Our study in the Sermon on the Mount unearths one of the most significant questions of Christianity: what is the relationship between God’s gifts and our good works? Does God give good things to us because we do good works? Do we do good works because God gives us good things? Will God take away his gifts if we do not do good works?
To be fair, these questions emerge out of our experience of the way things work in the world. We do not get good grades at school or a good pay at work without doing what is required. In those contexts the relationship is clear between what we are given and what we do. We work, and then are given our due.
It can be easy to bring such a mindset into our approach to God. In the early chapters of Matthew we read about Jesus as Israel’s promised King and the message that his kingdom, or reign, is coming. Then we read his teachings in the Sermon on the Mount in which he presses God’s standards of right living beyond rules against murder, adultery, and breaking an oath to the underlying heart issues of hatred, lust, and falsehood in any speech. Our tendency may be to see these as rungs on a ladder that we must climb if we are to be worthy to belong to Jesus.
On the other hand, we have seen in the beatitudes that the ones Jesus calls blessed are those who come to him empty handed: the poor in spirit, the mourners, the meek. So we might assume that if Jesus calls us blessed for our humble posture of receiving his grace, the instructions on how to live do not have any meaningful bearing on our lives.
As you may have guessed, both approaches are wrong. To approach Jesus’ ethical demands as a ladder to God is to ignore Jesus’ blessings on those who declare spiritual bankruptcy and mourn over their sin. Yet to ignore Jesus’ call to right living altogether denies that he is truly King, with the right to rule over our lives.
So how do we understand Jesus’ free grace and ethical demands? In the Sermon on the Mount this relationship is captured by the word “righteousness.” On the one hand, in Matthew 5:6 Jesus says, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.” That is, he speaks his blessings on those who yearn desperately for a right relationship with God and others. On the other hand, in 5:20, Jesus says, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
The relationship between these texts requires more than one paragraph, but here is a starting point. Those who are in right relationship with God are those who come to him in humility, poverty of spirit, and confession of sin. Theirs, Jesus says, “is the kingdom of heaven” (5:3). In this sense righteousness, or right standing with God, is a gift. From this freely-given relationship between poor mourners and Jesus the King comes a new way of life, a new righteousness that goes beyond law-keeping and external adherence to rules to a heart thoroughly submitted to Jesus as Lord. The very humility and brokenness that bring us into relationship with God propel us deeper into living under his reign as we embrace his authority at the deepest layers of our hearts–all the way down to our lust, hatred, desire for human accolades, and anxiety over daily needs. Both senses of righteousness–right standing and right living–are thoroughly relational, all flowing from our new relationship of belonging to King Jesus.
We have many weeks to work this out as we move through the Sermon on the Mount. As we do, may we continue to humbly confess our sin and allow King Jesus to change us into his own image, that we might, from the heart, live rightly toward God and one another.