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Brian Rapske Ph.D.

Surpassing Righteousness

Christians are called to live above the level of their culture. I’m OK with that. But living unreflectively can be as spiritually unhealthful as enthusiastically endorsing the culture.

Though I’ve had my share of childhood scraps and squabbles, I’ve never as an adult settled a dispute by resort to bloodshed. I feel good that I’m living above the call of the Sixth Commandment, “Do not murder.” and I don’t have to worry about being subject to judgment on that account. But just because I haven’t “whacked” someone, doesn’t mean that I’m in the clear.

Jesus taught in his Sermon on the Mount that while not committing murder is righteous, it does not equate to the surpassing righteousness which is the hallmark of the heaven-bound (Matthew 5:20). Surpassing righteousness not only will not shed blood, it won’t allow itself to become angry or express resentment to the person who offends. Jesus said, “anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of Hell.” (Matthew 5:22)

If I allow myself to become so upset that I think angry and harmful thoughts toward another (whether I know that person or not) or vent my anger by calling a person stupid, an idiot, or a fool, that is the same as murder.

How can this be? Let me illustrate.

Most of us don’t like dandelions in our lawns or gardens. We go to great lengths to dig them out so that our lawns are clear of their ragged leaves and yellow heads. But it would be a complete nonsense if we were to have such an activist attitude toward the plants and yet be unconcerned or even accommodating towards the tiny seeds from which those weeds grow. Obviously the plants are much bigger and more unsightly; but they have their origin in those tiny airborne seeds. If you are a gardener, shouldn’t you be just as concerned about the seeds as you are about the weeds?

That is exactly what Jesus is getting at. Murder is unrestrained anger. But in his instruction regarding angry thoughts and speech against others, it’s pretty clear that anger is just restrained murder. Murder is the full grown plant; anger is the seed from which it grows. Therefore, anger is just as deadly. Shouldn’t we be just as concerned about the seeds as we are about the plants?

Indeed!

Allowing ourselves to cherish vile thoughts about others when we’re frustrated by them is as wrong as doing them lethal harm. We ought not to do this. But simply refraining from wrong doing, wrong thinking, and wrong speech is largely negative. That is not the full expression of surpassing righteousness, because surpassing righteousness is at the same time positive, exerting restorative energies in relationships.

Jesus declares that surpassing righteousness, far from simply not hurting or maligning others, will be exceedingly anxious to make amends. In fact, it holds priority over worship (Matthew 5:23-24) and coming to one’s perceived rights (Matthew 5:25-26).

God’s interest for us is that we enter into his kingdom and that nothing keeps us from that joy. That calls for surpassing righteousness, which only he by the power of his own Holy Spirit can provide. Surpassing righteousness is interested in both the outside of the call not to murder and the inner dynamics of anger which it also wishes to prevent.

A great comfort that we are heaven bound followers of Jesus is that we wish people well and not ill in what we think of them and what we say to and about them. Far from being angry people, Christians are people concerned to admit when they’ve wronged someone and instant to pursue making amends.

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