By Pastor Glenn Pease
We live in a world where competition is a master motive. When the news reach Russia in 1945 that the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Stalin ordered secret scientists to find a way to catch up to the U.S. Andrei Sakharov was only 24 years old then, but his brilliant mind was fired by the challenge of the competition. So much so that he helped Russia leap frog ahead by developing the hydrogen bomb months before the United States.
Then when Russia surprised the world with Sputnik, and beat the U. S. into space, American scientists reacted with such a competitive spirit that they quickly thrust the U. S. into the lead, and on to be the first to reach the moon. Is it really love, or is it competition that makes the world go round? One of the reasons we look to the Olympics with anticipation is because man is a competitive creature. Will Durant in The Lessons of History writes, "So the first biological lesson of history is that life is competitive." Even cooperation, he goes on to say, is a tool of competition. We cooperate with our group, be it family, club, church, nation, or race, in order to strengthen our group in its competition with others. It is human nature to want their group to be the best. Everybody enjoys the opportunity of saying, we are number one, top dog, high man on the totem, king of the hill, and champions.
I have been in enough church league sports to know that one of the things that being saved doesn't change is the competitive spirit. Christians love competition as much as anyone, and they love to come out on top as often as they can. Some of the largest Sunday Schools in our country got that way by well organized contests where the competitive spirit was used to motivate people to come and bring others. Christians are challenged by competition. They love to win and set records. They love to win prizes, and gain honor and status. All of this carries some risk, of course, for one can get so caught up in competition that winning is everything, and other values are lost.
The story is told of three churches that sat on three of the four corners at one intersection. It was a hot Sunday morning, and the windows were open in each church. The Methodist began their service by singing Will There Be Any Stars In My Crown? The Presbyterians then began to sing No Not One, No Not One. Finally, the Baptist began with O That Will Be Glory For Me. It is like the Pastor of a small church which was not growing. He thanked God that none of the other churches were growing either. The competitive spirit can be dangerous and divisive as well as delightful.
Dr. Milburn describes how people use to act in the days of river travel. "If another boat came in sight, you find yourself becoming anxious that she shall not pass you. If she gains upon your craft, all your fears about the danger of racing are laid aside. And with your fellow passengers, male and female, you are urging the captain to do his best....Side by side the boats go thundering along, and so completely has the thought of winning taken possession of you, that you would almost as soon be blown up as beaten." This is the same competitive spirit that leads so many youth to be killed or injured in racing. Competition can become so strong that it drives out all fear of danger, and this can be good or bad depending on the situation.
The fact is, there is no escape from competition. You might just as well try to eliminate the trivial from life as to try and eliminate competition. Jesus, in this great sermon to His followers, uses the language of competition. He begins this sermon with the beatitudes which are promises of prizes. Christian life can be tough, but it is worth it, for there will be great rewards for those who take the risks and endure the rigors of it. Then Jesus, like a coach before a big game, gives His team a pep talk to motivate them to do their best. "There is a job to do, and you have got to do it. The salt has got to be active, and the light has to shine. The opponents are tough, and Jesus says, you can't afford fumbles and penalties. Don't neglect the least of the rules of the game. Go out there and be great." Then in verse 20 He sets the standard for His team. He says, "Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Scribes and Pharisees you will not enter the kingdom of heaven." Paraphrased, He is saying, "Unless you guys play better than your opponents you won't make it to the Super Bowl."
Now you may not like the football analogy, but choose your own sport or arena of competition to illustrate what Jesus is saying. You can't escape it. He is using competitive language like least, great, and exceed. Jesus is saying that He wants His followers to be winners, and that means being better than the religious leaders of Israel. That is competition, and the whole thrust of this chapter is competition. Jesus says, here is the old standard, but you are to do better than that. The Christian is to set new records, and leave the Old Testament saints in the dust when it comes to fulfilling the law.
The Old Testament saints loved their neighbors, but you are to go one better, and love your enemies. The challenge of Jesus to Judaism is matched by another challenge by the Gentile world at the close of this chapter. Jesus says, if you love those who love you, that is no better than what tax collectors can do, and even Gentiles can't compete on that low level of love. Jesus says, the Christian is to do more, and rise above Judaism and the natural religions of the world. It is, an anything you can do I can do better challenge, that the Christian is to rise to.
Now its not too much of a threat to Christians to compete with tax collectors and pagans. It seems like this is a fairly easy challenge, but when Jesus says we are to exceed the Pharisees, and be better than them, and the Scribes, in righteousness, it is a scary challenge, because they are real pros and formidable foes. The more you know of these guys the Christian team has to beat, the more you realize the story of David and Goliath is a never ending conflict. Jesus is asking amateurs to be superior to the pros, and this sounds like more than any coach ought to expect. Competition can be demoralizing when the non-gifted are pitted against the gifted. Most Christian would feel inadequate compared with the Scribes and Pharisees.
One of Rossini's pupils composed a funeral march commemorating the death of Lundwig von Beethoven. He took it to his master who listened attentively to the uninspired work played falteringly by the amateur. He said, "The circumstances would have been more favorable if you had died, and Beethoven had composed the march." The amateur can't be expected to compete with the pro. Yet, Jesus does not just expect Christian to be in the race with the Scribes and Pharisees, He expects Christians to beat them. In fact, He says you don't even qualify to enter the race unless you can beat them. This is a very discouraging demand if we think Jesus is saying that we have to beat them at their own game. This would be like expecting David to beat Goliath in Saul's armor. It wouldn't work. There is no way Christians could be more righteous than the Scribes and Pharisees on the level of what they called righteousness. They obeyed more rules in a day than most Christians would in a year.
When Jesus says we must exceed them He is talking about a totally different quality of righteousness where even the amateur can surpass the pro. It is not only possible, it is easy when we understand the difference between their righteousness and Christian righteousness. Not understanding this distinction could lead you to feel like the two cows standing in the field when a milk truck came down the road. On the side of the truck it said, MILK-PASTAURIZED AND HOMOGINIZED. The one cow looked at the other and said, "It's not use, we just can't compete with them trucks."
We know there is a radical distinction between the cows and the truck. One is a creator of milk, and the other is only a carrier. So it is with the righteousness that the Christian is to produce that exceeds that of the Scribes and the Pharisees. Christian righteousness is to fulfill the law, and, thus, the purpose of the creator of the law. The competition does not do that. They are only carriers of the law and tradition. C. S. Lewis wrote, "Nothing gives one a more spuriously good conscience than keeping rules, even if there has been a total absence of all real charity and faith." To better grasp this distinction we need to study the contrast between the two kinds of righteousness. We need to grasp the strategy of our opponents if we expect to counter it with a superior strategy. So let's examine first-
I. THE OPPOSITION GAME PLAN.
Their strategy is really quite simple. It is the oldest and most popular strategy of history. It is the religion of the rule book, also known as legalism. All you have to do to be righteous is to keep the rules. If you don't break any rules you can't suffer any penalties, and so you are bound to be a winner. This is appealing to human nature. It leads to a sense of security. You know where you are at, and you are in control of your own destiny it seems, and once you get into the rut, life is predictable and carefree. Legalism may get technical, but it is always cut and dried. You always know what is right, for everything is regulated by the rules. You don't have to bother with all the complexity of motives, for all that matters are deeds.
If you don't kill, that is all that matters. The fact that you are full of hatred and resentment toward another is no issue, for as long as you keep the law by not killing you are righteous. No matter how corrupt you are in your inner life, as long as you do not externally violate the rules you are alright. Legalistic righteousness is all a matter of external conduct. It has nothing to do with the inner life. This makes religion easy, for it means you don't have to be like God at all. You can harbor all kinds of negative attitudes of prejudice, envy, and bitterness of all sorts, and yet be a religious leader. All you have to do is keep the rules.
The beauty of it to human nature is that you don't have to change the inner man. All you have to do is conform to external conduct that is in harmony with the rule book. This is religion made easy, and it has been popular all though history. Christianity has had plenty of this as well. The most evil of men can be religious leaders with this strategy. You can be a leader in the Mafia, and still be a good Catholic at the same time. You can be a corrupt politician and still be a good Baptist in good standing at the same time. All that matters is that you obey the rules of the game in public. What you do when you are not playing at religion is your own business. Then you can do what your real inner nature compels you to do. As long as you keep the rules when you are being religious you are acceptable. No sinner could ask for a better religion than one of legalistic righteousness.
You don't have to care about God, people, or anything but yourself. You can have your cake and eat it too. The Scribes and the Pharisees were the worst hypocrites that ever lived, but they were also the world's champion ruler keepers. What other strategy but legalism could make this possible. It is perfect for people who want to be super religious, but who don't want to be bothered with God's will and purpose in history.
Jesus came to blast the ship of legalism out of the water, but it persists in staying afloat, and competing for men's loyalty. The spirit of legalism has been a part of Christian history. People are led to believe they are super Christians because they keep all kinds of rules. They may be obnoxious people full of bitterness and prejudice, and with little or no love, but they are champion rule keepers, and so are convinced that this is what Christianity is all about. The problem with legalism is it locks one into a narrow rut, and it can feel so comfortable that one cannot change and get out of the rut.
Jewish Christians who were raised up under legalism had a hard time adjusting to their liberty in Christ. They had a tendency to slip back into the security of legalism. The Pharisees were so locked in that they could not see the value of what Jesus was doing in healing on the Sabbath. Jesus put the value of the person above the law, and they refused to change, but would stick to their game plan no matter what. It didn't matter who got hurt, even if it was God Himself, for they would stick to their game plan. Jesus does not expect us to compete on that level and be better legalists than they were. He has a totally different game plan which we want to look at.
II. THE WINNING GAME PLAN.
In contrast to the righteousness based on legalism, Jesus promotes a righteousness based on love. It is better than the rule book religion, not because it forsakes the rules, but because it fulfills the rules. Legalism stops short of God's value system, and it makes precepts the highest value. Love goes beyond this to make persons the highest value. The legalist says that the law must be obeyed regardless of who gets hurt. What really matters is the law and not people. You do what has to be done, and if people have to suffer its worth it, because this is the only way to win.
William Faulkner said, "If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the ode on a Grecian Urn is worth any number of old ladies." This is the value system of the legalist. The Scribes and Pharisees did not care about old ladies, or sick ladies, or anybody. Jesus healed a number of them on the Sabbath, and they hated Him for it. It was great for the people healed, and there was much rejoicing, but Jesus was not following the rule book. Jesus loved people, and they loved the rule book. This is the main distinction between their righteousness and the winning righteousness Jesus expects Christians to have. This is what exceeds their righteousness, for it is based on a superior value system.
Jesus did not come to abolish the rule book, but to fulfill it, and by that He meant that He came to rescue it from the ridiculous absurdity to which the Scribes and Pharisees had reduced it. Jesus came to restore the law to the level of love where its original intent could be accomplished by aiding people to love God and their neighbor more effectively. The law is not fulfilled just because you don't kill a man. It is only fulfilled when you love and respect him as one made in the image of God, and as one who is loved of God the same as you are. Fulfilling the law and love are one and the same.
What this means is, God is not a legalistic person who sits in heaven with a celestial calculator keeping track of how many times a law is obeyed. God does not get his kicks out of statistics saying this is a good day for commandment number 6, for two billion people kept this one today, but number 4 is down, for only 480 million kept that one. God is not infatuated with the law. God so loved the world means that He loves the people of the world. The purpose of the law is for man's benefit, and not for God's statistical tables. What matters to God is that man's evil nature be controlled, and that he be restored to the image of God where love is the dominate motive in his life.
The righteousness that exceeds the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees is the righteousness of Christ, which we partake of when we surrender to Christ as Lord. When Jesus comes in, self-righteousness goes out, and that is what conversion is all about. You cannot be a Christian and enter the kingdom of heaven with a law dominated righteousness. The only kind of righteousness acceptable in the kingdom of God is the righteousness of Christ, which is love righteousness. This means that what is right is what is loving and best for persons.
How is this better than legalistic righteousness? Just look at the life of Jesus. He is the model of His message. When He encountered a need He let love, and not the law, determine His response. The law said do not work on the Sabbath, but when Jesus saw a need crying out for action, He responded in love and compassion, and He healed on the Sabbath. He was hated by the ruler keepers, for they said that keeping the rules is more important than helping the people. Love says just the opposite. You help the people, and let the law wait.
But isn't this anti-law? Does it not set a dangerous precedent? Not at all. Love is not thoughtless. Love asks, what is the purpose of the law? The answer is, that man might be benefited. God's intention in giving the Sabbath is that man might not be a slave to materialism. God demanded that men leave their labor and learn to rest and relax. They are to develop the higher values of life in the mental and spiritual realm. God's whole motive in the law was to lift people to a higher spiritual level. This being the case, love does not violate the law by doing anything that lifts and blesses man, for that is its very purpose. The letter of the law may be broken, but it is broken for the sake of fulfilling its intent. If that is the case, then let it be broken, for the goal is not to keep a law, but to be a blessing to people.
Those who follow legalistic righteousness are bound by the law, for the law is the absolute. Those who follow loving righteousness are free to make decisions about the law, for the law is not the absolute, but persons are. There is flexibility in love to chose that which is best for the persons. Jesus says that this is the winning game plan. This is the value system that makes the Christian superior to the best of the Scribes and Pharisees. Jesus goes on in this sermon to give specific ways in which loving righteousness is superior to the legalistic righteousness. We will be looking at these in coming weeks. For now, let me share with you some examples of how we need to struggle to follow the winning game plan, and avoid the losing one of legalistic righteousness.
When I became a Pastor in rural South Dakota one of the first things I observed was that farmers do not obey the law the same way as city people do. Stop signs in the country do not possess the same authority that they do in the city. I was shocked as I watched Christian farmers go through stop signs like they were not there. They gave them about as little thought as they gave to their guardian angel. I was a law abiding citizen, however, and legalistically stopped at every stop sign. I even stopped at the one a mile from the church where you could see if anyone was coming for at least half a mile in either direction. I must admit I felt sort of strange stopping when I knew there was no one in sight, but the law is the law. When it came to stop signs I was a confirmed legalist.
I have to confess I felt somewhat superior to those Christians who felt free to not stop. It took time for me to see from their perspective. I never did feel free to ignore a stop sign, but I did learn to slow down and proceed with caution without stopping. Did those Christians make me a law breaker by their influence? No they didn't. They just help me see on a trivial level how easy it is to be legalistic. The purpose of the stop sign in the country is to prevent accidents by giving one roadway the right of way over another. Naturally, if a car is coming, everyone stops to let them have that right of way. That is the law. But if nobody is coming you can safely ignore the stop sign, and the law is still fulfilled.
This may sound like rationalizing and situation ethics, and that is exactly what it is, for that is what makes Christian ethics different from legalistic ethics. It is the freedom to think and act in a loving way depending on the changing situations. The city drivers have found a way to break the old law too so as to be more loving to drivers. The rule for many years was always to stop for red, and do not go until it is green. But then the law was changed so that it all depended on the situation. If you were at a red light waiting to turn right you could now proceed through the red light if there was no on coming traffic. People had to go through a lot of guilt feelings to get over going through a red light. I was already prepared by having learned to go through stop signs in the country.
This change in the law was anti-legalistic, and in favor of love, for it permits greater freedom of choice, and prevents unnecessary waste of time that serves no useful purpose. People do abuse this freedom, and there are risks that go with it as in all freedom, but unless studies show that the risks outweigh the value, this freedom to go through red lights under certain conditions will remain a part of our lives. The purpose of lights and stop signs is not to get people stopped who desire to get somewhere. The purpose is to protect and keep people moving toward their goal as safe and fast as possible. Since that is the purpose, you can then fulfill the purpose of the light by violating its basic meaning which is to stop. That is what red has always meant in a traffic light. But now we violate that meaning and break it, but do so in order to fulfill the purpose of it.
This should help us see what Jesus was doing with the Old Testament law. He was fine tuning it, and making it more useful to the end for which it was given, which was to lift man to a higher level of love for God and man. All of God's rules are for man's good, and they are to be for man's blessings and not to be burdens. Jesus calls us to rise above mere legalism, and to get in on the purpose of God which is to love and to lift.
Paul was once locked into legalistic righteousness. He was a Pharisee of the Pharisees. Jesus set Paul free from that prison, and Paul became a great champion of the loving righteousness of Christ. He went on to save Christianity from the Judaisers. Had the Judaisers won the battle Christianity would have been a mere rerun of Judaism. They said every Christian must be circumcised according to the law of Moses, and they tried to coerce the Gentiles to conform to this conviction. Paul fought hard against this legalism, and he won the battle, and set Christians free from bondage to the law, which was no longer relevant to those who were made righteous in Christ.
We are in a world of great religious competition. We will all tend to follow one of these two strategies: The legalistic or the loving, the rule book power, or relationship power. Tom Garrett and his family were held prisoners by two prison escapees for 24 hours. A few days later he went to pick up his unemployment check and he was denied. The law clearly states an unemployed worker must be available for work every day of a normal work week. He was not available the day he was held captive and so did not qualify. This is the folly of legalism which sees the law as the ultimate rather than persons. If you want to be a winner, keep checking your Christian life to see which strategy you follow. The petition in the Lord's Prayer, thy kingdom come, is only answered in the lives of Christians who choose love over legalism. The dynamics of the distinction between the two kinds of righteousness is seen in the effects on the world of people they touch. One drags people down, and is a burden that makes life hard. The other gives life a lift, and adds beauty to life. Is it legalism or love that motivates your life?