Jesus didn’t come to start a new religion. I’m not sure Christians can say that enough, given our history of violently demeaning and persecuting the members of Judaism, which is the only religion Jesus ever claimed. He didn’t come to start a new religion. He came to teach people that connection with God, spiritual liberation, was within their grasp even in a secular world that was tilted against them. That his ministry led to the formation of a new religion is more a product of human forces—politics, philosophy, theology—than anything else. And it’s not bad that a new religion formed. It’s just not a matter of the new one being more connected to God than the old one. God, by all indications, does not work that way. God is God. Religions are human structures that can connect us with God.
So this passage of the Sermon on the Mount, which builds toward Jesus’ declaration that he did not come to abolish the law and the prophets isn’t, to my reading, so much about Jesus preferring one religion to another; Jesus operated clearly within Judaism. It is, rather, about how to orient ourselves within the world. It comes, after all, immediately after the Beatitudes, which teach us that power in God’s kingdom more or less inverts the power in the world. Blessed are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, the peacemakers… those who are less heralded in our world. Power is turned upside down. In today’s passage, salvation is turned inside out. Let’s work backwards.
The last line is the kicker: “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Throughout Matthew’s Gospel, the Pharisees are set up as a strawman, and Jesus takes issue with their gatekeeping behavior. They are, in the portrayal here, more concerned with policing the boundaries of the covenant with God than they are with helping people live into the covenant. It’s a legalistic way of administering a religion. This is the critique Jesus lodges.
So his emphasis on not coming to abolish the law and prophets actually helps to move attention away from the the legalistic focus and toward the spiritual. By not getting into the weeds of Scriptural interpretation, Jesus is able to say that “whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” The doing and the teaching are linked. If you do and teach opposite the covenant, away from God, your stature in the Kingdom of heaven is diminished. If you do and teach toward the covenant, toward God, your stature in the kingdom of God is increased.
It feels like I’m punting, arguing that this is about spirituality and not the letter of the law. But Jesus himself did not adhere to the strictly legalistic interpretation of Scripture. You can’t just lift this verse out of the context of the rest of the Gospels and argue for biblical literalism. He associated with unclean folks and healed on the Sabbath and so on. This was at the core of his conflict with the Pharisees. These differences don’t make him a bad Jew; Judaism has never been one thing, and Jesus is here moving away from one particularly legalistic understanding of it. So while he is not here to abolish the law and the prophets, he is clearly here to help us to a more spiritual understanding of them. And that is not a matter of one’s own cleanliness, but of one’s practice in relationship with others.
This is where the metaphor of a light not being hidden under a basket comes into focus. The point of the light is to illumine the world around it. Likewise, with salt, the point is to season and preserve food. As an aside, I still don’t understand how salt can lose its saltiness, but I take the point all the same. Salt is useful for the way it relates to other substances.
So then the paradox is established. We serve our own interests best by serving others. Doing and teaching are integrally connected, like a lantern and the light it gives off.
It is, if you are paying attention, another form of “love your neighbor as yourself,” which Jesus tells us later in this same Gospel is the second great commandment, along with “love God.” On those two commandments, Jesus says, hang all the law and the prophets. The very things he has emphatically not come to abolish. Once you get away from a legalistic reading of Scripture and allow a spiritual meaning to come through, it starts to make a lot more sense.
So we have here a clear lesson on the importance of being an example, of teaching others, of making the world around us a bit more like the Kingdom of heaven. Jesus is explicitly linking this work with our place in the Kingdom, so salvation, just like power, gets inverted. Your concern for your own soul is rechanneled into concern for others.
But you can’t just substitute concern for others for concern about yourself. That’s not how humans work. And it’s not how Jesus is telling us to operate. Your self-interest and concern for others are, he teaches us, deeply connected. So what changes here is that we have to stop thinking about love as being a one-way street. We have to stop thinking that salvation can only have meaning when contrasted with damnation.
Light is a result of an inner energy moving outward. Salt, in the way Jesus describes it (which is not the way chemists do), relies on an inward saltiness to season the things around it. Our mission as people of God isn’t to lift ourselves above the fray and leave the others to themselves. It is to work within the world for transformation. It is to help others, as others have helped us, to see the possibility of a different way of being. It is to be tenders of the light.
But I think we lose sight of the spiritual work going on and where the energy comes from. I talked about this some last week too. Love your neighbor as yourself implies two kids of love, for your neighbor and for yourself. It doesn’t, to be very clear, imply loving your neighbor so that your neighbor will love you. Love that always needs reciprocation will burn out.
The model of ministry Jesus is teaching here is one where we are fed by the love we receive from God, which we need to allow ourselves to receive. Too often we do things to serve others simply because we think that’s the correct thing to do. I call this “Boy Scout morality” because I grew up rattling off a list of virtues that were good, but never really gaining a deeper understanding of why they were good. A lot of what we learned as kids was Boy Scout morality. But we aren’t teaching people to do good deeds. We are teaching them to know God’s love.
If we are to act as a light, then we need to think about what we are showing people. Are we showing them a facade of goodness around a core of self-loathing, or are we showing them a more resilient and healthy practice of loving others as we work to love ourselves, because we love God? Do we give so that we will receive, or can we give more gracefully, without need for reciprocation? The key to the deeper, lasting way of goodness is to practice compassion for ourselves. It’s real work. I’ve got a therapy appointment tomorrow as part of how I work on it.
It’s profoundly counter-intuitive, this lesson that our concern for our own salvation is best manifested as concern for others, which is best based in love for ourselves. But all of it, all of this “love your neighbor as yourself” follows from the first commandment. God loves you. Just does. God’s not wrong about that. And God wants love to spread. God wants relationship with each person. Love is meant to be shared, but God wants each person to feel loved. So the way we best honor God, best give thanks for God’s love, is by recognizing that there is enough of it for all of the creation to radiate, for us to love ourselves and our neighbor. It is, it turns out all connected.
Jesus wasn’t trying to start a new religion. He was trying to teach us to love, right where we are.