by David F. Maas
In Matthew 5:20 is the familiar, though enigmatic passage, "For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven." Protestant theologians assume that Jesus rebuked zealous lawkeeping in favor of a more laid back "love your neighbor, love Jesus" approach, removing the "pesky" Sabbath keeping, dietary and anti-pagan customs and prohibitions. These theologians say, "If we love Jesus, we can magically transform any sin into righteousness."
In God's church, we understand that Jesus did not "do away with" His Father's law. Christians must still keep God's commandments. But are we absolutely clear about what He meant by His statement about our righteousness exceeding that of the scribes and Pharisees?
The key to understanding the leaven of the Pharisees (Matthew 16:6, 11-12) does not hinge on their zeal in keeping the law, but on their zeal in finding loopholes to twist it to their own ends. Their motto could have been, "How close can we get to the edge without going over?" We could refer to this practice as brinkmanship (pushing a situation to the limit to force a desired result) or marginalism (taking an extreme position on an issue).
Pushing the Boundaries
A former homiletics teacher, also an avid skier, conveyed to his class an analogy of the Ten Commandments as the boundary markers along the ski trail. Every year, when contemplating the boundary markers at Vail or Aspen, he reflected that only an idiot would ski as close to the edge as he could. Yet this describes many practices of the scribes and Pharisees!
The legalist and the lawbreaker both have a morbid curiosity about those boundaries rather than concentrate upon the vast latitude of choices between those markers. This is reminiscent of our parents Adam and Eve developing a morbid curiosity about the one tree that God forbade, ignoring the thousands upon thousands of varieties that He did not forbid (Genesis 2:16-17; 3:1-6). This behavior dwells on the negative and ignores the positive.
These examples point out that the spirits of legalism and lawlessness are twin siblings. When we place the critical points of the law/grace and legalism/lawlessness issue in proper perspective, law and grace are powerful allies opposing legalism and lawlessness. They give Christians great freedom to do good for others while also doing what is right.
In Deuteronomy 5:29, a scripture that Herbert Armstrong quoted often, the Lord says to Moses, "Oh, that they had such a heart in them that they would fear Me and always keep My commandments, that it might be well with them and with their children forever!" Many of us can still hear Herbert Armstrong's voice ringing in our ears from decades ago as he thundered Romans 7:12, 14 over the radio: "The law is holy, and . . . the law is spiritual." Through the apostle Paul, we know that God found no fault with the law, nor with the original agreement or covenant (Hebrews 8:7-9).
"For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days," says the LORD. "I will put My laws in their mind, and write them on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. None of them shall teach his neighbor, and none his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,' for all shall know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them." (see also Hebrews 10:16).
The ultimate fulfillment of this process will culminate when we are completely composed of spirit, and God's law will be our first nature, not just second nature. But, while we are in an embryonic stage, the process has already begun in us, incrementally, as God gradually displaces our carnality and sin, replacing it with His Holy Spirit, leading to righteous behavior and godliness. Actually, no human being is completely converted, but many people are in various stages of conversion.
Conversion, then, is a life-long process in which we move from a reactive approach to lawkeeping—motivated by rewards and punishments—to a proactive approach—motivated by a deeply placed inner desire to yield and comply to the law's principles, knowing intrinsically from experience that they work for the good and harmony of all. (Proactive is a term author-speaker Steven Covey uses to distinguish internal motivation to do or accomplish something as opposed to external motivation.)
Carrots and Sticks
As the process of conversion begins, God must use carrots and sticks to keep us moving in the right direction. The blessings and curses of Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28 served as carrots and sticks to encourage righteous and godly behavior in our Israelite forebears. God uses carrots and sticks in the early part of our calling—for instance, the carrot of the Place of Safety and the stick of the Tribulation—and literally drives us into a frantic study of prophecy. Carrots and sticks have motivated our educational system in the forms of gold stars, grades, praise, trophies, extra homework and detention.
Recently, Dr. Alfie Kohn, in his book, Punished By Rewards, questions the long-term effects of external motivators, such as grades, financial incentives, gold stars or tokens, to sustain learning behavior. He supplies some surprising evidence that carrots and sticks—reflecting the philosophy, "Do this and you'll get that"— actually become detrimental in the long run, diverting the focus away from the learning outcome onto the reward or punishment. Dr. Kohn, Dr. Jerome Bruner and a host of other educators suggest that internal motivators, such as satisfying curiosity, imitating role models and attaining competency, work better to motivate over the long term than do G.P.A.'s, scholarships and grants and other external incentives.
To illustrate this, one of the supreme tragedies in the music world occurred when the government of Finland supplied composer Jean Sibelius a guaranteed pension and a large mansion in the woods near Jarvenpaa. After this huge reward, an external motivation, not one musical idea—not one note!—emanated from his pen. Likewise, our spiritual growth and maturity will become stunted if our motivation for righteous behavior is externally determined rather than internally determined.
A few years ago, I took a job with Texas College in Tyler, a school with a long 104-year tradition. In the past decade, Texas College, because of financial as well as academic problems, lost their accreditation. The Board of Regents hired a new management team, including Dr. Haywood Strickland, a former officer of the Southern Association of Schools and Colleges. At our orientation meeting, he said to the students and faculty:
The upcoming review of the Southern Association and the close scrutiny of our standards we should welcome as a blessing and not fear as a curse. What they want for us we should desire more. Our standards should exceed what they demand for us.
His words brought to mind the apostle Paul's admonition in Romans 13:3, "For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same." Christians must move past carrots and sticks to having an internal drive to do only what is good and right.
Ignoring the Core Problem
As Ambassador College was metaphorically hemorrhaging to death, the faculty attended a mandatory training session on sexual harassment. We had to listen to a federally approved representative explain guidelines defining sexual harassment:
» This kind of joke constitutes harassment.
» This kind of joke is borderline.
» This kind of joke is okay.
» This kind of eye contact and facial expression constitutes harassment.
» This kind of eye contact and facial expression is borderline.
» This kind of eye contact and facial expression is okay.
I felt highly insulted that a representative from the Clinton administration, with its sterling record of moral turpitude, should have the audacity to lecture Ambassador faculty about sexual harassment. For representatives of a college that once proclaimed, "The Word of God is the foundation of all knowledge," this lecture seemed childish.
To an individual truly endowed with God's Spirit, the laws cranked out yearly in Washington, DC, our state capitals and our local city halls should strike us as juvenile and elementary—or as one minister would call it—knee-pants stuff. Consider the carrots and sticks used by lawmakers to control litter: up to $1,000 fine for littering, or a sign reading, "This segment of highway adopted by Yourtown Jaycees."
These examples ignore the heart and core of the problem. Until the law gets from stone-tablet pages of the Scripture, or the statute books of a local, state or federal assembly, into our hearts and minds—unless the motivation for doing what is right comes from the inside out—we are no more converted than a donkey. On second thought, a donkey at least behaves as it is programmed to act.
Proactively obeying the law means embracing it in the spirit of Psalm 119:97: "Oh, how I love Your law! It is my meditation all the day." It means we take it into our nervous systems and apply it to myriads of situations. The same psalmist says in verse 11, "Your word I have hidden in my heart, that I might not sin against You." The more we learn God's law by heart, the more it becomes a permanent part of us, and the less we will be inclined to sin.
Proactively obeying the law means knowing how to use it wisely in those contingencies when no clear-cut, either/or behavior is apparent, as verse 130 suggests, "The entrance of Your words gives light; it gives understanding to the simple." Several analogies from music may add some insight.
A college band conductor I knew used to insist that the music is not the notes on staff paper but what we do with it once we process it through our nervous systems. To illustrate this, a musician in a dance band I had in Duluth, Minnesota, called the Norshore Four, could not read music but played by ear fabulously. Another, who could play by note flawlessly, could not improvise to save his life. I learned to look upon both of these deficits with equal frustration—one was too much grace, the other too much law.
Not being able to depart from the written notes may be detrimental at times. Sometimes, because of a mistake in transcription, a written note violates a law of harmony. One time, as I was playing clarinet in the Mankato Symphony Orchestra, the Director stopped the orchestra and glared at me. I defensively said, "Dr. Scheuer, I'm playing it exactly as it is written." He replied, "But it's not music!" My playing had violated the musical laws of harmony and consonance, bringing home Paul's statement in II Corinthians 3:6, "The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life."
I have since learned that arrangers take liberties with the scores of composers, especially if they are converting operatic scores or symphonic scores to piano solos. But they never feel at liberty to violate the laws of music: the principles of harmony, rhythm, and tonality.
The composer Serge Rachmaninoff, who wrote such beautiful pieces as "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini," never played his own compositions the same way twice. He would often use chord inversions, creating similar but not necessarily identical structures. The laws of music allow some flexibility and latitude, but one must truly know these laws to explore those flexibilities and latitudes. Musical comedians Spike Jones, Victor Borge, and PDQ Bach have proved that one must know and follow the musical laws to "break" them convincingly.
This principle provides the answer to Jesus' argument with the Pharisees in Matthew 12:1-8 over His disciples plucking grain in the field on the Sabbath. Jesus truly knew God's law and that other concerns (mercy, in this case; verse 7) may sometimes override the strict letter-of-the-law approach the Pharisees used. The Pharisees no doubt thought Jesus a flaming liberal, but to Jesus, He was simply working within the liberty God's law allows (see Psalm 119:45; John 8:31-32; II Corinthians 3:17; James 1:25; I Peter 2:16).
To know a subject proactively, then, means that we know alternate routes in case one is blocked. I know at least six different routes to my apartment in Tyler, yet when I first moved there, I knew only one. These routes—none of them illegal, just shorter or longer—all lead to the same goal. I have the freedom to use any of these routes at any time, as long as I obey the traffic laws.
While I take roll in class, I have the students review the concepts they have learned the period before, along with an example. I caution them, however, that they do not truly know the principle unless they can provide an additional example of their own. Otherwise, their learning is merely external; they are learning by rote, not internalizing the subject. The more additional examples they can provide, the deeper their understanding and the more broadly they can apply the principle.
Proactively keeping the law means a flexibility that comes from thoroughly knowing a subject. In 1989, I had lunch with Thomas Jefferson—actually a Thomas Jefferson impersonator named Clay Jenkinson. He had assimilated Jefferson's letters and official writings so thoroughly that he could make inferences about Jefferson's behavior if he were alive today.
Other individuals have made careers of imitating the lives of others, including impersonating Abraham Lincoln, Henry David Thoreau and John Wesley. My former boss, Danny Smith, used to get into costume every Saturday night to do his Mark Twain impersonation before a live audience. It took many years of assimilating Twain before Danny felt comfortable portraying him. Similarly, a history professor at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota, the late Dr. Reusch, mastered the contents of the Koran so thoroughly that he traversed the inner Islamic holy place of Mecca without fear of his non-Islamic background being detected.
Much of our spiritual maturity comes from assimilating the example Christ has set for us. In I Peter 2:21 we learn that God has called us to follow in the footsteps of the example Christ left us. We are not only to believe that He exists and is our Savior, but we are also to do as He did when He lived as a human. We cannot do this just by following a set of dos and don'ts; we must have His character inextricably blended with our own.
Proactively keeping the law means that we move from the position of hired hand to that of a trusted family member. The Saturn Corporation has embarked on a program of involving the employees in planning and policymaking, including establishing a code of ethics. This approach inspires both collectively and individually. All employees feel they have a stake in the well-being of the company.
Jesus evidently felt the disciples needed the same kind of collegiality, for He says in John 15:15, "No longer do I call you servants, for a servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I heard from My Father, I have made known to you." As insiders, we have vested interest in God's plan. As members of the God Family, it becomes our plan.
From Tablet to Heart
We are not really converted until God's law moves from the pages of the Bible into our deeds—until the motivation to do the good and right advances from external to internal, prompted by God's Holy Spirit. Herbert Armstrong referred to this inner drive as God's law in action.
This is where the scribes and Pharisees failed; their righteousness never moved from external to internal. Rather than using the freedom of God's law to do good to express love to others, they acted either in anticipation of reward or in fear of punishment. Their righteousness rose no farther than self-interest, the attitude that the carrot-and-stick method plays on.
On the other hand, Jesus exhorts us to rise above self-interest to develop internally motivated, outgoing righteous character. Such a change is not easily accomplished, nor is it swift. A Yiddish proverb teaches us, "Things are not as quickly achieved as conceived." God spends years perfecting His loving character in us, and how many of our brethren have failed?
Knowing and keeping God's law proactively—backward, forward, sideways, upward, downward—will ensure inner peace. Psalm 119:165 assures us, "Great peace have those who love Your law, and nothing causes them to stumble." And when we are at peace, the fruit of righteousness that far exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees can grow to maturity (James 3:18).