Epiphany 5 – Isaiah 58:3-9a, Matthew 5:13-20
Grace, mercy and peace be to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus. Amen.
Our Gospel reading today is a small portion of a very famous and important sermon of Jesus commonly known as the “Sermon on the Mount.” The sermon starts at the beginning of chapter 5 with a collection of eight sayings about those who are blessed—a collection known as “The Beatitudes.” It then moves into a section of explanation about Jesus’ relationship to the Jewish Law – the section we read today. It concludes with Jesus offering commentary on many different teachings of the Law.
Since today’s text contains very pivotal information for understanding not only the full Sermon on the Mount but also Jesus’ entire ministry, and since we will be reading from Matthew’s Gospel throughout this current year, I’ll make sure that we give these words of Jesus a close study in our sermon today. However, I’d like for us to first begin with a question found in our Old Testament reading from Isaiah. Examining this question will help us to better appreciate what Jesus was saying in his sermon.
Isaiah records a question that the people of his day wish to be addressed to God. “Why,” they say to God, “don’t you see our fasting?” In typical Hebrew poetic form they repeat their question for emphasis: “Why have we humbled ourselves and you take no knowledge of it?”
It’s a fair question, is it not? We, too, have probably asked ourselves similar versions of it: “Why do I go to church and yet God doesn’t seem to reward me? Why do I pray but God doesn’t bless me? Why do I obey God and trust in God yet I’m worse off than many people who don’t do any religious observance at all?”
Many people, as we know, give up on prayer and worship because they feel it doesn’t make any difference. They may rationalize their choice to family and friends by saying it’s the church’s fault for being boring or out of touch. But what’s really going on is that they are losing trust in a God who hears our prayers and blesses us in our gatherings.
Does God hear our prayers? Does God see our acts of religious observance? We believe He does. As evidence of this we note how God, in His Holy Word, so accurately assesses our human situation, so skillfully takes apart our case against Him, and yet so lovingly meets our greatest needs.
We complain that God doesn’t see, but God in fact does see—and what He sees is not pretty. As He points out in this text from Isaiah, God notes how insincerely we gather for our acts of worship. The people of Isaiah’s day may have kept food away from their mouths on their days of fasting, but their minds were on other pleasures—their own pleasures—and not on God’s healing and unifying Word. They were thinking about how they could get ahead in their businesses. They were using the time to argue and attack for their own causes. Their insincerity should make us think of ours. What is on our mind when kneel to say our prayers?
God goes on to question the actions which we often use to accompany our prayer. The bowing down of our heads and the spreading of sackcloth and ashes under us—are these the essence of our prayer? Even coming with a humble heart—is that all there is to it? No. Like fasting, worship and devotion are to be about giving something up for God’s sake. We give up some of our time and attention to the One who has created us and who will use our devotion to bring blessing to us all.
Ultimately, our fasting and worship are to be about giving up our desires and interests for the sake of the needs of others. Through worship God is nurturing not just a humble heart but also a generous and merciful heart. Notice what God says next in Isaiah’s text: “Is this not the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house?”
Such actions of generosity and mercy form the essence of God’s plan for His people. To get to a place where we know how to live out this plan we engage in fasting and worship and prayer. We do without food for a time so that we have a heart for those who have too little to eat. We give up time on Sundays where we could be working or exercising or catching up on sleep so that we have a heart for those who do not have a job, or who don’t enjoy good health, or who aren’t able to sleep. Yes, worship is about being filled with God’s gifts too, but before we can be filled with good things we must be emptied of that which distracts and detracts.
God concludes this little sermon in Isaiah by pointing to the blessings that do indeed come to those who do fasting right. “Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up speedily; your righteousness shall go before you; the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.”
This is the verse from today’s text which serves as a complement to our Gospel reading from Matthew. Jesus will have his own important things to say about fasting later in his Sermon on the Mount, but today’s section picks up on the beautiful promise of God. “Your light shall break forth like the dawn,” says God in Isaiah. Jesus says it this way: “You are the light of the world.”
The people in Isaiah’s day wanted to know if God saw their religious observance. He did. He had a critique of their observance, but He saw it nonetheless. So also, Jesus reminds us that God sees our efforts of devotion. “You who are poor in spirit, you who mourn, you who hunger and thirst for righteousness, you who make peace, you who are persecuted for Christ’s name… you are blessed.” God sees your suffering. God sees your devotion. God knows of your faith.
Jesus, too, was concerned about the actions of his people. He “did not come to abolish the Law and the Prophets but to fulfill them.” He was concerned that they be followed in the right way—not as mere acts of devotion but as opportunities to sincerely empty oneself before God. Not as ways to earn God’s favor but as ways to live in God’s way of health and justice, showing generosity and mercy each day.
Jesus came to add his “Amen” to the insights and promises of God in the Old Testament. However, he also came to reveal even more of God’s heart. When he says that he comes to “fulfill” the Law and the Prophets he is saying even more than that he’s showing the right way. When he talks in this text about “all being accomplished” he is saying more than that he will follow these Laws completely. Jesus hints in these words about a greater purpose for his life.
Perhaps the most revealing of his words in this text are his concluding remarks: “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” At first glance these words appear to be nothing more than an encouragement to live the God-pleasing life. They sound like the words of Isaiah, who spoke of “your righteousness going before you” – meaning your good works giving witness to a life which is acceptable to God.
We who know of Jesus’ later condemnation of the scribes and Pharisees find this exhortation to be challenging and yet certainly attainable. After all, the scribes and Pharisees were often hypocritical in their following of the Law. We feel we can do better than that. Many days we can.
However, for the first hearers of Jesus’ sermon, the command to be more righteous than the scribes and Pharisees would have felt like an insurmountable task. No one in Israel was more holy and righteous than the scribes and Pharisees. Those first listeners must have felt crushed by the weight of Jesus’ version of the Law.
Feeling crushed is actually where Jesus wanted them. And that’s where he wants us too. We should feel that keeping the Law to God’s expectation is impossible, because, in reality, that’s the way it is. We fool ourselves when we think we are good enough. Such thoughts lead us to an easy acceptance of the status quo. They lead us to be satisfied with mediocrity, rather than striving for more.
People will protest that only a hateful God would crush us with such expectations, and perhaps they would be right if God did not also provide an escape for us. Rather than crushing us eternally with the Law, God sent his Son Jesus to be crushed in our place. Jesus “fulfilled” the Law’s demand – justice – when he died on the cross. Jesus “accomplished” the Law’s purpose – righteousness – when he offered himself as a perfect sacrifice for our sin.
It is St. Paul, in his sermons, who makes this teaching crystal clear. But Matthew too, in telling the story, leaves his readers a clear trail to uncovering these marvelous truths.
Luther has taught us to make sense of it this way: by referring to two kinds of righteousness.
According to the active and proper kind of righteousness we are to live our lives according to the Law of God. We follow the Law’s commands for the sake of good order and health for all. This righteousness is to be “hungered and thirsted for” with all our might. It is to “go before us” and adorn our lives, but it cannot save us.
Our salvation only comes through the passive and alien kind of righteousness in which we are given Christ’s perfect righteousness as a gift. Through this gift we are declared to be righteous and holy by God for the sake of Jesus who died for our sins. It is this kind of righteousness that always “exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees.” It is this kind of righteousness that, when we “hunger and thirst for it,” truly satisfies. It is this kind of righteousness that, when it “goes before us,” truly keeps us safe and secure.
The people of Isaiah’s day wondered if God saw their fasting and their acts of humbling themselves. We all sometimes wonder about this too. God does see them—in their sincerity and their insincerity, their earnestness and their half-heartedness. Most importantly, God sees the righteousness of Jesus Christ and credits it to us as righteousness.
As you continue to offer your prayers and acts of devotion to God, may He lead you to live righteously for the sake of all, that you may truly be that light of the world which our world so desperately needs. And may God keep you in good faith, confident of the righteousness of Christ which goes before you. In the name of Jesus. Amen.