The Righteousness of Christ

‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
—Matthew 5:17-20

Following from where we left off last week, today, we find ourselves making a seemingly counterintuitive turn. Whereas much of what Bonhoeffer has been suggesting about discipleship might have sounded like a direct refutation of the old life through his presentation of an alternative new life, here, Bonhoeffer affirms that what Jesus offers is not a replacement of the old but a fulfillment of it. Feeling a bit incongruous, this possibly unexpected development in Jesus’ message requires a closer look.

Jesus, in this passage from Matthew’s gospel, is adamant that the faithful life is not a rejection of anything established through God’s covenant with Israel. That covenant and its substantive claims remain intact. Even further, Jesus not only affirms that the substance remains the same but takes his affirmation even further by insisting that not just the substance remains but all ostensibly insignificant details remain, too, i.e., every “letter” and “stroke of a letter.”

How can that be? How can Bonhoeffer frame Jesus’ call of the disciples through Jesus’ assertion that discipleship means leaving behind the old life in order to attend to a new one—as he does by referencing Luke 9 earlier in this text—yet, here, seem to demand that discipleship is a fulfillment of the old and not a dereliction of that previous way of living? While nuanced, the answer emerges after a second reading of this Matthew passage.

In this passage from Matthew’s gospel, Jesus explains his position on discipleship and the law not by demanding that one life replaces another life. Rather, Jesus seems to be outlining contrasting strategies for understanding how to live the life of faith, a life already in place. These three strategies may be characterized as the intellectual, legal, or relational options represented in this passage by three divergent groups’ perspectives—Scribes, Pharisees, and Disciples.

Scribes, according to Bonhoeffer’s deliberate caricature, represent those among the faithful who seek to pursue the life of faith principally as an intellectual exercise, divorcing the knowledge of faith from its lived practice. They, in Bonhoeffer’s estimation, are more interested in “teaching” the law, a teaching that will inevitably become so intellectualized that it ceases to have much connection to how we might be able to live our lives of faith in both practical and meaningful ways. Such lives are meaningful but stagnate and abstract.

Conversely, the Pharisees, in Bonhoeffer’s casting, represent those faithful who make the life of faith out to be the execution of right habits and rules, habits and rules separated from the substantive and informative shaping and filling that comes through intentional pondering of the faith. These legalistic faithful emphasize the “doing” of the law, an enacting that will ultimately loose any significant justification for why we live as those faithfully committed to God. Such lives are active and engaged but devoid of sense and purpose.

Contrasting both of these positions is the life of Discipleship. For Bonhoeffer, Discipleship is not just about teaching or doing but about teaching and doing, connecting our intellectual and spiritual lives in deep, significant, and mutually informing ways. This focus on connection highlights Bonhoeffer’s conclusion that what makes Discipleship different from both the caricatured faith strategies of the Scribes and the Pharisees is that Discipleship is first and foremost a connecting, relational category—a category of connection exemplified through the connecting of teaching with doing and embodied in the deliberate call by Jesus to enter into life together.

As a result, the life of faith is not an intellectual or legal category but a relational one. Whereas, an emphasis on teaching makes the life of faith concentrate on the data of faith, and, whereas, an emphasis on doing makes the life of faith concentrate on the habits of faith. Distinctively, an emphasis on teaching and doing highlights the importance of connection, communion through the person of Jesus as the defining and new aspect of Discipleship, an aspect that proves to be the effective missing link between our longing to and being able to fulfill the righteousness of the law.

So, what sets Discipleship apart from Scribes and Pharisees for Bonhoeffer is not what is taught or what is done but the fact that what is taught and done is accomplished by our being connected with God through the very embodied Person of God called Jesus. In other words, Scribes and Pharisees confuse the means of faith with its proper end. And, in particular for Bonhoeffer, Scribes and Pharisees become representative categories of people from all times and places and faiths, not simply the titles for certain groups of people wandering the streets of Jerusalem with Jesus.

For those embodying the persona of the Scribe, teaching by itself becomes the end of faith, i.e., teachings about God become the reason to engage in the faith rather than as an outcome of a life connected to God. Similarly, the Pharisees, for Bonhoeffer, become representative of those more interested in doing faith, embodying a kind of either latent or aggressive anti-intellectualization. Discipleship is but Bonhoeffer’s way of trying to describe those people who balance teaching and doing with a primary commitment to the Person of God. Faith, we discover, is not primarily an intellectual or legal/practical category but a relational one that leads to and unfolds in intellectual and legal/practical ways.

What we discover through this passage is a cautionary tale. The life of faith it turns out has many alternatives with many different ways of compiling and emphasizing common bits and pieces we find essential to faithful lives. Moreover, the differences can be so minute that they become tempting options that will lead to a kind of faithful living that, ultimately, falls short because we substitute the end with a means or outcome of faith, i.e., we replace a relationship with insistence on right thinking or right living.

Faith, it turns out, is not first and foremost about believing the right thing or living the right way. Don’t get me wrong, both thinking well and living well are important. Rather, it seems that the first essential character of faith is willfully connecting with each other and God in right ways. Such a connected life will lead to our attending to right thinking and living. It is just that those two categories are secondary to our primary call to live intentional lives with God and each other. Or, as we read later in Matthew’s gospel: “‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ He said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

Love, that seems like a good place to end a reflection on discipleship.

Love is at the heart of (good and holy) relationships. Love is at the heart of the gospel. And, love, it seems, is at heart of what it means to live with God, each other, and in the world. In the end, it seems to me that living without love makes our teachings self-serving and our doing lacking in compassion. So, love well. The world, the kingdom needs it. The rest will come.

See you along the way.

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