Jesus closes the opening section of the Sermon on the Mount by telling the people they need to be more righteous. His actual words translate as, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
Two Ways to Do More
Years ago I heard theologian and futurist Leonard Sweet talk about the idea of a righteousness that exceeds the scribes and Pharisees. He suggested there are two ways to understand what makes something more righteous. The first way is to do more of the same thing, but do it better. The second way to do more involves doing something different.
The first kind of more is like going from driving a covered wagon to a car. Both get you where you want to go by traveling along the earth, but one does it a much faster and more comfortably. More as different is traveling by plane, not because it is even faster yet, but because there are no longer any natural obstacles in the way. Going through the air as opposed to on the ground is a fundamentally different form of travel.
Another way to think about the two kinds of more involves financial transactions. Here, the first kind of more, is like moving from coins to paper money. In either case, you have to carry enough currency to pay for whatever it is you are hoping to buy, but paper is better because it weighs less and takes up less overall space. More as different would be a debit card or, even better, a debit card connected to Apple Pay. Here you are not worrying about having the right amount on hand. Instead, you only need to make sure there is money in your account. With Apple Pay, you even get to skip carrying a debit card.
So how do we apply these two kinds of more to faith?
More Righteous as Better
I am going to guess that most of you hear Jesus’ words and automatically think of more as better. After all, that is how churches typically teach them. Moreover, our culture programs us to respond that way, after all we live in a world where a spirit of power pervades. But this is the way of the Be-Attitudes and checklist obedience. It is about ritually clean hands that ignores impure hearts. More as better rejects a poverty of spirit as it places how right you are on display. In other words, more as better, is the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees. Doing more than the scribes and Pharisees is the path to more hypocrisy, not to the Kingdom of Heaven.
More as different on the other hand is what Jesus lays out in the Beatitudes as I unpacked them. That is the point of this series on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. That is why the Beatitudes are not an introduction to the sermon, but the foundation.
This is the kind of more righteous that makes those who embody Jesus’ teaching the salt of the earth and the light of the world. It is the kind of righteousness that truly fulfills the heart of the Law. This is the more righteous that guides us as we live by soul in a spirit of love.
So hear those words of Jesus again and then use the links in the show notes to revisit the different Jesus invites us to embrace:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
This post is part of an ongoing series. Link here for a list of every episode in this series.