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Matthew 5:13-20

Laurence DeWolfe  

In the Jewish Quarter of the old city of Jerusalem stands what is for many Jews the most sacred site in all the world. The remains of the western wall of the second temple. The "Wailing Wall". Devout Jews from all over the world make pilgrimage to pray at the wall. The crevices are stuffed with little slips of paper: written prayers left behind, and gathered into all prayers at the wall.

The Wailing Wall is really the bottom few feet of a many-layered stone wall. It's now a retaining wall for what is left of the temple mount. Except that there's no Jewish temple on the mount anymore. There's a huge, glorious, Muslim mosque. Many of the prayers uttered at the foot of the wall are for the destruction of that mosque.

The Wailing Wall is called the Wailing Wall because it is a place of remembrance and lament for the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in 70 a.d. It's a place of remembrance and lament for all the defeats, dispersions, and persecutions that the Jewish people have suffered throughout history. And a place of hope for the coming of the Messiah.

The Wailing Wall is all that's left of the Jerusalem that Jesus knew. Even the hills of the city have been cut down or built higher over the centuries. I was touched more deeply than I expected to be when I prayed at the Wailing Wall. I was moved to pray for mercy, for myself and for all the world.

I watched groups of old men, reading and chanting. Some gathered around men who bore scrolls in ornate wooden tabernacles. As they opened the doors of the tabernacles, they kissed the scrolls.

I watched two teenagers-- one dressed in the plain, black of the conservatives sects; the other in baggy jeans and lumberjack shirt-- binding their arms with long leather straps, fitting the little pouches with scraps of scripture on their foreheads.

Outside the fenced area in front of the wall were two concrete washstands. Deep sinks, with five or six sets of taps. Members of conservative sects stopped at the taps before approaching the wall. There was a plastic tub on a string in each sink. I saw one woman, and several men fill the tub, then slosh it back and forth over their hands-- one, two, three... at least seven times.

The men talked and laughed with their friends as they washed. The woman was alone, and she went to the separate area that is reserved for women-- smaller, more crowded than the place for the men. Some, more liberal Jews just straighten their caps and walk right up to the wall. Why do the others go to such trouble? They are heirs of the Pharisees of Jesus' day. We've been well trained to think of the Pharisees as bad guys. I'm very cynical about the kind of ritual that the Pharisees passed down through the ages. But, standing there, I saw how much it all mattered to the people. Especially the very old, and the few young people scattered among the crowd.

Why do they do it? Because they believe in fulfilling righteousness. In living up to the requirements of God's law, as a sign of their devotion to God, and their membership in the covenant people.

Drive into Jerusalem, fighting the monstrous traffic, on Friday afternoon, and you get a very different feeling from the busy devotion at the Wailing Wall. Go out for a walk after supper and you'll think the whole city is a shrine. The whole city is transformed for the Sabbath. Even though most Israelis are as devout and observant as most Canadians are, just about everything shuts down for the Sabbath.

Why? The conservative religious parties carry the day. People respect their insistence that righteousness must be fulfilled.

When I read Jesus' insistence that his disciples-- you and I-- must be more righteous than the Pharisees and company, I get scared. I know I'm not as scrupulous about keeping the commandments as the Pharisees were, or as an orthodox Jew or a fundamentalist Christian is today. And I know I can't be. Not just because of the sin in my life, but because something in me doesn't ever want to be. By nature I rebel against it.

I have to learn, again and again, that righteousness isn't the result of effort, no matter how passionate or well-intentioned. Righteousness isn't the reward of the law-makers, or the law-keepers. Righteousness, the Bible tells us, is a gift of God. Our challenge isn't to live ourselves into it, but to live in response to it.

It's entirely possible to follow the rules, go by the book, and still never get it right.

In the recent film, "Mr. Holland's Opus", the title character is a music teacher. In his first days teaching he meets Gertrude Lang. She plays the clarinet in the school orchestra-- or she blows through a clarinet, and moves her fingers on the keys.

Mr. Holland works for hours with Gertrude. She desperately wants to succeed. She wants to live up to the high standard of achievement in her remarkable family. She has studied the clarinet for three years. She practices for hours every day. She knows the music, the theory; everything a good clarinetist needs to know. She does everything her teacher tells her to do, but she still can't get it right.

One day, in frustration, Mr. Holland tells her to stop playing. He says that music is supposed to be beautiful, and the sounds she makes are definitely not beautiful. He tells her to imagine the most beautiful thing she has ever seen. Gertrude closes her eyes, and pictures a sunset.

Mr. Holland takes her music away, and says, quietly, "Now, play the sunset." For the first time something approaching music comes out of Gertrude's clarinet. For the first time, she's playing the music, not just the notes. She gets it right.

It's that way with God's word. We can live by the book, but not get it right. We know that. Maybe we've tried, and failed. That's why Jesus' demands of us seem to be too great. Like Gertrude, we need to learn to move from the notes on the page to the sunset inside, from the book to the beauty of God's law.

I identify with Gertrude. When it comes to playing an instrument, I'm like she was. I can sit down at a piano, read the notes, understand how they are to be played, and hammer them out. But I can't make music with my hands.

Give me a score with words to sing, and I can make music. Then I get it right.

God has given us the gifts we need to live the way God wants us to live. That's what righteousness is. Often we fail because we're using the wrong instruments.

In the movie, the first person Glen Holland meets on his first day teaching is Vice Principal Gene Wolters. Upright, stiff-necked, with a 1964 brush cut waxed into perpendicular glory. Over thirty years, Holland and Wolters are like flint and steel, always at odds over discipline, teaching methods, the kind of music permissable in school. Over thirty years, Holland gets thicker around the middle, thinner on top, slower on foot.

Over thirty years, not much more than the frames on Gene Wolters' glasses changes. Even the brush cut stays the same. To the end, he's as brittle as his hair. But he makes sure that the rules are kept.

If that's righteousness, I don't want to be like that. I want to change, and adapt, and grow. And I want to be able to love along the way. That, too, is what righteousness is.

Jesus said that God's law still stands-- that same law that draws so many people, heirs of the Pharisees, to the Wailing Wall. But even they have moved with times and circumstances. Even they understand the scriptures in their contexts.

When we take these words of Jesus in their context in Scripture, we know that Jesus declared a higher law, a law by which all other commandments must be judged: the law of love. Our obedience is only true obedience when it is motivated by love of God. Our fulfilling of God's law is in our love for our neighbours.

Loving is the only way to show the righteousness that is greater than the Scribes' and the Pharisees'. Without love, we're no better than the worst of the first- century letter-strainers.

Without love to govern us, we may as well hit the trail, preaching abstinence and Sabbath observance as magic solutions to all the country's ills.

Without love, we're as crusty as a well-waxed brush cut. And about as nice to touch...

Without the law of love first, no other laws matter.

When Jesus called his disciples to righteousness, he didn't call them to plaster sainthood. He wasn't looking for antiseptic, ascetic, holier-than-thou-or-anyone- else men and women. He didn't invite Pharisees to brush up their Pharisaism.

He held up the Pharisees, Scribes, and such-like as negative examples. He was inviting people who couldn't be more UN-like those holy men to follow him. That's you and me!

Jesus called his disciples salt and light. Note he didn't say, "You should be salt," or "You can be light," or "You have the potential..." He said, "You ARE. There's something about you, now, as you listen so eagerly to me... as you take your first, faltering steps following me... You ARE the salt of the earth. You ARE the light of the world."

Imagine what that meant to the first disciples, plain folks, who had been pushed to the outside edges of their religion by the works and the standards of the "righteous" men. Jesus told them that they were made and called for a purpose. That he, that God needed them. That they were as important in God's plan as cleansing, preserving, savoury salt was in everyday life. They were essential, as essential as light on the earth.

They were, and we are.

Eugene Peterson translates and expands these words of Jesus this way:

Let me tell you why you are here. You're here to be salt-seasoning that brings out the God-flavours of this earth.... You're here to be light, bringing out the God-colours in the world. God is not a secret to be kept. We're going public with this, as public as a city on a hill.... Now that I've put you there on a hilltop... shine! Keep open house, be generous with your lives. By opening up to others, you'll prompt people to open up with God, this generous Father in heaven.

To live in this way, as God has made us and gifted us to be-- salt and light in this world-- is to fulfill righteousness as Jesus calls us to do.

And the truly wonderful thing is that we don't need to make a pilgrimage, enact a ritual, wear a garment, carry a symbol, or adopt an ideology. We can make a start, here and now.