Lectionary Reflection for the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany

This excerpt comes from Matthew (BTCB) by Stanley Hauerwas, commenting on Matthew 5:13-20:

Christians believe that all was accomplished in Jesus’s death, resurrection, and ascension, but does that mean that every letter of the law in the Old Testament is no longer incumbent on Christians?

Jews rightly ask Christians to reconsider our assumption that the Jewish understanding of what it means to observe the law should not be incumbent on Christians. Of course it is important to remember that Jews do not agree among themselves about what it means to observe the law, but their very disagreements are also important for Christian obedience.

Crucial for any Christian reflection on the status of the law in the Old Testament is what it means for Christian righteousness to exceed that of the Pharisees and scribes, for that “excess” should help us understand the appropriate context for assessing how Christian understanding of our discipleship to Jesus entails our fulfillment of the law. Accordingly, Christians must welcome the ongoing challenge concerning what it may mean for us to observe the law.

Jesus will criticize the Pharisees and scribes for hypocrisy (Matt. 15:1–9), for neglecting the weightier matters of the law while emphasizing minutiae (23:23), for greed and self-indulgence (23:25–26)—all criticisms made from within Israel’s understanding of the purpose of the law. The prophets, for example, made similar criticisms of Israel’s failure to observe the law. Yet it is crucial that Jesus’s criticisms of the Pharisees and scribes not overlook the challenge of the politics of the observance of the law.

The righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, their rightful desire to remain holy, was their attempt to be God’s faithful people even when they were in exile or occupied by a foreign power. Yet too often Israel sought to be faithful in a manner that would not challenge the powers, and in particular the power of Rome. The Pharisees quite understandably tried to observe the law without that observance being recognized as subversive to those who ruled them.

Yet that is exactly what Jesus will not let those who would be faithful to God’s calling of Israel, those who would be his disciples, do or be. Jesus does not seek to violently overthrow Rome, because his kingdom is an alternative to the violence of Rome as well as to those who would overthrow Rome with violence.

His kingdom, however, cannot avoid being subversive. That subversion is the righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees and as such is a subversion that will result in his crucifixion, for rather than violently overthrowing the old order Jesus creates a people capable of living in accordance with the new order in the old.


©2006 by Stanley Hauerwas. Published by Brazos Press. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.