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Jesus’ greater righteousness

March 28, 2014

Jesus warned his disciples that unless their righteousness was greater than that of the scribes and Pharisees, they would not enter his kingdom (Mt. 5:20). The Greek word for “greater” here (perisseuo) is found again in 5:47, where Jesus said “if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more (perisson) are you doing? Don’t even Gentiles do the same?”

In the concluding section of Mt. 5 (5:43-48) Jesus told his disciples they had heard (in the synagogues, as taught by the scribes and Pharisees) that it was said “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” This refers back to the law of Moses, where in Lev. 19:18 it says to love your neighbor–and it defines the neighbor there as “the sons of your own people” (fellow Jews). In Lev. 19:17 it says not to hate your brother (fellow Jew). As for “hate your enemy,” passages like Lev. 26:7 say “you will chase your enemies, and they will fall before you by the sword” (the enemies being especially the Canaanites, the Gentiles, in their promised land). A similar passage is Deut. 20:1-20, a whole chapter about rules for waging “holy war” against (Gentile) enemies of Israel.

So Jesus’ greater righteousness includes a love for enemies, even Gentiles; and it replaces the righteousness of Moses and the scribes and Pharisees that included hatred for Gentiles. For Jesus’ new kingdom will be a worldwide kingdom of disciples, from every nation, including Jews and Gentiles. In Mt. 5:14 Jesus said his disciples would be the light of the world. So they should let that light shine before people, so they may see their good works and give glory to their heavenly Father (5:16). When people all over the world see these Jewish disciples greeting even Gentiles and doing acts of love toward even Gentiles, some will glorify the Father they serve.

It is the heavenly Father who shows the way by sending good things like rain and sunshine to evil people as well as good people (5:46). So children of this Father should do the same. It is Jesus’ disciples who are peacemakers–making peace where there was enmity and hate–who will be called children of God (5:9).

Jesus’ final words in this section are often translated “You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (5:48). I think the CEB translation gives the best contextual meaning: “Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete.”

When earthly ruling fathers call for hatred against national or local enemies–or for taking up arms against these enemies–disciples of Jesus should be focusing instead on their heavenly Father, on their Christ/king, and on their kingdom that acts differently from all the kingdoms of earth. True disciples should be reaching out in love to those outcasts of their society. In the U.S. this would include white middle-class disciples “breaking out” of their white churches and neighborhoods to “make peace” with certain poor black or brown people, like those in inner cities or on reservations–or increasingly in the suburbs.

Just before Jesus’ teachings in Mt. 5, he was showing mercy by healing even Syrian Gentiles who came to him, as well as Gentiles from the Decapolis (Mt. 4:24-25). He himself practiced the greater righteousness he demanded from his disciples. Practical acts of love, including gifts of money, to “outcasts” of mainstream society could lead them to thank the God who inspired such “perfect” love.

  1. Roger permalink

    I like the “complete love” translation. Makes sense to me.

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