and saying they’re God’s rules.

I’ve had people tell me that religion is about God’s rules. Some people say that the word religion is derived from some form of the latin regula (meaning rules, where we get our word ruler).

Some churches – not this church, of course – but some churches use the Bible as a rulebook the way scouts use the scout handbook.

My friend Allen was a scout leader for a long time. Every year, he took his troop to camp Wannacallmymommie.

For these trips, every boy in the troop had to bring a small chest to keep under his cabin bunk. Every boy’s chest had be kept locked, and the key on a string, and the string tied around his wrist.

One year, a new scout master came along. The new guy, full of boy scout idealism wanted to go by the book.

“Wait a minute,” the new scout master said. “We shouldn’t be using these locks. We shouldn’t have any locks at camp. The book says ‘A scout is trustworthy.’”

“Yes,” Allan said. “And the locks keep them that way.”

As well-intentioned as the rulebook is, the problem with using rules as the basis for community life is that people have trouble following them.

Religion derived from regula may sound good. But it’s simply not true. Our word religion doesn’t come from regula at all. It comes from religio, made up of two parts. Re, meaning “again.” And ligio meaning “connection,” from which we get our words ligature (“a tie or connection”) and ligament (“a sinew connecting two parts of the body”) and link.

Religion isn’t about following rules. Religion is about getting reconnected. Getting reconnected with God. Getting re-linked with other people.

Jesus says, Sure, you can go the rules route if you want to. Here’s what it’ll take.

You put your needles down a half hour before sunset. You disconnect the refrigerator light before you open the door. You don’t wear your hair clip or your wig in public on Sunday.

Did you know there are rules about how if you spend the evening with the Victoria’s Secret catalog you have to make a special offering in church the next week? I have yet to see anyone run their annual stewardship campaign on that, but there you have it.

You can go that route if you want to, Jesus says. But to make it work, you’re going to have to do it better than they do.

“Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven,” Jesus says.

That’s the problem with excessive righteousness. We can make all the rules we want. We can spend our life arguing about hair length and hem length. We can blow our top over whether using marihuana without actually inhaling really qualifies as taking a drag. We can do that.

Jesus says we’d be better off working on yur relationships and getting ourselves reconnected. Strong relationship is the key tied around your wrist when adherence to the rulebook fails.

For every one of the laws Jesus sites in this passage, Jesus proposes that we think about the relationship involved instead.

“Take murder, for instance,” Jesus says. Let’s get the biggies out of the way first.

“I’m fine,” someone actually told me once. “I haven’t murdered anyone this week.”

But what leads to a premeditated murder? First some disagreement you’re angry about. Then exchanging of insults and injuries of all kinds. Then writing the other person off as an idiot. By now you’ve dehumanized your enemy. Then you kill him.

If you’re going to play the Pharisees’ game, you’re liable for everything that leads up to murder, even if it never quite gets there.

Just praying about it doesn’t magically take our problems away. Jesus says you have to go be reconciled – there it is again, reconciled, reconnected – to your brother or sister. Until you do that what you put in the offering plate, “it don’t mean a thing.”

It’s about relationships. The quality of community connections.

Adultery. This isn’t about the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition.

There was then, and there is now, a lot of arguing about who can be legally married and whether and under what conditions you can get a divorce. Someone came to me at my office in Glens Falls once to ask if I could tell him, “according to the Bible,” if there’s a way to ditch his wife so he could marry his girlfriend.

Jesus says you’d better think about your self-image as some kind of stand-up guy. Cause it’s about your relationships.

Oath taking. This isn’t about whether you should or shouldn’t put your hand on the Bible and swear to tell the truth in court.

It’s about whether you’re true to your word.

“Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the pharisees and scribes, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

You can try getting to heaven by following all the rules. Good luck with that. My guess is you’ll be pretty miserable and miserable to be around.

Or you reconnect with your family and community. You can be reconciled to your neighbor. You can honor your relationships.

Most of the time, Jesus says, you don’t need a rulebook to do the right thing.