Sixth Sunday after Epiphany Matthew 5:21-37

My office at Roanoke College was next to Ray Brown, the director of alumni affairs. Frequently, as a fundraiser, he visited Lutheran pastors and congregations.  By pre-arrangement, the local pastor might take him to visit a wealthy prospective donor.  He was ordinarily unflappable. Nothing upset him.

Well, almost nothing. One day we both had business in downtown Roanoke.   (The College is located in Salem, not Roanoke.)  I already had the staff car reserved, so he was the passenger.  He spoke scarcely a word but seemed focused on the heavy traffic.  When we returned to our parking lot, he said, “Pete, when does the seminary teach pastors to drive like old-fashioned ambulance drivers?”

Since my car never gets mileage to brag about. I wish the ads about miles-per-gallon would say that regardless of how you drive, you‘d still get 40 miles to the gallon. I’m interested in the maximum; I won’t settle for the minimum. This thing of minimum and maximum comes from the Sermon on the Mount.  Jesus is telling his followers about the minimum and maximum of how they should live.  Another translation reads: “If your virtue goes no deeper than that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never get into the kingdom of heaven.”

God’s call inevitably has something to do with everyday life. “Just what is expected of us, Lord? By how much does our righteousness have to exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees?”  We look for the maximum performance in everything from gas mileage to batting averages. But when it comes to God, we want the minimum required.  How many right answers are required to pass the test?  To our everlasting shame, we ask God what is required.  Should Jesus have told us the minimum to satisfy God?  Exactly how much do I have to give so I’ll give the average?

Religious bean counters ask, “Is that before taxes or after? Jesus had one idea: “Act like people of the kingdom.”  Our goal should be the maximum response of doing the best we can – in speech, in thinking, in our deeds. A person of seemingly boundless energy was asked the secret of his success.  He said, “I really can’t tell you.  I just try to run as fast as I can, as far as I can, as long as I can.” Should that idea direct our response to the kingdom?  Shame upon us if we try to respond with just enough for a passing grade.

The Pharisees and scribes had a rule for every circumstance. They quoted their belief, “The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul; the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; the fear of the Lord is pure, enduring forever; the ordinances of the Lord are true and righteous altogether, reviving the soul.” Yet, they approached keeping the law from the viewpoint of satisfying God’s minimum requirements.  They believed they should give 10 percent of their income to the maintenance of the priesthood and the upkeep of the local synagogue.

Jesus said his kingdom must be approached from an entirely different viewpoint. “Unless your righteousness is greater than that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

He didn’t say by how much our righteousness must exceed theirs. The kingdom is more than meeting certain minimums – whether church attendance or supporting charitable works, or any other opportunity for love to others. Our responsibility, that is, our response to the grace of God, cannot be subject to religious accounting like pills in a prescription:  “Take these – no more, no less – and you’ll be saved.”

Our relationship to God cannot be sometimes cool and sometimes warm. We cannot be half-committed today, not at all tomorrow, but we’ll make it up next week.  After all, can God really care so long as our name is on a church roll somewhere?  Our response to God’s love must be total.  He does not say we can fulfill half, or three-quarters, or even nine-tenths of his expectation.  To accept his call is to say, “God, everything I am or have or hope, is subject to your direction, your leadership, and your wishes. “I reserve nothing for myself.”

When total economic sharing was expected in the early church, a couple said they would sell a vacant field and give the proceeds to the life and work of the congregation.  They sold the field, we’ll say, for $5,000 and then brought $2,000 of it as their offering. They said to the elders of the church, “Here are the proceeds from the sale,” and the church leaders thought they were giving the whole amount.

Peter said to them – you can read this in Acts – “Anninias, how can Satan have so possessed you? The land was yours to keep and after you sold it, the money was yours to keep or to give.   But you have lied about how much you sold it for and then said you’re giving the whole amount to the church.  What put this scheme into your mind?  It is not to us you have lied, but to God.”

When the children of Israel approached the border of the Promised Land, Moses knew the time had come for his farewell. Once more he held up the glory of the Lord.  He addressed the people, “You have a choice.   Will you choose life and good, or death and evil?   You are God’s people, but you must choose. You can take possession of the land God is giving you, or you can choose other gods and serve them.  If the latter, you shall surely perish.” He did not mention a minimum required allegiance to God.

To love God perfectly is to make a total response to him with everything that we are. We are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves. “For the sake of your son,” we implore God, “have mercy on us.”  And God grants us the entire forgiveness of all our sins.  In other words, even though God wants perfection, he forgives us and expects us to delight in his will.

Can we take God’s gifts, and, like unwanted presents, stuff them into a closet? We for whom Jesus Christ died ask what our minimum response should be to his love and grace. The scribes and Pharisees were upstanding, good people, truly religious.  They followed all the rules, engaged in the right activities, gave of their income, and taught the law of the Lord to their children.

Jesus said all that is not enough for life in his kingdom. Ours must be a whole new spirit of response in gratitude.   We have received not the spirit of the world, but the spirit that comes only by the will of the Father.  In Jesus Christ, we have received gifts of grace beyond measure.  Thanks be to God that in the name of Jesus we are given the righteousness by which we will enter the kingdom of God.

Can we be satisfied if our response is any less than our maximum effort?