The Magnificent Surplus

Feb 28, 2014 1157

righteousness1
By Levi James.

Israel, in the days of Jesus, was seriously preoccupied with righteousness. The nation’s leaders promoted obedience to the law of Moses as the best—perhaps the only—way to achieve righteousness. It was seen by the teachers of the law as so important for the life of the nation, that an elaborate superstructure of supplementary prescriptions was placed around the law to help keep people at a safe remove from breaking it. These supplementary prescriptions were so important they were considered part of the law. The broad principles of love to God and man were thus encrusted with hundred of extra regulations.

Jesus saw these extra requirements as failing in their purpose. He did not hesitate to encourage people not to make the scribes and experts in the law their benchmark for righteousness. For him, righteousness had more to do with a person’s relationship to God than conformity to long lists of commandments. He pointed out that obedience to a rule often fell a long way short of what God required.

The righteousness which Jesus commended excelled that of Israel’s pastors. They advocated righteousness at a level of minimum effort. It was a bargain-basement kind of ethic. By it an individual who ticked all the boxes could enjoy the respect of his community while cherishing envy and hate in his heart. He hadn’t killed anyone, true. But no court would condemn him for having hateful thoughts.

The same could be said of adultery. A man might be pronounced righteous by his peers because he had managed to keep himself out of his neighbor’s wife’s bedroom.  No court would find him guilty of thinking about it.  The surpassing righteousness of Jesus asks not how weakly or superficially a man has served God, but how thoroughly, lovingly and joyfully.

No clearer illustration of Jesus’ teaching on this subject occurs in his shocking precept: “Love your enemies.”  This is an ethic which cannot be contained in a written or oral command. It goes beyond reason. It exceeds what one has to do, or what one asked to do. It goes further than the time-honored maxim: ‘one good turn deserves another.’

Not the bare essential, but the righteousness of the magnificent surplus. This is righteousness coming not from legislation but inspiration. Only the honing and polishing influence of God’s love can produce such a beautiful overflow of goodness. Goodness with resounding social benefits. May the love of God be shed abroad in your heart by the Spirit of Jesus.

“Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20).

Levi James

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