Skip to content

Either-Or

A Sermon by Nathan R. Kerr

Delivered at Trevecca Nazarene University Chapel Service, February 2, 2011

Isaiah 58:1-9a
Psalm 112:1-9
I Corinthians 2:1-12
Matthew 5:13-20

Dear Trevecca Community! We have gathered here, whether we realize or not, to hear the Gospel. We have heard the Word of God read and proclaimed; we have sung that Word and spoken it. And now, whether we like it or not, we are called upon to listen to it and respond. Of course, to listen and respond to the Word of God is a thing much more easily said than done. In fact, were we to be honest we’d be quite happy if we could respond by not having to do anything at all. Or, at least, we’d be quite happy if we could respond by not having to do or think anything that we have not been doing and thinking all along. We would be quite happy if we could politely nod and say, “Oh yes, that is what I have always thought and felt in my heart of hearts.” We would be quite happy if we could smile in approval and say, “Yes, that is a righteousness that I could live for; it fits very well with my own highest ideals, my own goals for life. And better yet, it hardly requires a single change in how I go about my day!” Well, let us be honest with ourselves for a moment. If that is what we want, it is not the Gospel of Jesus Christ but religion that we desire. It is not a God who calls us to repentance and service that we want, but a God who acts as an insurance agent charged with protecting and securing our highest dreams and ideals. What we want, in short, is what the bible calls a “false prophet.” What we want is a word from God that affirms our own human affairs, preferably in the form of a sound-byte that can be played in a loop as a piece of popular public opinion and political propaganda.

And yet, with our passages from Scripture today, we start to get the sense that things might not be as they seem. Especially with the passage from Matthew that we just read, we start to get the sense that the righteousness to which we are called, the righteousness of Jesus Christ himself, does not simply reaffirm our present life, but rather challenges and confronts our life, putting to us a question that calls for a decision—a real, direct Either-Or?! “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Either the self-justifying righteousness of the Pharisees, or the righteousness of the kingdom of heaven. Either the righteousness that serves your own interest and oppresses all your workers, or the righteousness that looses the bonds of injustice and lets the oppressed go free. Either the lofty words of your own human wisdom, or Jesus Christ, and him crucified. This is why the Gospel demands that we must make a decision—not only this hour of this day, but every day, and every hour of our lives. Any so-called “Christian faith” that does not begin each day and hour anew with the decision to repent and to follow after the righteousness of Christ is a dead-end, a cul-de-sac in which we are caught within the righteousness of our own making. Any so-called “Christian faith” of this kind is an outright denial of the Gospel itself.

So, we must ask: Just what is the Word of God calling us to today? Just what does it mean to decide against the earthly well-being and security of Pharisaical righteousness, and to decide for the kingdom of heaven that comes with the righteousness of Jesus Christ? To answer these questions we will need to take a second look at our text. We must begin by noting the relation of our passage to the central theme of the Sermon on the Mount and of Matthew’s gospels as a whole. For Matthew, that theme appears with Jesus’ announcement that the kingdom of God has drawn near. The whole world has been invaded by the reign and rule of Christ’s perfect, self-giving love. This reign and rule is at the heart of the Sermon from which our passage comes. All of life is to be directed towards obedience to and discipleship of the one who embodies this love in his own person and life—Jesus Christ. “Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well,” Jesus will say later in the sermon. And so this is the first point that we have to make: the kingdom of heaven has broken into this world in Jesus Christ and that kingdom demands of us our undivided surrender and service. The Sermon on the Mount is nothing if not a call to this undivided surrender and service to the kingdom—a call to follow in the righteousness of Jesus Christ.

But this leads us to a second point: The entire weight of the Sermon on the Mount rests on Jesus’ command to “Repent!” The whole sermon demands that we hear in the coming kingdom of Jesus Christ a call to repentance, a call to turn from every idol that this world has to offer and that separates from God, a call to turn to God in Christ, and a call to turn with Christ to love every neighbor that is condemned, outcast, hungering, and dying at the hands of this idolatrous world. In this sense, Jesus’ call to repentance at the heart of the kingdom is radically liberating; the kingdom comes as good news because the kingdom comes in such a way as to liberate us from our enslavement to the idolatrous compulsion to self-mastery, power, and control, and to set us free for the life of abandoned, self-giving love that is found in discipleship of the crucified Nazarene.

It is on this point that the whole of the difference between the righteousness of the law as understood by the scribes and Pharisees and the righteousness of the law as fulfilled by Jesus Christ is to be understood. You see, for the Pharisees, fulfillment of the law turned on the ideal of successful human performance. Righteousness for the Pharisees was understood in terms of the ways in which my actions, my religious sincerity, my pursuit of moral goodness secures for me a right position in regards to God and others. It is little wonder that Jesus will later criticize the Pharisees for their “hypocrisy.” The word “hypocrite” is not necessarily, as we think of it today, used to describe a person who does not mean what they say or does not intend what they do. The Pharisees were no doubt as serious as anyone about meaning and intending what they say and do. Rather, as the Greek word hupocrisis implies, the hypocrite is a kind of “play-actor” that constructs a false “self”; in the eyes of God the hypocrite is one who is deluded into thinking she can work to make herself good, when in reality such work is mere play-acting before God. In today’s world, we would look at such people and call them “pious” or “devout.” We might even say, in our delusion, that they’re “holy” or “sanctified.” But these do not enter the kingdom of heaven; their religion is their own reward. And so, the scribes and Pharisees are those who use the law to construct a religion and a religious life according to their interests and concerns. Naturally, such are those for whom “righteousness” and their own sense of personal “goodness” are one and the same. For the Pharisee is the one for whom the meaning, power, and comfort of the law depends upon the ways in which it accords with what she wishes to do and to think.

Now, let us be clear about what is going on here. Not only is the righteousness of the Pharisees a righteousness of their own making, but it is equally a righteousness that is impotent to challenge the injustices of this idolatrous and murderous world. The religion of the Pharisees is the religion of the status quo; and so it is no wonder that the greed and self-indulgence of the scribes will eventually lead them into collusion with the Roman Empire for the sake of bringing Christ to death. Their idolatrous concern for righteousness of self will lead them to an equally idolatrous concern for the powers of political convention and religious bureaucracy, a concern that deafens them to the cries of those who are oppressed and dying at the hands of these powers. “Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day,” the prophet Isaiah says, “and oppress all your workers.”

But let us also be clear about something else (and this will no doubt hit closer to home). This is not just the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ day. If we are honest with ourselves, this is the righteousness of white, Middle class American Christianity. We may think that because all this concern for pious performance and religious devotion took place two millennia ago in a land far, far way away that it is not so directly relevant to us; surely Christianity has moved beyond such Pharisaical hypocrisy in 2,000 years! Well, if that is the case, we might as well slam the Bible shut. The truth is, our world today is every bit as obsessed with right performance, self-mastery, and control as the world of the Pharisees in Jesus’ day. And we have gotten just as good at constructing a Christianity that meets our own concerns and interests as any Pharisaical usage of the law ever did. We have gotten quite good at constructing a kind of piety and devotion that allows us to go on feeling good about ourselves even as we participate in the most destructive and abusive power structures that this idolatrous world has to offer.

How long, I say? How long will we continue to proclaim that in Jesus Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile, while we continue to support racist legislation that makes it easier to imprison or deport blacks, Hispanics, and Muslims because of the perceived threat they pose to our comfortable middle class lives? How long will we continue to recite verses about hospitality and welcoming the stranger while supporting legislation that allows us to discriminate against the undocumented immigrant while profiting from their cheap labor? How long will we continue to proclaim that the kingdom of heaven is freedom and peace for all nations while blindly pledging allegiance to and flying in our churches the flag of a nation whose economic system depends upon the violent exploitation and rape of the third world’s workers and natural resources? How long will we confess with Paul that in Christ there is no longer male and female while continuing to allow patriarchal attitudes towards sexuality and gender to determine one’s fitness for Christian service? How long will we go on with such self-righteousness? How long, indeed?

But praise God, there is genuine good news! God in God’s mercy has not left us to our own religious devices? God in Christ has not left us to perform the law for ourselves, but in Christ has fulfilled that law, transforming the law from being a tool for self-mastery and religious and political control, and into being a way of freedom from ourselves and our own idolatrous compulsions, a way of freedom for loving, self-giving service to all God’s creatures. In this way, the law is not the means for our own religious self-righteousness, but is the lived expression of a greater righteousness, another kind of righteousness, the righteousness of Christ’s kingdom. Such righteousness comes not by blindly clinging to the letter of the law in concern for pious self-fulfillment. Such righteousness comes rather through repentance, the kind of repentance in which God’s grace frees me from the tyranny of religious and political achievement, and frees me for love of my neighbor, especially that neighbor that has been tyrannized and oppressed by my own concern for such achievement in the first place.

So what does this kind of righteousness look like? It decisively does not look like a kind of achieved human moral or spiritual heroism, the kind self-construction of the righteous person through successful human performance, the kind of “play-acting” which Jesus names straightforwardly as “hypocrisy”—the kind of righteousness whereby we are clearly in control. This “greater righteousness” looks precisely like the kind of indiscriminate love with which God first loved us in Christ; it looks precisely like the kind of life lived out of our control. It looks like the forgiveness of debt in the face of a world bent on achieving profit at all costs; it looks like the refusal of violence in the face of an enemy that knows only the language of warfare; it looks like a willingness to give, and to give again and again, when repayment and return are not only unexpected but impossible; it looks like welcoming the undocumented immigrant into your house and naming her a sister in Christ, when everyone around you seems hell-bent on expelling her from their homeland and naming her a stranger and alien. This is what it means today to “loose the bond of injustice,” “to let the oppressed go free,” to “share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house.” This is what it means to repent, to be set free from the idolatrous righteousness of religion, and to live according to the liberating righteousness of Christ’s love. To such a love we surely cannot expect the powers of this world to give their consent. But our passage for today does promise that such a love will be seen as a bright light; and it gives us hope that these powers might be given to see in this love an unexpected thanksgiving and delight, so that they too might, by some miracle, “give glory to the Father who is in heaven.”

And so, dear TNU community, today we have before us two kinds of righteousness. On the one hand, we have the righteousness of self-mastery and control, the righteousness of the religious and political status quo, the righteousness of humanly constructed integrity and self-justification. On the other hand, we have the righteousness of the kingdom of heaven, the righteousness of self-giving love, the righteousness of Christ, of a body broken and of a blood shed for the life of this world. We—You and I—must decide. It is one or the other, not both. The Gospel of Jesus Christ itself allows no middle ground. Here we are confronted with the starkest Either-Or! And so we—You and I—must decide! And if we—You and I—have been given ears to hear, if it is the Gospel that has indeed been heard, then we—You and I—must decide today, right here, right now.

7 Comments

  1. Myles wrote:

    I just taught on Kierkegaard’s Genius and the Apostle. They hated the “either/or” there too, as it leaves us with no middle ground.

    Thursday, February 3, 2011 at 11:53 am | Permalink
  2. roger flyer wrote:

    Brilliant!

    Thursday, February 3, 2011 at 12:19 pm | Permalink
  3. dan wrote:

    Nate,

    In the paragraph that begins with “How long, I say?” you pose a number of questions related to violence and oppression, and the structures that sustain those things. Then, in a subsequent paragraph, you describe the “greater righteousness” Christians are called to embody. Within this talk, it appears that this greater righteousness is the described in order to answer the questions raised in the “How long…” paragraph. However, it seems to me that this description falls pretty far short of addressing those things.

    While I am all for doing things like inviting the homeless to share our homes (I have done so myself on several occasions) and sheltering those with less-legal status (ditto), we also need to genuinely assault the structures that sustain and deepen things like homelessness or the criminalization of persons. For all of our creative activity, we must also be engaging in destructive activity (the destruction of death-dealing powers and principalities). I would like to see an emphasis upon the sort of “direct action” that this requires, instead of just proposing that we should just be better people in a better community, as though that is enough. I’ve learned the hard way that that isn’t enough.

    Hmmmm… not sure how that came across. So, just to be clear, apart from that point, I enjoyed the post.

    Friday, February 4, 2011 at 8:25 am | Permalink
  4. roger flyer wrote:

    Dan said-I would like to see an emphasis upon the sort of “direct action” that this requires, instead of just proposing that we should just be better people in a better community, as though that is enough. I’ve learned the hard way that that isn’t enough.

    Roger: But ‘enough’ is the start to what we can do, each in his/her own way…this day.

    Friday, February 4, 2011 at 9:37 am | Permalink
  5. dan wrote:

    That’s fair enough, Roger, but it’s still probably a both-and that shouldn’t be mistaken for an either-or.

    Friday, February 4, 2011 at 10:16 am | Permalink
  6. Val Russo wrote:

    Thanks! great post

    Monday, February 7, 2011 at 3:31 pm | Permalink
  7. erin wrote:

    Thanks Nate, Halden.
    It’s very helpful to see how to preach these truths. I am going to plagiarize this sermon as much as possible. :)

    Friday, February 25, 2011 at 9:55 am | Permalink

Switch to our mobile site