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The Heart of Jesus’ Righteousness

September 3, 2012

When Jesus contrasts the righteousness of his new kingdom with the righteousness of Moses (and the scribes and Pharisees), a common conclusion is that Jesus focuses on the heart rather than on outward actions. There is a little truth in this: in Mt. 5:28 Jesus exposes adultery in a man’s heart; and in 5:22 Jesus speaks of inner anger against a brother in connection with “murder.”

The greater truth is that most of Jesus’ teaching about righteousness focuses on words and actions more than the heart. In 5:22 Jesus goes on to depict the anger of a disciple against his “brother” (a fellow disciple) as including words of condemnation; for the “fool” is one who ultimately fails to do what Jesus says (as in 7:26). Likewise, the other examples of Jesus’ new righteousness in 5:31-48 emphasize words (like not “swearing,” not making vows that deceive others) and actions (not divorcing one’s wife, not getting revenge against one’s enemy, and instead loving, doing good towards, one’s enemy). Jesus’ righteousness is about much more than the heart (the center of thinking, willing, and feeling); it is mostly about right words and actions, about doing right, with Jesus being the one who decides what is right.

The main contrast is thus not between the inner heart and outward actions; the contrast is between the righteousness of Jesus’ new kingdom and the righteousness of the kingdom of Israel. Jesus’ disciples have heard what Moses originally told the kingdom of Israel through the authoritative interpreters of Moses, the scribes and Pharisees in the synagogues. Jesus says to listen to what he says instead: “You have heard that it was said to the men of old . . . but I say to you” (5:21-22,27-28,31-32,33-34,38-39,43-44).

Then Mt. 6 contrasts the actions of the “hypocrites” (that is, “actors” putting on a show) in the synagogues (namely, the scribes and Pharisees) with what Jesus’ disciples should do. Rather than give alms, pray, and fast so that everyone sees and praises them, disciples should do those things in secret so only God praises them. This secrecy is not about the heart; it is about doing popular religious acts secretly so that one doesn’t put on a show for–and receive praise from–other people.

In 6:22-23 Jesus does speak of the “inner” light (of the eye), yet points to its influence on the whole body; in 6:24 one’s love and devotion, or hate and despising, are about how one serves only one master, God or mammon (wealth). And 6:19-21 introduced this emphasis by teaching not to lay up treasures on earth, for where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. Those who continually strive to get earthly treasures have set their heart on those things. What one does affects one’s heart. This is also the point of 6:25-34 about not being anxious about food and clothing; this anxiety or worry is not about simply the heart; it is about seeking and working for the best food and clothing, about laboring for the “good life.”

Jesus concludes this block of teaching about the righteousness of his new kingdom in 7:21-27 by emphasizing it is the one who does the will of his Father who will enter the (final) kingdom of heaven; the one who only hears (in his heart) these words but does not do them will be destroyed in the end and exposed as a fool. Even the crowds listening to Jesus notice the contrast between Jesus’ authority (over even Moses) and their scribes (who quoted Moses). Yet most will remain loyal to their leaders in the synagogues, trying to do what these false prophets (“hungry wolves”) demand.

The excessive attention given to the heart, to inner feelings and emotions, in many churches is now another way of neglecting the new righteousness of Jesus’ kingdom. Feeling love for Jesus, feeling forgiven, and feeling saved are not enough, even though your pastor assures you this is the heart of Christianity. The heart of Jesus’ kingdom of disciples, and their righteousness, is doing what Jesus teaches.

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