The Bar Is Raised
You all well know that I am the 4th of 7 children. I have 2 older brothers, an older sister, and 3 younger brothers. By the time I started school, most of my teachers who had previously taught my older brothers already had some unrealistic expectations of what I might possibly be like as a student; or they had some point of reference in the event I presented a challenge, or turned out to be a complete disappointment. My oldest brother was every schoolteacher’s fantasy—a straight A student, diligent, cooperative, polite, and articulate—a regular Boy Scout. I would read later on that first born and only children are strongly prone to mimic the grown-up environment they are raised in, and readily pick up the traits that adults will display around them. Those motivated and encouraged to rise to the challenge tend to be high achievers. Those shielded from potential failure, or excused from even trying, or made to feel inadequate tend to stay on that same track for years to come. Now my mom was a public high school science teacher; my dad was in the civil service. And since my family spent those early years with my mom’s parents, siblings and their spouses who were also young professionals, my oldest brother had no choice but wear a shirt and tie to his first day of kindergarten.
When a second child is born, and the gap between them is 5 years or less, the children will have to establish a completely different dynamic, now that they have to interact more with other children. That’s usually how the arrival of each succeeding child tends to naturally lower the bar, resulting in an interactive dynamic resembling a normal playground instead of a post-graduate research group.
So my oldest brother was a straight A student. And my second brother was a talented athlete. And my sister was a girl, so everything she did was exciting and new. And then there was me. Now if I had known that every legitimate avenue for achieving wholesome adult attention had already been exhausted, I would have just steered myself toward a life of juvenile delinquency. Although the environment and dynamic in which a child is raised has some influence on how they turn out, there is also the factor of the child’s emerging personality which he or she will assert accordingly. And as the child matures, they will naturally exert more control over their environment, either to embrace it, or to resist it, or some variation thereof.
Now having been a classroom teacher myself, I would tell my students each 9 week cycle that I was giving them all an A at the start, and they would work their way down from there. I wanted to sound smart. But it was hardly encouragement for them. Instead I was being smug and patronizing. Beginning teachers typically like to set the bar high. Reality sets in later down the road, after they discover the quality of students they have to deal with. Excellent teachers will keep the bar high because they can see beyond the seeming obstacles. They believe in the young people they teach, and they are likely to be positive and encouraging. They are convinced they have met the future doctors, lawyers, educators, and leaders in their classrooms. They know what their students are capable of even if their students don’t believe the same about themselves.
When Jesus came on the scene, the scribes and Pharisees saw him primarily as a rival. They were the legitimate guardians and teachers of the Law, and this Jesus was some pretentious unqualified disruptor of the established order. So he had to assure them he came to fulfill the Law. But unlike them, Jesus knew intimately the heart and mind of the Giver of the Law, God who gave the Law to Moses. For this reason he is able to challenge his listeners to strive for righteousness, a righteousness to surpass that of the scribes and Pharisees, so they would not be confined in their religious observance to a merely mechanical, uninspired, and literal fulfillment of the Law.
So what does Jesus mean by calling us to righteousness? A simple dictionary definition says righteousness is the state of being justified in the sight of God. But that still sounds awfully religious and technical and far from how we speak ordinarily.
So let’s try a different approach. When we look at the life and ministry of Jesus, we notice that every so often, he reveals to us his unique relationship with the Father. At the end of every long day of teaching the crowds, and healing the sick, and feeding the hungry, he would make time for solitude and prayer and communion with God. This intimate relationship with God naturally affected his way of life, such that every word and action proclaimed his genuine love for God and gave a powerful witness to God’s love for him. This is what Jesus desires for us, too. By sharing with us the privilege of calling God the way he calls God, that is—Abba, Father, Jesus reveals his desire that we too should stand without stain or blemish before God, the way he does.
Through baptism into Jesus’ suffering, death, and resurrection, we have been washed clean, our sins forgiven. We have been clothed in the dignity of those reborn to the life of God. We have been made heirs to the promises God extends to his children. So following Jesus’ example, we are raised to a new intimacy with God, no longer restricted to a mechanical, uninspired, and literal observance of the Law. Our connection with God is no longer about obedience to the Law, as the scribes and Pharisees demanded. Rather, our righteousness is the expression of this intimate relationship with the Giver of the Law, such that our every thought, word, and action proclaimed fearlessly and joyfully who we are and whose we are.
So when Jesus gave examples from the Law, “You have heard that it was said—You shall not kill; … you shall not commit adultery; … you shall not take a false oath,” then raised the bar by a lot, telling us that anger and resentment and minor infidelities and careless promises are not consistent with our dignity as children of God, he was reminding us that we are no longer limited to a religious observance made up of the mechanical, uninspired, and literal compliance with the Law. We are called rather to an intimate relationship with the Giver of the Law who is Abba, Father. Jesus is aware of what we are capable now that we have been made sharers in his very own life. And no matter that we are surrounded by people who do not know God the way Jesus has revealed him to us, no matter that people who call themselves Christian seem oblivious to the demands of daily self-denial and carrying their cross and following in Jesus’ footsteps, no matter that people around us are driven by anger and resentment and shameless infidelity and brazen lies and falsehoods, Jesus has set the bar high for us to strive after a righteousness that surpasses that of the scribes and the Pharisees.
Jesus has set the bar high for us who are his disciples, to aim for excellence beyond what is required. Anything less is beneath who we are and whose we are.
Rolo B Castillo © 2017