Who is a good person? This is one of the fundamental questions in life. What is it that makes someone a truly good person? This Sunday we’ll take a look at the passage in the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus tells us very clearly how He answers this question.
- I will explore what my glittering vices are.
- I will pursue righteousness not by trying to avoid sin but by living life to the fullest.
- I will pursue surpassing goodness, not rule-breaking or rule-keeping.
- I will pursue a transformed heart, not behavioral compliance.
- I will do good and not ask, “What is the least I can do.”
- I will work as if I’m working for the Lord, not a human boss.
- I will memorize Scripture so I can think the kinds of thoughts God thinks.
- I will offer surpassing goodness with my time and money.
How many of you would say you know how to dance? I did not grow up dancing. I started attending a baptist church in Chicago when I was in high school, and it was against the rules. I went to baptist Christian college, and it was against the rules there too. You could not dance if you were on campus. You could not dance if you were off campus. You could not dance if you were a student or on faculty. You could not dance with your spouse if you were married. They didn’t even allow married couples to have sex standing up because they believed it might lead to dancing. It was not until I got married, moved to California, and ditched the baptist church that I thought it might be okay to dance. So Kathy and I went to a dance studio. I got a little book I could study. They gave us instructions. They even had a little diagram about where to put your feet. Listen, I studied the book. I memorized the diagram. I knew where to put my feet. But there was one quality that my dancing was lacking. Do you want to guess what it was? In a single word, it was grace. There was a certain mechanical, robotic quality to my dancing. || Now, when it comes to dancing, I know it and understand it like a dancer would, but I do it like a Baptist would. || And here’s the deal. You can know the Book, and I hope you do. You can understand the book, and I hope you do. You can do the Book, and I hope you do. But without grace, there is not much life, or beauty, or goodness in it. || So I got the book. I studied the book. I could do the book. But there was no grace. || Then the strangest thing happened. The instructor had us dance with our partner. Kathy grew up dancing. She was also a baptist, but she was a rule-breaker. So Kathy dances with grace. And as I danced with her, some of her grace spilled over onto me. I began to dance a little more gracefully too. || Now I say this because a lot of times religious people have this problem. Religion can produce people who know the Book, who do the Book, but there’s no grace. Too often we end up producing rule followers instead of Jesus followers — Christians who are mechanical, unfeeling, joyless, lifeless, fearful, judgmental people who end up mostly being known for what they’re against. Then we wonder, “Why don’t other people want to come to church and be like us?” || Now Jesus knew all about this problem with religion. This actually gets to a question that haunts the human race — who is a good person? What is it that makes someone a truly good person? We can never get away from this question. || And starting next week, we’ll be in part of the sermon on the mount where we’re going to learn from Jesus how to deal with some of the great human problems. How do we deal with our anger? How do we deal with our sexuality? How do we use language well? How do we deal with our relationships? Well, Jesus is going to prepare us for all of that by getting real clear in the text we look at today on what it means to be a good person. || This is what Jesus said in Matthew 5:17-20 Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. Now the whole rest of Matthew, chapter 5, and beyond is really just unpacking this next statement: For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven. || I used to think that last verse was bad news. Because I knew the Pharisees would fast twice a week, memorize the whole Bible, never look at a woman. They had a really high bar, and I thought what Jesus was saying was I have to clear an even higher bar, or I can’t get into heaven. || Well that’s not what Jesus is saying. Jesus is not saying, “These religious leaders have a lot of righteousness, and you need even more than they had.” What he’s saying is, “They don’t have righteousness at all, not true righteousness.” || One time he described their lives like this: Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean. Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, [Jesus didn’t make a lot of friends with this talk.] which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness. (Matthew 23:25-28) Jesus is talking about what it means to be a good person. These religious leaders defined a good person in terms of external compliance with the law. They defined a good person as someone who does the right things and avoids doing the wrong things — someone who follows the rules. || A few centuries later, Saint Augustine had a wonderful phrase for this. He talked about “glittering vices.” A glittering vice is a quality that looks like a virtue… but it makes me proud. It makes me arrogant and unloving, so it really destroys my soul. || Winston Churchill from England had a political rival named Stafford Cripps. Cripps was a brilliant member of Parliament, respected for his integrity, his competence and his Christian principles. Except he was kind of self-righteous and disapproving. He was what Mark Twain used to call “a good man in the worst sense of the word.” His one known vice was to smoke cigars, and eventually he gave even that up. When Churchill heard that, he said, “Too bad. Those cigars were his last contact with humanity.” || You see, a lot of things that are good in themselves can become glittering vices. || I can believe correct doctrine. I can hold the right political ideology. I can have my sexual life in line. I can have a great work ethic. I can have a glittering family. I can do what Jesus said. But it’s possible to focus so much on doing the right things that you fail to become the right person. || Do you have any glittering vices? I know I do. || See, here’s the thing. Focusing on external compliance neglects the condition of the heart — of the inner life. || I have a friend who’s a California Highway Patrol officer. We were discussing what officers look for when they pull someone over on the freeway? And what their routine is when they pull someone over. || Here’s something they never do. They never pull someone over and say, “Yes, you were in compliance with the traffic laws, but I didn’t sense it came from your heart. Your very face indicated a lack of joy while you were driving. You’re not wholehearted in your submission to the law. So I’m writing you up for failing to contribute to freeway shalom. Your heart just wasn’t in it.” You see, human legal authorities deal with behavioral compliance. What God wants is a transformed heart. || So anytime you’re reading the Bible and Jesus talks about the righteousness of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you have to put that word righteousness in quotes. Their rule-following orientation caused them to focus on outward actions while their inner thoughts and desires remained corrupt. || See, this is the problem with the wrong kind of righteousness, and we can be guilty of it. It generates great social pressure on others. They become deeply self-conscious about how much they’re giving up, and how hard they’re trying to be good. They demand other people see and be impressed by them. And they resent what they have to give up. That’s what religion will do to you and me. And the tragic result is religious people give righteousness a bad name. || You see, we have a problem in our day — the New Testament writers used what were wonderful, attractive words to describe goodness. We need that, but those words have all taken on a baggage in our day so they don’t sound desirable to us. || Imagine if you were going on a blind date, and you asked the person who set you up, “What is she like?” And they used these words to describe her. “She’s sanctified. She’s holy. She’s saintly. I would say she’s very righteous.” “You mean, like a righteous babe?” “Nope. Just righteous.” || In our day, people are not drawn to those words. || A friend of mine who also grew up in a baptist church was telling me about the only sex education he ever got was from his mom before he went off to college. She pulled him aside and said to him, “There are bad girls at college.” He said his first thought was, “Where do I find them? How will I know where they are? If rule following is so bad, it seems like it might be more fun to date a rule breaker. That’s probably where the fun is.” || People thought maybe that’s what Jesus was saying. They would listen to him teach and think, “Maybe because he’s critiquing the righteousness of the scribes and the Pharisees, what he’s really saying is that rules don’t matter. It’s more fun to break the rules.” || But you need to think that one through: Do you want to marry a rule breaker? Do you want to work for a rule breaker? Is that the answer to life? Do you want to raise a little rule breaker? When you’re undergoing brain surgery, do you want your neurosurgeon’s last words before they put you under to be, “I cheated and partied my way through med school. I kind of regret that now. Wish me luck.” || You see, rule breaking isn’t the way to go either. || That’s why Jesus starts this section with, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets.” || Now because Jesus critiqued the righteousness of the Pharisees, people thought maybe he was trying to just abolish the law and the Prophets. “Maybe that’s the way to live. Maybe we can just cut corners, take shortcuts, seize the day, indulge in pleasure, enjoy the good life. That’s what grace is for.” But Jesus says, “No!” See, that’s why he says, “…not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law…” The law rightly understood and fulfilled is the greatest gift God gave the human race outside of Jesus himself. || You see, we all need to know this. That word righteousness is a wonderful word that needs to be rescued. || Centuries before Jesus, the philosopher Plato wrote in the Republic about what the condition the soul must be in for people to live well and to manage to do what is right and good. The Greek word for that condition is dikaiosune, which means righteousness. Now when the teaching of the Hebrew prophets about God’s intent for human goodness, about shalom, was translated into Greek, that same word dikaiosune was used. So Jesus deliberately chooses a word that brings together the two great strands of moral reflection in the ancient world. To seek to become a truly good person in and with God is the most important thing you can do, more important exponentially than being successful or rich. The law of God, rightly understood, humbly studied, and practiced through the power of the Spirit is a gift of God to the human race that is sweeter than honey and more precious than gold. It just is. It still is. || It’s not about following rules; it’s about following Jesus. It’s not about breaking rules; it’s about following Jesus. || Now the loud and clear call of Jesus is in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 6:33 when he says: But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness. If you’re going to seek the kingdom of God, there could be no other word that would follow that but “…and his righteousness…” These two go together. Righteousness is simply what your life looks like when you’re living in the reality of the kingdom of God, because the goal of your life is not rule following. It’s not sin avoidance. It is fullness of life. That’s the only way to live in the kingdom of God. || A writer named Barry Hill had an analogy I thought was kind of helpful. Imagine you have a huge field and you want to prevent having weeds. No one likes weeds. The best way to avoid weeds is not to spend all of your time pulling weeds. The best way to avoid weeds is to grow a lawn so full of thick, beautiful, green grass that there’s simply no room for weeds. Fullness of life will crowd out the weeds. || In other words, you cannot avoid sin by trying to avoid sin. That’s what people so often misunderstand about religion. You do it by pursuing life. Jesus didn’t say, “I have come that you may avoid sin and avoid it by trying really hard.” He said, “I have come that you may have life and have it abundantly, filled to the top and overflowing.” || The failure to do this, the failure to attain a deeply satisfying life will always result in temptation looking good and eventually sin. || The only way to fulfill the law is to live in the abundance — in the grace of the kingdom of God with the presence of Jesus who died on the cross to forgive us and rose again to give us hope. || Now this week, don’t be a rule follower. Don’t be a rule breaker. Live in the abundance of the kingdom of God, and practice surpassing goodness — unless your righteousness surpasses that of the rule followers. Okay? This week, surpass it. Don’t just give outward compliance. Out of the abundance of the kingdom of God — his presence, power, and strength in our midst — let love and joy flow out of you toward others. || This week when you’re at home, instead of doing the minimum you need to do in order to avoid trouble with your spouse, or your roommate, or whomever, step into the kingdom of God at home. Live in the abundance of the kingdom of God. Offer surpassing righteousness. || My daughter and I were in a room together recently. I was working on a message and she was working on her homework. I was trying to concentrate. I’m an introvert. I like to work uninterrupted. My daughter is a raging extrovert. Interruption is her primary love language. She was reading a book and kept interrupting me to tell me about her book. She kept getting really excited about what she was reading, and anytime she gets excited, she has to talk. I finally got mad at her and told her to go to her room. She didn’t interrupt me for a long time after that, but it was not my most righteous moment. || See, when I live in the reality of the kingdom, I can say, “God, my time is in your kingdom, and you have more than enough time. So I don’t have to be rushed and preoccupied with my little agenda.” This is what it means to live in the kingdom. This is why obeying Jesus is impossible if I’m not living in the reality of the kingdom. In the kingdom, I can live in unhurried love in this moment, one moment at a time. || Think about this. The difference between the Good Samaritan who did God’s will versus the religious leaders who did not do God’s will was the Good Samaritan was willing to be interrupted. He had time. || When you’re at work this week, whether you’re paid or volunteer, don’t just follow the rules. So many people, so many Christians are just clock-punching, rule-following conformists. — “What’s the least I need to do?” Not you. Not this week. This week at work, step into the kingdom of God, and offer surpassing goodness. || The apostle Paul describes it like this: Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving. (Colossians 3:23) || I recently heard a great sermon by Martin Luther King Jr. He was talking about how we’re all “called by God,” whatever work we’re doing, whether it looks big or not. He said, “If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.’” || So whatever you’re doing (entering data, teaching students, selling products, writing code), whatever it is, do it with surpassing goodness. And pray, “God, how can you help me? How can we partner together to solve problems, to help my coworkers, to work with joy?” || This week, when you go to work, followers of Jesus ought to be the greatest workers because we’re offering surpassing goodness. || This week, when you talk to someone, don’t just be on autopilot. Don’t just give socially acceptable words. Speak to them with surpassing goodness. Encourage them! Love them! It doesn’t have to be perfect. They’ll get your heart. || Remember if you’re a follower of Jesus, the aim is not behavior modification. || Jesus put the distinction like this: Good people bring good things out of the good they stored in their hearts. But evil people bring evil things out of the evil they stored in their hearts. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of. (Matthew 12:34-35) In other words, my aim must not be just to say good things and avoid saying bad things. My aim is to have God change the automatic flow of thoughts and desires inside me to make that flow of thoughts and desires be truthful, and humble, and generous, and hopeful, and brave so that good words naturally come out. || Now how do I pursue this? How do I store up good things in my heart? Well, one really important way to aim at changing the inside of the cup, to change the automatic flow of thoughts in your mind, perceptions and so on, is to memorize Scripture so those thoughts are always present in my mind. || But of course the human condition is — I can turn memorizing Scripture into a glittering vice. I can compare how I’m doing with other people, thinking of it as this kind of spiritual merit badge, making it into a competition. || When I was a kid growing up in Sunday school, we actually had a contest to memorize the beatitudes. For every verse we memorized, we would get a prize. I was pretty good at it, but there was one girl in my class who was better than I was. I was memorizing the Word of God, but she memorized the Word of God faster than I memorized the Word of God. It kind of made me angry, so I killed her…a little…in my heart. We’ll actually see about anger and killing in the Sermon on the Mount next week. It’s the biggest problem in human life. || Now, if I’ll let God do his work in me, I can take Scripture into my mind, and it can change that flow of thoughts. || Don’t turn memorizing the Bible into a glittering vice. It doesn’t mean you’re a spiritual giant because you can memorize Scripture. If it makes you proud and self-righteous, it can actually make you worse. || But if you do it as a means to that end of having a changed inner heart so that your mind can think the kinds of thoughts God thinks, then God can use it to change your heart. || So when you’re standing in line at a store, you don’t have to pull out your phone to keep you from being frustrated, or bored, or anxious… You can use that time to reflect on the Scripture you have memorized and God will change your heart a little bit. || You can have these wonderful thoughts available to you when you wake up in the middle of the night, and God can use that to begin to change the inside of the cup. || This week, if you’re driving a car, if you’re lucky enough to have a car, remember to drive in the kingdom of God. Slow down. Be grateful you have a car. Just say, “God, thank you.” Let someone else in front of you as an act of kingdom generosity. || This week, you can offer surpassing goodness with your money. I was talking to someone at our church who was telling me he used to be irritated when someone on the street would ask him for money. Then he sensed God was telling him, “Just give when someone asks. I know it’s not the ultimate answer for poverty. It’s not a systemic solution, but giving will help your heart. It’s not up to you whether they use it well. A lot of times, you don’t use your money well. Just give.” So he started doing that. When someone would ask him, he would just pull out his wallet and give a bill to them. Then God said, “Give the big bills. If you have one in your wallet, give the big ones.” So he did. And I got to tell you — God has blessed this guy financially in some remarkable ways. || Now, this is not about how to get more money. It’s not like “getting rich” is the goodness we’re after. It’s living in the abundance of the kingdom of God and offering surpassing goodness. || This week, remember if you’ve been a rule follower grinding it out, there’s a better way. If you’ve been a rule breaker disobeying God’s law, there’s a better way. || I love the way Jesus put it one time. This is a statement not widely known, but it’s a beautiful image. To what shall I compare the people of this generation? They are like children sitting in the marketplace, who call out to the other children and say, “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance.” (Matthew 11:16-17) Can you hear it? It’s Jesus on the flute. He’s our great Pied Piper. It’s Jesus calling you to a life of surpassing righteousness and joy out of the overflowing abundance of God’s great love and generosity. || So this week, know the Book. I hope you do. Do the Book. I hope you do. But don’t stop there. Step into the kingdom of God. And when you step, do it with grace. || Alright, let me pray for you. Would you bow your heads with me? Blue Oaks Church Pleasanton, CA