When I watch sports, especially football or basketball, there’s just some things that make me scratch my head and wonder, “What in the world are they thinking?” I’m talking about those fans who paint their bodies with team colors, wear ridiculous costumes, or go without their shirts in subzero temperatures. What goes through the mind of a person like that? Really, what kind of fan does that?
A radical fan–that’s what kind of fan does that.
Whether it makes sense to me or not is irrelevant. To them their get-up expresses their radical commitment to their team. Win or lose, they are hopelessly devoted to their team.
What if we saw people in church all decked out like that? You know, five guys on the front row with no shirts and the letters J E S U S painted on their chests in bright orange hollering at the top of their lungs with every word the preacher utters. Or the Johnson family sitting in the center section with first century robes and turbans blowing the ram’s horn with every power point slide flashed on the screen. Or, Bill and Sarah jumping and screaming obnoxiously during a praise chorus spilling their coffee on the folks in the row in front of them
Would we consider that a demonstration of radical faith or simply a few folks who had somehow, someway, lost the handle of their pail?
It’s all a bit farfetched I know, but the reality is Jesus called his disciples to a radical faith. He challenged the crowds with a radical faith. He calls you and me to a radical faith. How’s that working out for you?
It wasn’t that long ago that my wife and I were in a new member’s class at a local church and one of the prospective new members, a new Christian, asked the person leading the class about Jesus’ comments in Matthew 5:20, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” The person wanted to know if that meant our works should be more meaningful and significant then the works of the scribes and Pharisees. I interpreted his question in this manner. Is what we do as a result of our faith critical to our faith? I could almost see the leader start a little dance in his mind and then he let a few words stumble out of his mouth. Finally he said, “We’ll discuss that in more detail coming up.” Really? Well, we never did.
When I read the Sermon on the Mount and words like those in Matthew 5:20, I can’t begin to know the full ramifications of what might have been in Jesus’ mind when he shared those emphatic and demanding words. I’m not even sure whether those words were specifically addressed to his new disciples or the crowd that had gathered on the hillside. What I do know is that he laid specific groundwork for radical faith. So radical that if it were not expressed in life, as he described it, we would “never”, not maybe, not well-we’ll-see, we would never enter the kingdom of heaven!
As I looked at the words of Christ as written by Matthew (Matthew records is own calling as coming later), one of the key components to understanding Jesus’ words is this; who was he talking to? Who are the “them”? Is it his disciples or the entire crowd? In Mat 7:29 the text seems to indicate that it may have been the crowds. Yet how could they have been ready for such teaching? In the beginning segment of Jesus’ teaching it seems clear he is addressing his new disciples. How could they have possibly been ready for such a teaching? It’s one thing to commit to following the teacher and sit at his feet to learn his message. It’s quite another to simply have come to witness a healer share some sayings different from anything heard before. Either way, the words Jesus uses are powerful.
To ask the question another way. In v.20, Jesus says “I tell you…” Is he sitting there looking the disciples in the eyes as he says those words? Or does he wave his arm across the crowd and say “I tell you…” Either way, whether there would have been a small group gasp or a thousand person mumbling “Oh my…is he serious?” The words of verse 20 would not have gone unnoticed.
Even though the Pharisees are often maligned, they had an important role as religious leaders and teachers. As interpreters of the law(s) that governed Jewish worship and society, they were punctilious when it came to how one expressed their religious commitment. Often, simply a matter of show and not a matter of the heart, Jesus is quick to indict their backward understanding of God’s Law. They understood the letter, but failed to understand the intent. It was that kind of behavior that Jesus said his followers must “exceed.” The word there is perisseuo which means abundant, overflowing, exceeding, or excel. In the context, it doesn’t appear that quantity is in view, but quality. The radical faith of those who would be Christ-followers must be of a higher quality than those who practice their faith for public acknowledgement or show.
This is a tremendous challenge. Indeed, it is a radical kind of faith that often strips our religiosity of any real significance. If it ever had any in the first place. This kind of challenge—this kind of faith can cause us to cringe when we look in the mirror or bring us to our knees when we attempt to flesh it out and see how radical it really is.
Like the Pharisees we often have a tendency to bounce our level of faith up against those we see around us. Our measuring rod has nothing to do with radicalism and everything to do with social comparisons. It is exactly that which Jesus was speaking against. It is precisely that chink in our religious armor where he thrusts his piercing words and we can do nothing but bleed inadequacy.
Father, I confess both my inadequacy an inability to live a radical faith. It is only by your spirit that I find the strength and courage to step out and express an abundant, overflowing faith that impacts me first and those around me second.