The call of Jesus to his disciples is a call for us to live as exceptional people, to be salt and light in the world. However, this extraordinary call is something that is not accomplishable by the normal rhythms and patterns of the moral life. Many teachers, many religions, many philosophies have set forth many different patterns of what a righteous person should look like and do. However, these noble-sounding visions of the good and just are time and time seen to be largely unaccomplishable to all but a select few who are exceptionally gifted at controlling themselves, due to combination of both internal, psychological factors and external, circumstantial factors. This is not to mention that even for those who ’embody’ these visions may not be as pleasant or life-giving or beneficial as the visions seem on the surface. The truth about human visions of justice and goodness is that they are often elitist in who can obtain them and they are not as much as a blessing as they seem on the surface. We catch a glimpse of this in the Pharisees in the Gospels. Only a select few are able to achieve the moral exemplary nature of their system of righteousness, but their righteousness isn’t as pure and holy when it is embodied by them.
To this world, Jesus’ message of liberation speaks to those who are not at the top, but who are at the bottom of the rung. While many consider Jesus a teacher of moral virtue, Jesus spends much more time addressing matters such as discipleship, mysteriously explaining what the kingdom of heaven and eternal life is like, etc. than giving people a system of moral principles. Jesus was more concerned about helping people to find the way to the new life that God gives through being His disciple, which entailed renouncing everything else in comparison and facing one’s cross, which was the pathway to find the truth that sets people free and gives them life. Jesus spends more time giving insight as to how to discover life and the kingdom of heaven than he does describe what this life and kingdom looks like. Appealing to the words of Paul in Galatians 1.3-5, Jesus gave Himself to liberate us from the present evil age, showing us how to be free from the corruption of the world. Jesus’ sacrifice is more than just enabling our freedom, but it demonstrates the pathway to spiritual and moral freedom: by being willing to endure our crosses with confidence in God because God raised Jesus from death.
So many visions of righteousness, however, are built upon the principle of building moral habits and virtues first. It is regularly taught that if you develop specific habits over the course of your life, you will become a righteous person. If you say the right things, do the right things, think the right things, you will become an exemplar of what is good in your life. However, the truth is that as much as we might try to form the right habits, the basic, biological animal that we are does not readily succumb to the repetitive trainings. Insofar as the biological animal is satisfied, it will give in to the direction of our habits, but when it feels threatened or charged with passion, the habits will go by the wayside. The flesh has a will of its own and all the traditional habits of formation will not tame it. In order to achieve God’s righteousness, we need something more that tames the flesh, that puts it in its place. Otherwise, our “righteousness” becomes a combination of our ability to appear righteous at the ‘right’ time and our circumstances, often from our privilege, that allow us to be in the situations that favor a display of righteousness. However, it is the gift of life from God that Jesus speaks and shows and the Spirit gives to and nurtures within us that does not rely upon the circumstances that beget surface righteousness, but becomes and grows into an ever deepening righteousness of the heart. This pathway to freedom isn’t through the direct modification of behaviors before it is about the transformation of the heart through this gift of life. Direct modification is beneficial only to the extent that it is built upon the foundation of the new life and new creation found by our participation in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ through the Spirit.
This life is a gift, but the bringing forth of this gift of life to overcome the ‘life’ of the flesh is not something we passively realize, but it is through continuing in Jesus’ words and the leading of the Spirit to put to death the deeds of the flesh that we discover the freedom that this life gives to us. It is here where we discover freedom. It is here where we can strengthen fellow believers to help them to more deeply experience the nature of this gift of life in the loving gathering of believers through the way we share this common life in Christ together. However, we can readily try to encourage fellow believers to pursue the life that God is leading us into through trying to the direct route of behavior modification, by getting them to do, say, and think the right things, rather than trying to encourage them to live a part of this life that the Spirit will cause to sow to righteousness, to which moral correction is an invitation to be a call of repentance to come to this well of life of the kingdom of heaven. We ourselves can readily get caught into the direct pathway of behavioral modification rather than the indirect pathway of reaping and sowing in their life through the Spirit of life.
The Church, the Body of Christ, are to be the people who help people to discover the pathway of liberation from the chains of sin and death. Whenever we revert to a establishing a set of moral teachings and ides as many teachers, religions, and philosophies have espoused as the primary action that brings people to righteousness, however, we tend to find that our vision of righteousness are only accomplishable by the few who are exceptionally gifted to realize them, whereas people’s willingness to follow matters little. But for the kingdom of heaven, it is those who are willing to follow Jesus to the cross, no matter how exceptional they might or might not have been when Jesus called them (usually not exceptional; cf. 1 Cor 1.26-28), who discover and are given God’s gift of life shown in Christ that brings forth the fruits of God’s righteousness through the Spirit. Hence, in the Beatitudes this liberation is offered to those who are poor in spirit and without a tangible hope in the world for finding well-being, to those who mourn and depressed, to the meek and powerless as it requires only their willingness to follow Jesus and not what they do have to crave, discover, and realize the righteousness of God’s kingdom.
Liberation is an essential part of the Gospel and discipleship, because it is the liberation of the cross that brings forth the fruits of righteousness. Without this liberation, the Christian religion becomes nothing more than a moral system that appeals to God to undergird it, having the form of godliness but not its power. But when this liberation is being taught and offered to those who follow Jesus, it empowers those who bear the Gospel to be salt and light in the world. It empowers us to demonstrate God’s type love to the world.