Jesus’ focus in the second half of the Sermon on the Mount is not so much on false religion, as it is on the clever and varied ways that true righteousness is substituted with a counterfeited version of it. After punctuating Chapter 5’s presentation of real righteousness with a climactic summation in 5:48, Jesus then pivots to expose three predominant ways that people sought a self-made righteousness, almost as a kind of coping mechanism for not having the real thing.
The first is what I might call a “theatrical righteousness,” and spans 6:1-18. When it came to giving, praying, and fasting, “the hypocrites” would only do these things to make people think that they were righteous. Their “reward” was other people being impressed by their “good deed”—a pleasure that would last for a day, a week maybe, and shrink the moment people no longer remembered it. So the need to keep up the act was incessant, and only compounded the self-deception because they craved continual affirmation. The repeated refrain in this section is: “your Father who sees in secret will reward you,” probably because deep down inside, the hypocrites didn’t really believe that God was actually watching them or would indeed reward them. Blaise Pascal observed in his Pensees,
We do not content ourselves with the life we have in ourselves and in our own being; we desire to live an imaginary life in the mind of others, and for this purpose we endeavor to shine. We labor unceasingly to adorn and preserve this imaginary existence and neglect the real. And if we possess calmness, or generosity, or truthfulness, we are eager to make it known, so as to attach these virtues to that imaginary existence. We would rather detach them from our real self so as to unite them with the other.
Man, it turns out, will go to extreme lengths to preserve his reputation before others, even if his entire life is a sham. This, by the way, is why some pastors who are exposed as frauds after years of courting gross sin, hang themselves. They’ve now lost all hope of preserving their ‘imaginary existence,’ and what hope could be found in their real one? And maybe closer to home: it is why we are more repulsed by the thought of our sin being known—especially to those whose opinion we value most—than by the act of the sin itself.
The second kind of counterfeit righteousness is what we could call a “divided righteousness,” or a “half-hearted righteousness,” and spans 6:19-6:34. This is the person whose loyalty to God is divided between earthly cares and heavenly ones. This is the person who sees obedience as a burden; as only a means to an end: his own physical welfare. He does not believe that God genuinely cares or will provide for his physical well-being, and so he responds with worry coupled with half-hearted, and disingenuous acts of piety. Thus, Jesus’ key plea in this section is: “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (6:33).
The pursuit of righteousness must take a central, even dominant place in the life of the disciple.
This must be coupled with a trust in God’s ability and eagerness to provide for his own. The important principle to internalize here is that righteous acts are fundamentally faith-driven, and never to be disconnected from a personal relationship with God. Spirituality disconnected from the Spirit is not spirituality at all.
The third common attempt to cope with one’s own spiritual deficiency is a “blind righteousness,” spanning 7:1-6, and may be characterized as a self-made righteousness based on having a hyper-sensitivity to other people’s sins, while being remarkably oblivious to one’s own. This occurs anytime you impose a double standard: that is, you are quick to hold someone else to a standard that you yourself are unwilling to keep.
King David demonstrated this attitude when Yahweh sent Nathan to David to tell him a parable about two men in one city: a rich man, and a poor man. The rich man had many flocks and herds, but the poor man had nothing except for ‘one little ewe lamb,’ which he cherished like a daughter. One day a traveler came to the rich man’s house, and because he was unwilling to take from his own flocks, he took the poor man’s only lamb to prepare supper for his guest. David—unaware that the story was fictional and directed at him—swiftly reacted with moral indignation, swearing by God that this heartless rich man deserved to die, and must make fourfold restitution. Of course, Nathan would just as swiftly inform David that the heartless rich man in the story was actually describing him, and how he treated Uriah—a man whom he slayed in an attempt to cover up his affair with Bathsheba, Uriah’s wife.
The German-Swiss poet Hermann Hesse once remarked, “If you hate a person, you hate something in him that is part of yourself.”
We detest the sin that we see in others, probably because it reminds us of the very thing we try so hard to suppress and avoid dealing with in ourselves.
This, of course, is not to suggest that there is no place for correcting others, but only that we judge ourselves before we judge another. Indeed, correcting another person is a serious and sacred thing that should be reserved only for those whom we discern will receive it thoughtfully (7:6).
Now, it is tricky to know with measured confidence how the next section (7-11) fits within the overall flow of thought: I tend to think that these verses act as a kind of concluding heart-cry —repeated five times—to ask for divine intervention. The various forms of pseudo-righteousness rehearsed in 6:1-7:6 simply demonstrate how utterly futile it is for human beings—unaided by divine intervention—to exercise the kind of righteous living that truly pleases God. Treating others with the same amount of love we show ourselves is a fantastic absurdity. But this, Jesus concludes, ‘is the Law and the Prophets’—an essential attribute of those who will one day inhabit his Kingdom (7:12). This is perhaps why two central themes interwoven throughout the sermon are that of pursuing authentic righteousness; and that of trusting God’s provision. The very righteousness that you repeatedly fail to manufacture by yourself, is the very righteousness that God himself can and will provide to those who are humble enough to ask. It is probably no accident, then, that the very first beatitude is that of being ‘poor in Spirit,’ of realizing how spiritually needy you really are. For theirs, Jesus assures, is the kingdom of heaven (5:3).
The Danger of Self-Deception
The sermon concludes, fittingly, with an extended warning against the danger of self-deception (7:13-27). This final section opens with two roads: the broad, and the narrow. Robert Frost’s most famous poem, “The Road Not Taken”, is as often read as it is misread. It is not a salute to a ‘can-do individuality,’ or to being unique, special, or different; it is, in the words of David Orr, “a commentary on the self-deception we practice when constructing the story of our own lives.”
The people on the broad road haven’t the foggiest idea that they are on the road that leads to hell. They are self-deceived.
The distinction between ‘the many’ and ‘the few’ is not a distinction between the professing Christian and the rest of the pagan world, but between the real Christian and the counterfeit one.
Just consider verse 22. Notice, that ‘many’ will say to Jesus on that day: “Lord, Lord.” Now, this is a striking thing. They do not call Buddha, “Lord,” nor do they call Muhammad, “Lord.” Rather they call Jesus, “Lord,” twice affirming his deity and authority. And yet, verses 21-22 taken together perplexed me for some years because I perceived in them an apparent contradiction: In verse 21, Jesus warns that only those who do the will of the Father will enter the kingdom. But the very next verse seems to indicate that these people, now hell-bound, had in fact devoted their lives to apparently doing the will of the Father: “did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles.” And perhaps these actions were the will of God, but what ultimately barred them from the kingdom of heaven, I later realized, was that in addition to doing good deeds, they were also ‘practicing lawlessness’ (verse 23). Thus, the clarion call of this section is that true righteousness must involve total devotion: that one should not be deceived to think he can do some good deeds to sort of mask or outweigh his bad ones. This was a teaching so difficult and so foreign, yet spoken with such unabashed authority, that the crowds could only respond with utter astonishment (7:28-29).
Jesus Fulfills All Righteousness
Now, apart from the ‘narrow gate’ probably being a metaphorical reference to Jesus himself (cf. John 10:9), it is interesting to note that there is nothing mentioned in this sermon of Jesus’ substitutionary death and atoning work. This, Matthew develops rather slowly and systematically throughout his gospel: in 11:28, Jesus will famously cry: “Come to me all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.” And it is only once we reach the culminating portion of the narrative (chapters 26-28), that we see a marvelous, and somewhat disturbing paradox: Jesus, who came as the King, ready to establish his heavenly kingdom at the beginning of Matthew’s gospel (4:17, 23), would at the close of the narrative, remove his kingly robe, as it were, and die as a suffering servant. This was precisely what Isaiah alluded to in his “servant songs” roughly 700 years prior, and exactly as he predicted, so it was fulfilled.
A thematic centerpiece of Jesus’ life and ministry was that he came “to fulfill.”
He was the predicted ‘Messiah,’ which Matthew traced across 42 generations of human history—starting with Abraham and then culminating with his being born of the virgin. His name was called, “Jesus,” for he would save his people from their sins (1:21). His birth on earth would cause the people to also call him “Immanuel” (meaning, “God with us”), for the eternally begotten Son of the Father became a man to live the life we could never live; and to die the death we could never die.
But the story did not end there.
As the angel said in the concluding chapter of Matthew’s gospel, “He has risen” (28:6). The beauty of Jesus’ resurrection is that it demonstrated that his testimony was indeed true and that he was indeed, perfectly righteous. ‘The wages of sin,’ you will remember, ‘is death.’ And if Christ remained dead, he would have been proven a liar and a sinner. But he is alive, never to be subject to death again. He welcomes the ‘poor in spirit’ to come to him, that they might share in his everlasting life. They will be freed from the tyranny of death, liberated from the futility of passing pleasures, and finally found righteous in him.
In His kingdom, to be sure, there are pleasures forevermore. The beatitudes that opened Jesus’ sermon speak of a place of eternal comfort; of grand inheritance; of true and abiding satisfaction; of unending mercy; of beautiful adoption; and of finally seeing your maker face to face.
All the labor and striving of men are effective to produce “nice people,” but ineffective to produce “new men.” God became man, not merely to grant mankind a life of niceness, but a newness of life. That they might join the fold of the “new men” who shall, at last, enter his heavenly kingdom.
For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.