Whenever I hear those words, “You will never enter the kingdom of heaven,” I want to dig down deeper, because I know for a certain fact that God wants you to enter the kingdom of heaven. God yearns for all of us to enter the kingdom of heaven, with a yearning deeper than the infinity of space.
The Pharisees were a political and religious party that had grown up over the two hundred or so years before Jesus’ day. They basically said, “If only everyone would obey all of God’s laws then God would come and make everything wonderful.”
So they would tithe and fast and pray at the right times of day, study scripture and worship at the right times of the year, and observe many rules to keep themselves pure and holy.
This is not a bad thing in and of itself. Tithing, for example, is a spiritual discipline. When we give a proportion of our income to God’s work, we will sense God’s presence more deeply in our lives and we will share God’s presence more fully with others. Same with fasting. Prayer is powerful in many ways. It deepens our relationship with God and brings God into our relationships with others. Studying Scripture and coming to church, we learn about God and are strengthened to show God’s love in the everyday, routine actions of our lives.
Spiritual disciplines are like playing scales on a piano. Nobody particularly likes listening to you play scales. But the scales make you better at playing the music. Tithing and fasting and praying and studying Scripture and worshipping are like running laps at football practice. No team is going to win just by running laps around and around the football field during the game. But running laps will make you a better player.
Tithing and fasting and praying and studying Scripture and worshipping will help you see God’s dignity in yourself, and honor God’s dignity in others.
Jesus’s problem with the Pharisees was that they were so wrapped up on all the little laws that they forgot about people’s wholeness, people’s dignity. Remember what Jesus says? “Do to others as you would have them do to you. This is the law and the prophets.” And “You will love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your heard and all your soul and all your mind, and you will love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
Righteousness does not have so much to do with rules as it has to do with relationships, with honoring God’s dignity which is in us, which is also God’s dignity in every other person on this planet and every atom of creation from which we were made.
Look at our Old Testament lesson from Isaiah. God says, “Is not this the fast I choose, to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke. . .Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house. . .Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly. . .” Then things will get better.
Righteousness is about people
Once more, look at Joseph, from the beginning of the Gospel of Matthew. Joseph knows for a certifiable fact, from his best information, his most genuine judgement, that Mary has betrayed him. To the best of his knowledge, even though he and Mary were engaged, Mary slept around on him and turned up pregnant. She has hurt him. But Joseph is a righteous man, it says. Joseph still regards her as a human being, possessed of the same dignity as himself. So he does not want to publicly disgrace her.
Righteousness, God’s law is about relationship. It’s about human wholeness.
At the beginning of our Gospel lesson, Jesus says, “You are the salt of the earth.” Salt, in Jesus’ day was very valuable. Sometimes people were paid in salt. It was a seasoning to make food flavorful. It also was a preservative to keep food from rotting, so it didn’t stink.
You and I are salt. When we show the love of God, it makes the world more flavorful, it makes life tasty. We also preserve things so they don’t rot. So they don’t stink.
Problem comes when salt loses its saltiness. Sometimes in Jesus’ day, the salt would get mixed with other minerals. If it got wet the salt would dissolve out so it had not flavor and it did not preserve. What dilutes us? What distracts us from living out the dignity of God in ourselves and others?
Jesus says, “You are the light of the world.” In Jesus’ day they had no light bulbs. If it was dark, you groped along the wall till you found the door. Jesus says, “No one hides a light under a bushel basket, a covering. Instead you set it on a lampstand to light up the whole house.” With what do we cover our light? How do we hide our lamps? Do we cover it with anger? Or depression? Or resentment? Or fear? Or simple busyness?
In the Gospel lesson, Jesus says something we repeat every time we baptize someone. We give them a candle and we say, “Let your light so shine before others that they see your good works and glorify their Father in heaven.”
Here is some good news. The good news comes in what Jesus does not say as well as in what he says. Notice, Jesus does not say, “You should be the salt of the earth. You should be the light of the world.” He does not say, “If only you would be the salt of the earth, things would be so much better. Would you please, please be the light of the world.” Nor does he say, “If you really tried, you could be the salt of the earth. If we all stirred up all our strength we would be the light of the world.” No. He doesn’t say that. What does he say?
You are. You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. The work has already been done. God makes us into salt, into light into God’s emissaries in the world every day.
Here is a story to show what I mean.
Ludwig. Ludwig von Beethoven was not a perfect person. If he lived nowadays he would be considered a racist. He would be looked upon as judgmental, overbearing and tyrannical, to the point that his nephew who was in his parental custody, tried to commit suicide. Beethoven himself considered suicide for a time, but then decided to dedicate himself to his music.
But Beethoven still shone. He wrote one of the songs we sang today. You may remember. It’s called “Ode to Joy.” “Joyful, joyful we adore thee, God of glory, Lord of love. Hearts unfold like flowers before thee, praising thee their sun above.”
That hymn comes from Beethoven’s ninth symphony, the first one ever to use human voices. It was first played in 1824 in Vienna. Beethoven assisted in directing. People loved it. They applauded with standing ovations repeatedly. At the end, they leapt to their feet and thundered their approval. But Beethoven had his back to the audience. He was still conducting. He didn’t even know the piece was over.
The contralto, one of the singers named Caroline Unger came over and turned Beethoven around. Only then did he see the crowds cheering. Only then, because he could not hear them. He was almost stione deaf. People had to write things down for him to show him what they were trying to say. He wrote that ninth symphony and many other great pieces, completely unable to hear them.
Beethoven let his light shine, even though he was not perfect. Even though he could not even hear. You and I, we may not be musical geniuses. But the things we do in our everyday routines to honor God’s dignity in ourselves and others shine with the same brightness as Beethoven’s song: “Joyful, Joyful we adore thee. . .”
“Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and glorify their father in heaven.”