Sermon on the Mount: 3. Exceeding Righteousness
Matthew 5:17-48
Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill.

A teacher who compels the public to look at an unfamiliar truth, the reformer who introduces a new style of goodness, will be misinterpreted just in proportion to the advance he makes upon former ideas. Our Lord renounced explicitly, and with warmth, the goodness of the Pharisees, and the cry was at once raised against him as a destroyer of the Law, a libertine, a companion or' loose people. He thus found himself called on publicly to repudiate the attitude towards the Law ascribed to him, and to explain with fulness, once for all, at the outset of his ministry, the righteousness he required and exhibited. "I am not come to destroy the Law and the prophets, but to fulfil." So far as regards his own character this explanation has long since become superfluous, but there is danger lest the very knowledge that there is full and free pardon for sin should breed in his followers a demoralizing sense of security. They need to be reminded that for them, too, Christ came not to destroy the Law, but to give it higher and richer fulfilment. The importance our Lord attached to this explanation is marked by the abundance of detail with which he illustrates it. He recognized that the mere enouncement of a principle carries little weight to the ordinary mind. He therefore carries his principle all round practical life, and shows how it touches it at every part. Note a few particulars which are liable to misapprehension. Quite recently the subject of lending money on interest has been brought before the public, and from the letter of the teaching here, the case has been made out against it. But we must distinguish between those whose necessities compel them to seek loans, and those who do so for their own commercial convenience. In the one case to require interest is a cruelty; in the other it is only a justifiable business transaction to take our share of the profit we helped others to secure. Again, our Lord's prohibition of oaths has been taken in the letter by a large and highly respectable body of men. But it is to be borne in mind that so inveterate is the habit of falsehood among Orientals that nothing is believed unless it is attested with an oath. It is to this habit our Lord alludes. The habit of profane swearing among our uneducated classes arises mainly from a desire to give force to their conversation without sufficient knowledge of their mother tongue to make themselves intelligently emphatic. It betrays a consciousness, too, on the swearer's part that he is not to be believed on his bare word. All exaggeration in speech brings speedy retribution, for men learn to discount what we say. Simplicity of language lies very near truth in mind and heart. It is not a mere lesson in style, but in the deepest morality, when our Lord bids us cut off superlatives, and all loud, boisterous, exaggerated expressions, assuring us that whatever more than "Yea, yea; nay, nay," we indulge in, cometh of evil. Again, the critics of Christianity are fond of pointing to those precepts which enjoin non-resistance to evil, and asking why we do not keep them. And certainly nothing is more demoralizing than to do homage to one code of morals while we are practising another. And the earnest, simple-minded man, who seeks to lay on Christ's words the eternal foundations of character and conduct, will be apt to accept the gospel rule "crude, naked, entire as it is set down." He will see that here, if anywhere, lies the secret and power of religion, and that it is not for him to pick and choose, but to follow the example of Christ, even in that which is most peculiar and most difficult. And the man who tries thus literally to carry out its words will have the inward peace and the power among men which are the unfailing reward of integrity of heart, even though he may come to learn that there is a better way of fulfilling them; though he comes to see that even when precepts cannot be fulfilled in the letter, they may have an eminently serviceable function in pointing out the spirit we should cultivate. Our Lord himself, when smitten in a court professing to be of justice, protested against the indignity, and did not turn the other cheek. And there are cases where justice demands the punishment of the offender. What we must bear in mind is that the object of Christ's teaching was to introduce a higher morality than that of nature, and that what he demands is the complete repression of vindictive feeling. But he only understands these sayings of our Lord who does his own best to live into their spirit. The man who does so will not find it difficult to discriminate between those cases in which literal fulfilment is demanded and those in which he is to adopt the spirit and intention of the Master. These strongly worded precepts have served to turn men's minds strongly to the more peculiar parts of Christ's teaching, and have brought the spirit of them home to men's minds in a way that a prosaic code of instructions could not have done. Two characteristics of the righteousness required are prominent - it is an exceeding righteousness; and it is a righteousness springing out of love. Our Lord compares the righteousness he requires with that of the best-conducted class in the community, and affirms that, so far from destroying the Law, he demands a surpassing righteousness. There are two kinds of goodness Christians must surpass - the goodness of nature, and the goodness of external legal piety. The goodness of nature is often difficult to compete with. Some men seem so born as to leave grace little to do, and we feel that if the second birth make of us as much as the first birth has made of them, we should count ourselves renewed indeed. But we are not to be content with merely rivalling such men. Our Lord asks, "What do ye more?" While we welcome every evidence that a germ of good is left in human nature, surviving even in some instances the stifling influence of vice, we should be at the same time prepared to show that the noblest natural character can be outdone by the least in the kingdom of heaven. With each of us remains a perpetual responsibility in this matter - the responsibility of wiping out the stain on the name of Christian, and of vindicating the reality of Christ's grace. "The regularities of constitutional goodness," the decencies that society requires, the affections which nature prompts, - these are the perfections, not of God, but of the publican. The man of the world asks no reward for exercising all these. If you do no more than this, where is your exceeding righteousness? Finally, your righteousness must exceed the righteousness of the Pharisee. The Pharisees had the pretty common ambition of being counted the religious men of their time. But they were not mere formalists; they were moral men, immensely zealous in their religion. What was lacking in them was a genuine root of goodness, which must at all times produce good fruit. There was wanting love. Their acts were good, but they themselves were evil. No amount of keeping a law can ever make a man good; it can only make him a Pharisee. Our Lord says, "Love, and do as you please. Be yourselves good, be like your Father in heaven; 'for except your righteousness exceed the righteousness of the Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter the kingdom of heaven.'" - D.

Parallel Verses
KJV: Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil.

WEB: "Don't think that I came to destroy the law or the prophets. I didn't come to destroy, but to fulfill.

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