By Harris Franklin Rall
All the teaching of Jesus moves about two great words: Father and sons. And these two words suggest the double task of his life: to show to men the Father, to lead men into the life of sons. Along these simple lines our study of the teaching of Jesus will move. We are to consider what sonship is, how men are to live as sons in relation to the Father, to their brothers, and to the world. Then we take up some questions about the Father's rule (the kingdom of God); and in our closing lessons consider the Son, in his character as showing us true sonship, and in his teaching concerning himself. In this lesson we study the higher righteousness which must characterize the sons of the Kingdom.
Righteousness With The Jews
The idea of righteousness belongs to all higher religions. It is the life that is demanded of men. The righteousness of man is his accordance with the standard set by God. That was what lifted Israel's religion above that of the nations about her; her God demanded more than sacrifices, he asked for righteousness of life. And never in all the history of Israel was there such a determined and systematic effort to fulfill this righteousness as in Jesus' day. There was a group of experts, the scribes, who gave their whole life to the study and teaching of just what was demanded by way of righteousness. Their word was law to the people. And they were backed by a party which included the influential leaders of the people, the Pharisees, who stood for the strictest obedience to the law.
The Criticism of Jesus.—Jesus came with a new demand. All this is not enough, he says. "Except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no wise enter into the kingdom of heaven." The reason for the criticism is not far to seek. First of all, these leaders had passed by the prophets, who gave the highest message of righteousness to be found in the Old Testament and upon whom Jesus constantly built. Second, when they took the law, they did not try to get at its inner spirit, but simply added more rules to the rules which they found, until all religion was simply a keeping of these rules.
The Failure of Legalism.—Such a religion could not but fail. The young man was probably quite sincere who said to Jesus, "All these things have I observed from my youth." He had lived up to his ideal, but his ideal was too low. On the other hand the keeping of rules cannot give life. Just as soon as some earnest Jew like Saul of Tarsus looked beyond the letter he found that he had, indeed, a commandment over him, but no power of life within. Instead, he found the war in his members, and could only cry, "Who shall deliver me out of the body of this death?" (Read Romans 7.)
An Inner Righteousness
Jesus' Demand for Higher Righteousness.—The theme of the Sermon on the Mount is the higher righteousness of the Kingdom as contrasted with the righteousness of the scribes. Men sometimes think of Jesus as offering the easier way. We realize that his gospel brings relief from burdens too heavy to be borne, like those of the Jewish law. We recall Jesus' own words when he says that his yoke is easy and his burden is light. But the Sermon on the Mount brings us face to face with the fact that Jesus demands not less than others, but far more. First of all Jesus declares that the righteousness of the Kingdom is an inner righteousness. With a sure hand he uncovers the faults of a mere righteousness of rules. Rules can control a man outwardly, but they may leave wholly untouched the real life of the man which is within. To show this Jesus takes up certain commandments by way of illustration.
The Spirit of Murder.—Here is murder. The law says, "Thou shalt not kill." But that law does not touch the real sin, the spirit that lies back of murder and out of which murder proceeds, the spirit of contempt and anger. Murder was a little-known crime among his hearers. But he knew only too well the bitterness and hatred that were among them. He knew that those models of strict law observance, the Pharisees, were full of scorn for the common people. Jesus had been criticized for being so lax; now he shows how much more searching his demand is than that of the strictest scribe.
The Spirit of Impurity.—From the sixth commandment Jesus turns to the seventh: "Thou shalt not commit adultery." Here again he makes the contrast between the inner spirit and the outer act. There in the impure heart is the source of the sin; there, indeed, is the sin itself. Many a man is kept from murder or adultery or theft by the mere fear of consequence. The lustful glance, the impure desire—these are the sin against woman and self and God. The terrible evil of commercial prostitution is being curbed; but the great problem of the social evil is in the hearts of men, and the great challenge is to religion, not to the state. We must build up an inner righteousness, strong and pure, that shall show toward every woman the chivalry of Jesus.
The Spirit of Dishonest Speech.—The sin which Jesus condemns in Matthew 5. 33-37 is not ordinary profanity. The law made provision for the taking of oaths, simply insisting that an oath taken in the name of Jehovah must be kept (Leviticus 19. 12; Numbers 30. 2; Deuteronomy 23. 21). Many scholars hold that this is the meaning of the third commandment also, and that it should be translated: "Thou shalt not take the name of Jehovah thy God for falsehood" (Exodus 20. 7, margin). Jesus' meaning, at least, is clear. It is the same protest against an outer life that does not correspond with the inner, the same insistence that only the inner spirit counts. The Jews used many forms of oath in Jesus' day. Some were held to be binding, some were not. Instead of making speech more sacred or men more true, these oaths worked the other way. The virtue of simple true-speaking was lost. When men try to make one kind of statement more sacred and binding than another they imply that a man need not be so careful to be honest in ordinary speech. Against all this Jesus protests. Let your speech be simply yes and no, says Jesus. What Jesus wants he makes clear in another passage of this same sermon, 6. 22, 23: a single life absolutely given to God. In such a life there is only one purpose, to let God rule not simply in some words but in every word, and in the inner thought as well. This one perfect loyalty is the single eye, and that means a whole life that is light. A life that is all of one piece, true within and without, is what Jesus wants.
The Religion of the Spirit Foretold.—Men had seen the need of a religion of the spirit before Jesus' day. It appears in such noble passages as Psalm 51. 10 and Jeremiah 31. 31-33. But Jesus was the first to set forth that religion in its purity, to live it himself before men, and to give others power to live it after him. The Christian Church has not always maintained the high plane of its Master. Often men have sought to revive some letter of Old Testament law, like the Jewish Sabbath. At other times men have sought to make a law for men's faith and conscience out of some set of doctrines or rules or ordinances. Rules and forms and creeds have their place in the Christian Church, but they are not laws to be enforced nor are they ends in themselves. And we have no right to set them up between a man and God. So far as they help the Christian life and express the spirit of Christ, they may be retained as means. But the one and only essential is an inner spirit, the spirit of Christ. He who has this is a Christian.
Righteousness As Brotherhood And Sonship
Righteousness as a Life With Men.—The higher righteousness is social. With the Jews righteousness meant something to be done for God, so many rules to be kept because God had commanded them. With Jesus righteousness is a life to be lived with men. The rule of this life is good will. What good will means he makes plain by contrast. The primitive law among men everywhere has apparently been that of retaliation, and the Jewish law was not an exception. "Thine eyes shall not pity," it said; "life shall go for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot" (Deuteronomy 19. 21; Exodus 21. 24; Leviticus 24. 20). Over against that Jesus sets up the principle of good will. Not love for love, and hate for hate; but love for all men no matter what they do. Nothing is to overcome this inner spirit which wishes only the good of others. They may beat you, or cheat you at the law, or oppress you by force; there is only one thing for the son of the Kingdom to do—to keep on showing them the same good will as did Jesus himself (Matthew 5. 3842).
Sons of Your Father.—And so Jesus comes at last to the heart of his message. It can all be put into one word: men are to be sons of their Father (Matthew 5. 45). We have seen how Jesus took the name of Father and gave it a richer, larger meaning. He did the same with the name of son. The Jews too thought of themselves as children of Jehovah; but they had in mind only their privileges. When Jesus spoke of sonship he meant obligation, not privilege; an inward spirit, not an outward favor. To be a son of God is to be like God. And so we have the one and final standard for men; not any set of rules, not even those of the Old Testament, but the heart of God himself. To the men of his day, narrow, selfish, exacting their rights, he said: Love all men, enemy as well as neighbor. Pray for all men, persecutor as well as friend. Look up and see what God does; his sun shines upon good and evil, he sends his rain upon the unjust as well as the just. And you are to be like that; you are to aim at nothing less. "Ye therefore shall be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect."
Not Letter Nob Law, But The Spirit
Literal Observance.—And now we must turn again to some of the precepts in this chapter over whose meaning and use men have differed so widely. Are we to take these all literally and absolutely? Are the Friends right in refusing to take an oath even in courts of justice? Is Tolstoy right in declaring that there should never be any resistance to violence, nor any refusal to another's request for goods or money? The writer heard one minister of the gospel declare that if a man came to his door and asked him for a quarter, it was his duty to give, even though he knew it would land in the saloon keeper's till in the next few minutes.
The smaller sects and religious movements have often illustrated the error of literalizing the words of Jesus. There is a Russian sect whose members bawl from the housetops whatever message they have to give, because Jesus told his disciples to proclaim from the housetops what he spoke in their ears. The same men hold smoking to be the sin of sins, because Jesus declared that it was that which came out of a man that defiled him. There is a certain humor in Jesus' word to Peter, when he declares that the disciples are to receive in this life a hundred houses for each that they had left, and so also mothers and brothers and sisters a hundredfold (Mark 10. 30). Because Luke in his report of this mentions wife also (Luke 18. 29), the Mormons claim that Jesus supported polygamy; for did he not promise the disciples each a hundred wives?
Jesus' Principle and Method.—It must be answered that in all these positions there is a fundamental misunderstanding of Jesus' principle and method. Jesus is not giving a new set of rules to take the place of the old. It is not rules at all that he is giving. He is replacing a religion of rules with a religion of the spirit. His method in the Sermon on the Mount is very simple. In each case he points out how inadequate the old rule is, showing that it is the inner spirit that counts. Then he makes this plain by means of concrete illustrations. These suggestions of his, however, are not rules, but illustrations, and it is quite in his manner to give these in striking and even extreme form. Take Matthew 5. 38-42. Jesus opposes two principles to each other. One is that of give and take, it is the world's way to-day; the other is that of love, ungrudging, unmeasured, invincible, the kind of love that Paul sings later on. You may fight evil with evil, or you may show your unchanged good will by the turned cheek. You may meet injustice with retaliation, or you may answer the oppression by a deed of love; that is giving the cloak to him who has taken the coat. It is the spirit of love that Jesus is after. But it is not love to give a quarter to the man whose whisky-laden breath betrays his weakness; that is to sin against love. If we follow the law of love, we shall refuse the quarter. Those who turn these words of Jesus into a new set of rules are missing the Master's whole lesson, and unwittingly are becoming the scribes of a new legalism. The great demand of Jesus is for this spirit of love that is like the Father's, undeserved and invincible. The illustrations make plain the demand. But how that love shall show itself in the individual case will depend upon the circumstances. One way to show your good will for the drunkard at the door is to join the fight that will destroy the saloon; but that will cost you more than five minutes time or twenty-five cents of money.
What, Then, Is Goodness?
The Heart of Righteousness.—It is perhaps possible to put Jesus' ideal of goodness, or righteousness, in two words, though these words must be far larger and richer than in our common use. (1) Obedience (Matthew 6. 33; 7. 81; Mark 3. 35). This does not mean blind submission to some authority, nor the matter of habit or rule. It may be present in men who know but little of God and truth. The test is this: Does this man say 'Yes!" to the highest that he knows? He that does this belongs to God, though he may hardly as yet know the name of him who speaks tohim. He who fails here has failed wholly (Matthew 5. 4348; 22. 37-40). (2) Love. Man's "Yes" opens the door to God, the Spirit of goodness, but love is the best word to describe the spirit that thus comes in. It is more than a sentiment, an emotion. It is a character, the quality of unselfishness, of unconquerable good will, of positive service. It is, in other words, the spirit of Christ and the heart of God himself. This simple test may be applied in pagan land or Christian, with children or old folks, to the simple and the wise. One touches the will, the spring of all life; the other measures the heart, the inner spirit of the man. It does not mean perfection in either case; it does test the direction and spirit of a man's life, and tells surely what its goal will be.
Directions For Study
Scripture references: Matthew 5. 17-48; Luke 11. 33-44.
Review the principal points of the first two chapters, especially what is said about Jesus' method of teaching and wrong methods of interpreting his words.
Look through the whole Sermon on the Mount and note how all three chapters deal with the one theme of the true righteousness. Note how Jesus' method of teaching is illustrated here. He is practical, vital, concrete. He does not discuss in general terms, but gives concrete examples and applications. We must go back of these pictures to get the general principle.
Note how this chapter builds upon the last. The central thought of this chapter is sonship, and the idea of sonship flows directly from that of Fatherhood.
Read with great care Matthew 5. 17-48. State Jesus' central teaching here and show how this is illustrated and applied in each section.
What shall the modern Christian do with Matthew 5. 3842? Can we follow its letter? Where would this lead us? Do we need its spirit? What changes would the rule of this spirit make?
Read Luke 11. 33-44. Note Jesus' criticism of the teaching and practice of the scribes (lawyers) and the Pharisees. Here is ground for their bitter hostility.
Consider Jesus' own spirit and life as illustration of his teaching about righteousness.
Note that this chapter gives us in a nutshell the ethics of Jesus, his ideal as to human character and conduct.