When it comes to righteousness, the Pharisees are tough to beat. And Jesus knows that these Jewish leaders are passionate about the law of God, supportive of synagogues, advocates of schools, attentive to purity rules and regulations, all with a powerful hunger for heavenly rewards. The Pharisees are the spiritual superstars of their day, exerting an enormous amount of peer pressure on the people around them to rise up and be like them.
Peer pressure is a powerful force in our lives, and it can both help us and hurt us. That is until you can out live its power.
A 104-year-old woman was once asked by a reporter, “What do you think is the best thing about being 104?” She replied, quite simply, “No peer pressure.”
But how are we to respond to peer pressure until then, especially in light of Jesus saying, “I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Not just match it, but exceed it. Thanks Jesus. No pressure there.
Todd Rogers is a professor of public policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School. He has studied the peer pressure that comes from people who are a little better than us, as well as the pressure that comes from people who are way better than us. In other words, the Pharisees.
Says Rogers, “When you are compared to people who are doing a little better than you, it can be really motivating. Someone who is conserving energy might inspire you to use less energy, and someone who is voting might motivate you to vote. But peer pressure turns negative when you are compared to people who are unattainably better than you. If you decide to train for a 5K race with an Olympic runner, for example, you are not going to be inspired. You are going to be really intimidated and probably drop out.”
Rogers studied more than 5,000 students in a massive online course. As part of the course, the students graded each other’s work. What Rogers discovered was that when the ordinary students graded top-quality papers they assumed that everyone in the group was brilliant, which made them feel inferior. Consequently these ordinary students became far more likely to quit the course when they were paired with the better students.
This was exactly the effect of the Pharisees on the people around them. They were seen as spiritually superior, and the Pharisees believed themselves to be spiritually superior. They held an unobtainable righteousness. And now Jesus was saying they had to be surpassed in righteousness to enter the Kingdom. Again, no pressure.
But Jesus is not interested in making people “give-up” when he says, “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
The Pharisees might be better than everyone else in terms of following religious rules and regulations, but Jesus has a new approach to righteousness, one that is not based on rigorous law-keeping. Rather, Jesus wants his followers to be salt of the earth and light of the world, fulfilling the law in new ways— as he does. He wants to make the pressure of righteousness not something unattainable, but rather something livable.
So what is this new way? According to Jesus, this new way includes being like salt, saying the righteous are “the salt of the earth.” In the ancient world, salt was a valuable commodity used for sacrifice, purification, seasoning and preservation. So when Jesus says the righteous are the salt of the earth, he is saying the righteous are to play all of these roles in the world, and are to remain a valuable commodity by staying true to their mission and avoiding contamination. “If salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored?” asks Jesus. It cannot, of course. Contaminated salt “is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled underfoot.” Jesus’ audience, well aware of the important role of salt, would get this metaphor quiet clearly.
Now it should be noted that Jesus doesn’t say, “Try to be the salt of the earth.” He doesn’t say, “It might be good for you to catch some classes at Salt and Light University to learn how to be salt.” He doesn’t say, “Go to the pastors and elders and have them lay hands on you to beseech God to grant you saltiness.” He doesn’t say, “Take 30 minutes every morning to meditate and try to reach your inner saltiness.” His comment is quite straightforward. “You are the salt of the earth.” He is saying, this is what and who you are meant to be. His statement is not a command, rather it is a description.
When Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth,” he says it with the understanding that salt as an element has no value to itself. Salt is not about making salt better salt. Salt is salt. But Jesus knows that the value of salt is in its application—when it is put to use, with and for, other things.
Jesus is saying, salt when combined with the poor, the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the imprisoned, the refugee— leads to the betterment of those things, the betterment of life. No wonder Jesus calls us “salt.” Salt… Us… exist for others.
But Jesus doesn’t stop at just salt. He says the righteous also look like light, saying, “You are the light of the world.” Once again, being light does not involve sitting through a class, reading literature on the subject, or meditating about it. Jesus’ statement is, again, a description, not a command. And like salt, light does not exist for its own benefit, but for the benefit of everything it illuminates.
Light provides warmth and energy to the world, light encourages life and growth. We do the very same thing when we act as the light of the world, and when we reflect the light of Christ to others. “No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket,” says Jesus, “but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house.” Our righteousness as Christians depends on doing whatever we can to be lights to each other and to the world around us.
We are to be open and honest instead of hiding in the dark. We are to offer other people warmth and encouragement instead of being cold and discouraging. We are to be an energy source for others, so that together we can advance the mission of Christ in the world. “Let your light shine before others,” says Jesus. Our challenge then, is to shine as a Christian community so that others will see what a life of love, grace, kindness, compassion, generosity, and faithfulness looks like and then leads to.
There is so much dimness all around us, in the form of loneliness, isolation, and fear. Righteous Christians can truly be a light to the world— beacons of peace and reconciliation in a world that is so often full of conflict, exclusion, and hate. If we live out such righteousness, people will see it, says Jesus. And when they do the dimness of this world is dispelled, lives are made better, the world is more like the Kingdom of God, and it will “give glory to your Father in heaven.”
The Pharisees may have been the spiritual superstars of their day, but their righteousness was rooted in rules and regulations. Jesus respected their passion for the law, but criticized their failure to put it into action. He encouraged his followers to do what the Pharisees “teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach.”
No doubt, the Pharisees were good people. They were not necessarily cruel, heartless or unpleasant. But, when all was said and done, they were trying to be good for the wrong reasons, righteous in the wrong ways, which meant Jesus could not lift up the Pharisees as the norm for righteousness. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!” he said. “For you tithe mint, dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith.”
The Pharisees of the Bible cannot be our role models for righteousness, because they neglected the justice, mercy and faith that are part of a right relationship with God and neighbor.
Nor can the 21st-century Pharisees who are alive and well today, people who make other Christians feel unworthy through an excessive focus on religious rules and regulations, be our role model either.
We have only one role model for righteousness: Jesus Christ, the one who invites us to be salt and light. He offers us the very best peer pressure, that which inspires us to rise to the challenge of advancing the kingdom of God in the world.
As salt, we can work for the betterment of others. As light, we bring warmth and energy to the world around us. Combined and lived forth from brings the Kingdom closer.
Now, some might say, “Well, if the Pharisees were the superstars of peer pressure, and that’s a bad thing, what about Jesus? He was without sin, and yet you say that he is our ‘role model for righteousness.’”
Yes, but the difference between the Pharisees’ righteousness and the righteousness of Jesus is that one must work for the former, while the righteousness of the latter is a free gift. The pressure of righteousness that Jesus implores is not a pressure for us to be seen as righteous; rather it is a description of the righteousness we are called to share because we have already received it.
As Christians, we don’t have to feel peer pressure from the Pharisees. Our righteousness comes about in a whole new way, one that avoids faulty assumptions about who are the top performers.
So when it comes to Christ-like righteousness, like the 104 year old woman, there is no peer pressure. We need never worry about whether we’re righteous enough. Worrying is what the Pharisees did. We’re righteous enough and then some. For our righteousness is the righteousness of Jesus and that’s a righteousness that even a Pharisee would envy.
So may we seek to be salt that makes lives better. May we seek to be light that dispels the dimness of loneliness, isolation, conflict and hate. May we aspire to not a Pharisee righteousness, but a Christ-like righteousness where there really is no pressure to become righteous, because righteousness has already been given to us. Jesus is saying, to you, “You are the salt of the earth…You are the light of the world.” Amen.