What does it mean to be a good Christian? What is expected of us as disciples of Christ? It is easy to fall into the temptation of thinking that being a good Christian is essentially the same as following the rules. As long as I don’t break any of the commandments, I’m a good Christian. Just follow the rules and I’m all set.
But Jesus tells us that following the rules isn’t good enough. Repeatedly in the Gospel today Jesus raises the bar beyond just obeying the rules. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not kill;’ but I say to you whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment.” “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you, everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife must give her a bill of divorce.’ But I say to you, whoever divorces his wife causes her to commit adultery.” “You have heard that it was said to your ancestors, ‘Do not take a false oath,’ but I say to you, do not swear at all.”
What Christ asks of us is not simple rule-following, but a conversion of heart and mind. As disciples, we aren’t supposed to just avoid doing anything really bad, but we are supposed to strive for the heights of holiness. Christians should never be minimalists. We should never be content with just following the rules. The rules aren’t bad. Jesus says that He came not to abolish the law but to fulfill it. The rules are good, but the rules are supposed to change us. Just following the rules isn’t enough. As Jesus says, it isn’t enough just to not commit murder or adultery or take a false oath, but we should have a conversion of heart and mind, so that we do not even act in anger or lust and so that our every word is one of truth and integrity.
Sometimes, we can hear that we are called to holiness and think, “That’s a nice idea, but I don’t really need to do that, right? Holiness is there if I want to pursue it, but I’m just fine if I stay where I am.” But Jesus doesn’t say that the conversion of heart and mind is just a nice idea. He doesn’t say, “Well, if you’d like to work at avoiding anger or lust, that would be great, but there’s no pressure.” No. He ties it explicitly to our salvation. “Whoever says to his brother ‘You fool,’ will be liable to fiery Gehenna.” “It is better for you to lose one of your members than to have your whole body thrown into Gehenna.” Gehenna literally referred to a valley outside Jerusalem where Israeli kings had sacrificed their children to idols and later became a place where trash was burned. It was a cursed place filled with refuse and worms and fire. The name came to be used symbolically for the state of eternal punishment in the afterlife, which is how Jesus is using it here. Jesus says that acting in anger or in lust leads to eternal punishment.
When we reduce Christianity to simply following the rules, we can then believe that following the rules is the basis of our salvation. As long as I am a good person and I don’t commit any really bad sins or break any really big rules, I will go to heaven. We can think that salvation is something we earn by following the rules. But that is not right at all. You and I cannot earn our salvation by following the rules. We aren’t saved because we are good people or because we don’t commit any big sins. We are saved by the grace of Jesus Christ. But that grace should change us. The Son of God did not become incarnate, live among us, preach and heal, suffer and die, rise from the dead and ascend into heaven just so that we could follow the rules. He did all that so that we could be made new creations, so that we could be radically transformed by His grace.
That is what Jesus is driving at in the Gospel today. His disciples are not supposed to be rule followers; they are supposed to be made completely new. We should be wholly transformed by the grace of God. And our salvation depends on it. Our salvation depends on us allowing the grace that Jesus won for us to enter our hearts and radically transform our every thought, word, and action. He says explicitly, “I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” The scribes and Pharisees were really good at following the rules, but their hearts were not converted. And so Christ is telling us that even if we follow all the rules, unless we truly allow His grace to convert us, we will not enter the kingdom of heaven.
This Gospel reading should unsettle us. I know it unsettles me. Because I’m going to be really honest, I don’t live up to that standard that Jesus sets. My heart and mind have not been completely transformed by the saving grace of Christ. I get angry with others, I give in to lust, my words are not always words of complete truth and integrity. And Jesus says that there are eternal consequences to those actions. That is terrifying. Jesus makes it abundantly clear that Hell is real, and that it is not just for the worst of the worst. Our salvation is contingent not just on following the rules, but on allowing the grace and the mercy of God to truly and entirely convert us. Now praise God that He is merciful, that our lack of conversion can be forgiven, but we also cannot take that mercy for granted or treat it as something cheap. The mercy that God gives us was won by the blood of Jesus. It is a costly mercy. And if you and I are going to take that mercy seriously, then it needs to change us. It is impossible for us to truly understand the value of God’s mercy and at the same time be content with merely following the rules.
In the first reading today, the author speaks about a choice. “Before man are life and death, good and evil, whichever he chooses shall be given him.” We have a choice to make as well. We can choose to just follow the rules and not let our hearts be changed. But Jesus tells us that that choice has consequences. “Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” Or we can allow the grace and the mercy of Christ to truly transform our every thought, word, and action, and to draw us ever upwards towards greater and greater holiness. That is the choice that you and I have to make. Let us make it well.