I recently read a book which contained a story about a professor of physics who told his class that, because of the discoveries made in the field of quantum physics in the 20th and 21st centuries, the classical physics inherited from Sir Isaac Newton were now entirely redundant. No matter how much the students objected, the professor insisted that the laws of physics discovered by Newton were oppressive and patriarchal, the product of an imperialist society in which white males were privileged over all other people. Quantum physics, the professor insisted, had discovered a truth about the universe that modern thinkers had already applied to human society: that all were free, random, and unpredictable. The ancient laws of Newtonian physics, with their certainties and absolutes, were old hat.
Suddenly, one of the students interjected. “I agree with you,” she said. “Let’s have a party to celebrate our newly won freedom.” The professor readily agreed. “And,” the student added, “you can crown the celebration and prove Newton’s laws of physics no longer apply by jumping up to the top of a thirty story building.”
Needless to say, the professor wasn’t happy about having their balloon exploded by a mere student . But I think this story illustrates an approach that Christians can all too easily take to Scripture: namely, that much of the Old Testament is irrelevant or just a precursor to the Gospels and the writings of the New Testament. In other words, the Old Testament represents the Jewish aspects of faith that have been superseded and made redundant by the Christian revelation of the New Testament.
You don’t need me to tell you the tragic consequences of such an attitude, which has resulted in much anti-Semitism and even justified at different historical moments persecution of the Jewish people. But it is also an attitude that Christians adopt for less pernicious reasons. For example, when militant atheists attack religious belief on the grounds of its supposed irrationality, they frequently point to the Old Testament and those passages which they say depict God as a vicious, wrathful bully who, unless given sacrifices and unswerving obedience, sends down plagues and earthquakes and other divine punishments. And Christians often respond by effectively writing off the Old Testament, by arguing that it represents the “primitive” and “unsophisticated” understanding of the ancients; understandings which are overthrown by Jesus and the witness of the New Testament.
It’s easy to see why Christians sometimes adopt this “apologetic of dismissal”. But the truth is, it’s an attitude that is often embedded in our understanding of Jesus himself. We often talk about – and I have often preached about – the subversive nature of Jesus’ ministry, how he came to overturn people’s preconceptions and instil in them a new understanding. And so we imagine that this “subversiveness” involved a revolution of sorts, an overthrow of everything that had gone before and its replacement by something new.
But we couldn’t, in fact, be more wrong. Because Jesus’ “subversiveness” was far more subtle than we might imagine: it wasn’t about overthrowing the established order, it was concerned with stripping away all the blockages and barriers which human beings had built up between themselves and God. Barriers and blockages based, not on what had gone before, but on what we ourselves had established.
Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.
These are the surprising words which Jesus says in today’s reading from Matthew’s Gospel. And they are surprising because they not only show that Jesus wasn’t interested in declaring the redundancy of the Jewish Law and the witness of the Old Testament, he was, in fact, declaring its absolute relevance. But in making that declaration, he was also saying that humanity had lost sight of that relevance, had erected around it all sorts of barriers and obstacles which prevented its purpose from being fulfilled.
That was the subversive nature of Jesus’ ministry. He came not to break with the old truths, but to turn people back to them. And not in the oppressive sense of saying people had to slavishly obey the rules and regulations that had been laid down since time immemorial; rather, Jesus wanted the people to understand that the Law had been gifted to humanity in order to enable humans to live in relationship with God. But instead of receiving the Law as a gift, humans had turned it into a kind of statute book, a list of “thou shalts” and “thou shalt nots” which, quite opposed to enabling relationship with God, had put God at a remove, making God remote, inaccessible, and, ultimately, completely inhumane.
But God is love; God is accessible, personal, and relational. God desires, not our terrified obedience, but our loving response to the freely given gift of grace. And so God became human in Christ, not so humanity might be brought into line, but so that we might turn around – quite literally, “repent” – and once more take up our relationship with God. Jesus’ ministry was concerned with fulfilling the Law, with embodying the purpose for which the Law was given as a gift to humanity.
And that is why Jesus says in today’s reading, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Because the scribes of the Temple in Jerusalem and the Pharisees were typical of that approach to the Law which treated it as a legal text rather than as a gift from God. For them, obedience to the letter of the Law was what counted; unless a person did exactly what was set out in the Law, they could not be considered “righteous”. Righteousness was a matter of what you did, rather than of who you were.
To be fair to the scribes and the Pharisees, they were not the narrow minded bigots which modern people often think they are. They were, in fact, a kind of reform movement within the Judaism of Jesus’ time: they wanted to rid Judaism of foreign influences like Greek philosophy, which they saw as corrupting the original intention of Jewish faith. But their idea of reform was to retreat into a simplistic literalism that saw the Law as carved in stone, rather than as a living witness that enabled relationship and growth and a life with God. And so the Pharisees and scribes often got stuck in absurd debates about how far a person could walk on the Sabbath without violating it as a day of rest. Righteousness, according to the scribes and Pharisees, was something that could be measured very precisely.
But Jesus’ message was that this is not what righteousness is. Contrary to what the scribes and Pharisees taught, righteousness is not what you do but who you are. The righteous person, Jesus declares, is the one whose whole personhood is motivated by love of God; for it is love of God which will then determine how that person deals with other people. The one who sees God as love, as personal and relational, and who seeks to live in loving relationship with God, will necessarily seek to live in loving relationship with others. This is the person who will view the Law, not as an instrument that measures their own righteousness or the unrighteousness of others, but as a gift that enables loving relationship with God and with one another.
This is the righteousness that “exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees”. This is the righteousness that, like salt in food, adds flavour and texture to life. This is the righteousness that, like a light on a lamp-stand or a city on a hill, acts as a beacon and a shelter for others. This is the righteousness that teaches to others that the Law exists not in order to enslave but to liberate humanity, to enable us to live in relationship with God and with one another.
In other words, Jesus’ subversiveness resides in the fact that he came, not to overthrow the Law, but to be its fulfilment. And in fulfilling the Law, he overthrew all the barriers and obstacles to God which humans had erected: the petty rules and regulations that reduced the Law to an oppressive statute book; the mindset that saw “righteousness” as adherence to the letter of the Law instead of an entering into the purpose for which the Law was gifted to humanity; the attitude that saw the outward observance of rituals as more important than building the kind of relationships with God and with one another which those rituals were actually meant to celebrate.
And that means that the righteousness to which Jesus calls us is the righteousness of love: the righteousness of justice, of generosity, of compassion, of liberating and nourishing and sheltering others. It is the righteousness of being a light that illuminates God’s love for all of us. Because that, ultimately, is what righteousness is about: not our own moral superiority but the simple truth that God loves all of us, and calls all of us to respond with love to God and to one another as well.