Discourse on Standards of Righteousness

26. Discourse on Standards of Righteousness

Because this passage is so long and content-rich, we will take it a section at a time.

And Jesus came down with the twelve, and stood on a level place. And a great multitude of his disciples, and a great number of the people from all Judea and Jerusalem, and the sea cost of Tyre and Sidon, came to hear him.

And Jesus lifted up his eyes on his disciples, and said:

Blessed are ye poor.
Blessed are ye that hunger.
Blessed are ye that weep.
Blessed are ye when men persecute you.
Ye are the salt of the earth.
Ye are the light of the world.

Okay, let’s stop right here. Why in the world would Jesus say it is a blessing to be poor, hungry, sad and persecuted? Does that sound like a blessed state to you? Is he saying that somehow these are the attributes of a righteous, noble, God-like state of being, which should be nurtured and cherished?

A more plausible interpretation gets us back to a point made in the last section: Jesus understood that people are more likely to make fundamental changes only after they have hit rock bottom. If the behavior is working for you, you have little or no motivation to change it. Likewise if the culture is working for you – even if it is corrupt – there’s no reason to start making waves.

Jesus did not believe the Jewish culture was working for his people, because it was steering them toward a suicidal confrontation with the Romans. Nevertheless, the culture was working very well for the elites, at least in the short-term– they were prosperous and in positions of power, and as a result unwilling to take any actions against their perceived self-interest. They were promoters of the status quo, and were distinctly disinterested in any teaching that diminished their status and prestige.

In short, Jesus was saying that the people who are disillusioned with the way things are have the best chance to initiate and nurture the new – they are the light of the world because they are open to moving down a different, more life-enhancing path.

Think not that I came to destroy the law or the prophets: I came not to destroy, but to fulfill. For I say unto you, that except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no wise enter into the kingdom of God.

This passage is important because it shows that Jesus saw himself in the line of the Jewish prophets. He is not out to start a new religion. His interest is in fulfilling the promise of his own religion. And he makes it clear that the standards he is talking about are far higher than those set by the scribes and Pharisees. How much higher? Let’s take a look:

Ye have heard that it was said to them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment: but I say unto you, that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be in danger of the judgment.

If therefore thou are offering thy gift at the alter, and there rememberest that thy brother has aught against thee, leave there thy gift before the alter, and go thy way, first be reconciled to thy brother, and them come and offer thy gift.

Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called sons of God.

“Thou shalt not kill” is the first of the 10 Commandments, which were given to Moses by God at Mount Sinai. These commandments form the foundation of Jewish law, and it is this foundation that Jesus said he had come to fulfill, or lift to a new level of understanding or consciousness.

His insights in this regard are extremely astute, particularly when viewed in the light of today’s knowledge of human psychology. Jesus understood that the desire to kill is the inevitable extension of any belief system that justifies anger. Anger is the taproot of the kill, and if religion is to be contemporary and of value, it must deal with that taproot.

So when we are angry, Jesus instructs, go and make peace with whomever we are angry with. He does not say “don’t get angry” – that’s not realistic (and if there is one thing that Jesus is into, it’s Reality!). He says that when we are angry, do not be justified in that anger, or excuse it, but go make peace. Otherwise, we are in danger of “the judgment.”

What judgment is that? God’s judgment? Is Jesus talking about the apocalypse here?

The suggestion here is that Jesus is talking about something else, something very challenging to get hold of. It requires a very different perspective on the world – the perspective Jesus received in his baptismal experience with John.

The whole premise of Jesus’ ministry rests on the insight that all life is one, and that what we do to others we do to ourselves. What that means is that when we are angry at and out of relationship with another, we are actually angry and out of relationship with ourselves – for the other is us, we just have not seen it yet. As a result we are in a state of “dis-integration”. That state is the judgment of which Jesus speaks. By making peace, we re-integrate.

Haven’t we all experienced the pain of estrangement and the joy of reconciliation? One experience leaves us feeling whole and energized; the other split and often spiritless, preoccupying us and draining our energy. Such is the nature of the judgment. It is not God’s punishment – any more than is stepping off a cliff and suffering the effects of gravity. It is simply part of the law of cause and effect.

Ye have heard that it was said, Thou shalt not commit adultery: But I say unto you, that everyone that looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart. And if thine eye causeth thee to stumble, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not thy whole body. And if thy hand causeth thee to stumble, cut it off, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not thy whole body.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.

Well, here is a juicy one! This passage follows a similar logic to the one above. Just as anger is the taproot of the kill, so lust is the taproot of adultery. Jesus’ instruction again is, deal with the taproot.

The procreative drive is one of the strongest of human instincts – elemental to our survival as a species. If we are not vigilant, it can take us over and become an obsession. Our powers of self control become subjugated to this ancient and primitive drive, and we in effect become enslaved. If we are enslaved, we are not free to serve the will of God, which for Jesus is at the core of what it means to be human.

Both the teaching on lust and the teaching on anger lead us naturally to compassion. We may feel judgmental of one who commits adultery or murder, but have we not all experienced lust and anger? If so, then according to Jesus we are not so disconnected from the adulterer or the murderer, and so have the capacity to understand and forgive.

Again, ye have heard that it was said to them of old time, Thou shalt not forswear thyself, but shalt perform unto the Lord thine oaths: but I say unto you, Swear not at all; neither by the heaven, nor by the earth, nor by Jerusalem. Neither shalt thou swear by thy head. But let your speech be Yea, yea; Nay, nay: and whatsoever is more than these is of evil.

It’s all about wholeness. Say yes when you mean yes, say no when you mean no.

When you say yes but mean no, you are split. When you say no but mean yes, you are split. Be total. Be whole. Be one, just as the universe is one, just as God is one.

Ye have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, Resist not evil: but whosoever smiteth thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if any man would take away thy cloak, let him have thy coat also. And whosoever shall compel thee to go one mile, go with him twain.

Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.

This is an oft quoted, oft discussed, and oft challenged passage. Is it really wise to turn the other cheek just to get smacked again? Sounds painful, and not very creative. Given what we know about Jesus, could this really be what he was advocating?

More than likely, no. Once again, Jesus is talking about a profoundly new way of looking at the world, encapsulated in three amazing words: “Resist not evil.”

What in the world is he talking about? If you should resist anything, shouldn’t it be evil?

Let’s do a little thought experiment, Think about a time when you were in resistance. Maybe your in-laws were coming to stay for the week. Your child was failing in school. Someone at work was shirking their responsibilities, leaving you holding the bag... whatever it might have been (and if you’re human, you should be able to think of plenty of examples!).

Now ask yourself, when you were in that state of resistance – which is basically wishing that something that is, wasn’t, and how crazy is that? -- how creative did you feel? How free were you to act? Or did the resistance seem to collapse all options and leave you stewing in anger or resentment or hurt? Jesus’ point is that when we resist, we cannot respond creatively. And when confronted with evil, we need all our creative powers operating at full throttle, for it can make the difference between life and death.

When you are free – not in resistance – you can do the unexpected, which can alleviate the stress or tension or even danger of a situation, and allow for a more constructive outcome. That is the meaning behind the admonitions to turn the other cheek, to give the coat as well as the cloak, and to walk two miles rather than one.

Let me give you a small example. My wife and I lived in China for two years in the early ‘80s and our primary mode of transportation – like every one else’s -- was a bicycle. If you got into an accident with another bicyclist whom you did not know, the customary outcome was a yelling match, each one blaming the other for their inept bike riding skills. You would never apologize – to do so would be to admit guilt and lose face.

One time I ran into someone on my bike, an older gentleman. He looked at me and, in customary fashion, began to verbally rip into me, with insults I can only imagine. When he came up for air I just looked at him and said, “I’m sorry”. He was stunned into silence. He looked at me, shocked, and just said, “It’s okay, doesn’t matter, no harm done” and rode off, occasionally stealing a backward glance to see if I was for real or some sort of an illusion.

So what was that all about? Well, I figure I did the equivalent of turning the other cheek. I did the unexpected, and it took the wind right out of his sails. He did not hit me on the other cheek (keep yelling at me), he stopped yelling altogether.

My advantage was in being a foreigner and not caring about losing face. I was free, able to respond in whatever way I thought the most creative. Of course, you don’t have to live in a foreign country to put this teaching to work. We probably all have examples illustrating that conflicts are best dealt with when you have not been polarized by resistance, but when you can leap into someone else’s shoes, gain a new perspective and uncover some previously hidden options.

The opposite approach is knee-jerk retaliation – the “eye for en eye” philosophy that has a direct hotline to our reptilian brain. Anyone who is really paying attention can see that this approach leads only to escalating violence, pain and misery. Jesus certainly saw that, and so was advocating a different response to Roman rule than the direct confrontation being preached by the Zealots. Stop resisting the Romans, he was saying. Stop being trouble. This too shall pass, and if we become model subjects, odds are they will leave us alone and we may even outlast them.

That would certainly have been a better outcome than what eventually transpired: Near-complete annihilation 60 years after Jesus’ death.

And what about today? Do we need more proof that the eye-for-an-eye approach does not work, or are we finally ready to try something new?

Ye have heard that it was said, Thou shalt love thy neighbor, and hate thine enemy: but I say unto you, Love your enemies, do good to them that hate you, bless them that curse you, pray for them that despitefully use you.

If ye love them that love you, what thank have ye? for even sinners love those that love them. And if ye do good to them that do good to you, what thank have ye? for even sinners do the same.

Ye shall be sons of the Most High: for he is kind toward the unthankful and evil: he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sendeth rain on the just and the unjust. Be ye merciful, even as your Father is merciful.

Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.

“Love your enemy” and “resist not evil” are fundamentally the same teaching. Both are instructing us to respond creatively rather than react violently, to act with goodwill rather than with ill-will. It’s all in the attitude.

Doing good to those that hate us, however, is not easy. It requires that we move beyond our limited sense of self and expand our identity to include the enemy. Just as God is inclusive of all --“he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sendeth rain on the just and the unjust” – so should we be.

Think about it: If all life is one interconnected whole, than the “other”-- even our enemy – is us. Not understanding or hating another is an outcome of not understanding or hating ourselves. So embracing the enemy is an heroically creative act that brings about wholeness in ourselves, and contributes to the well-being of the world at large.

Take heed that ye do not your righteousness before men, to be seen of them: else ye have no reward with your Father.

When therefore thou doest alms, sound not a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory of men. Verily I say unto you, They have received their reward. But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth: that thine alms may be in secret: and thy Father which seeth in secret shall recompense thee.

And when ye pray, ye shall not be as the hypocrites: for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have received their reward. But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thine inner chamber, and having shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret, and thy Father, which seeth in secret shall recompense thee.

Moreover when ye fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces, that they may be seen of men to fast. Verily I say unto you, They have received their reward. But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thy head, and wash thy face; that thou be not seen of men to fast, but of thy Father which is in secret: and thy Father, which seeth in secret, shall recompense thee.

In these passages, it appears that Jesus is drawing attention to the pitfalls of egocentricity. There are basically two motivations available to us for our actions: egocentric, or God-centric. When we do things for egocentric reasons – for “the glory of men” – we have received our reward. Our ego has been stroked.

Doing things for God – rather than for the attention or approval of others -- diminishes the hold our ego has on our sense of self, and creates the opportunity to see who we are beyond the ego’s limited boundaries.

Hasn’t it been the times when we’ve forgotten ourselves – when we’ve abandoned totally into some project or effort or purpose – that we have felt the most alive? Maybe that is the greater aliveness that Jesus refers to when he says, “and thy Father, which seeth in secret shall recompense thee.”

Why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye? Or how canst thou say to thy brother, Brother, let me cast out the mote that is in thine eye, when thou thyself beholdest not the beam that is in thine own eye? Thou hypocrite, cast out first the beam out of thine own eye, and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote that is in thy brother’s eye.

The message here seems pretty simple: how can you help someone else if you are not seeing things clearly yourself? If something is blocking your perception, take care of it, before you try and help another.

Doing this is not often easy -- we so desperately want to see the problem as lying “out there” rather than inside ourselves. The rewards, however, can be great. When we at last see and accept ourselves, we are better able to see and accept others. When we see and accept others compassion, not hatred, flows.

All things therefore whatsoever ye would that men should do unto you, even so do ye also unto them.

Not everyone that saith unto me Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of God; but he that doeth the will of my Father.

Here Jesus is saying that it is not enough to go through the motions of living a religious life. What’s required is that we completely align ourselves with the will of God.

Why is that so important? Left to our own devices, our motivation can be shallow, petty, and self-serving. God brings badly needed perspective to our decision-making process, requiring that we think long term and beyond the traditional boundaries of self, family, tribe and nation. God is wholeness, and the purpose of a relationship with God is to help us to think and act for the benefit of all.

This passage is the first time that Jesus refers to the “kingdom of God.” The suggestion here is that the kingdom of God is not a place, not a euphemism for Heaven, but rather a state of being to be realized here and now – a state of being in obedient relationship with God.

By their fruits ye shall know them. For of thorns men do not gather figs, nor of a bramble bush gather they grapes. Every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but the corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit. A good tree cannot bringeth forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit. The good man out of the good treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is good; and the evil man out of evil treasure bringeth forth that which is evil. Therefore by their fruits ye shall know them.

Every one therefore which heareth these words of mine, and doeth them, shall be likened unto a wise man, which built his house upon a rock: and the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell not: for it was founded upon the rock. And every one that heareth these words of mine, and doeth them not, shall be likened unto a foolish man, which built his house upon the sand: and the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and smote upon that house; and it fell: and great was the fall thereof.

Enter ye in by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many be they that enter in thereby. For narrow is the gate, and straitened the way, that leadeth unto life, and few be they that find it.

What is to be the basis of our life? Money? We can lose money. Family? We can lose our family. Good health? We can lose that too. Everything temporal can be taken away from us. Making such things the foundation of our life is building our house upon sand.

To build our house upon a rock is to enter into a conscious relationship with God: to be aware of the power and pitfalls of our ego-centricity; to enter into the process of loosening our ego’s hold on our identity by dealing with our resistance and anger and lust and blind spots. And when we can love not only those who love us, but our enemy as well, we shall be likened unto the wise man of which Jesus speaks.

And why is the gate narrow? Because in a relationship with God, love is all that is permitted us.

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