Concepts of Justice and Righteousness in the Sermon on the Mount by Dorothy Jean Weaver

It was a turbulent world in which Matthew, a Jewish Christian, wrote his Gospel. The Roman Empire, with its massive military power, reigned supreme over the Jewish people of Palestine. In response to a recent Jewish revolt Roman forces had destroyed Jerusalem, slaughtered its people, and demolished the Jewish temple, centerpiece of Jewish religious life. The battered Jewish community was struggling to reshape its existence in a shattered world. They also struggled over basic questions of Jewish identity and practice in energetic debate with an emerging Jewish movement claiming Jesus of Nazareth as Jewish Messiah. What did it mean to be faithful Jews? Who were God’s true children?

Matthew’s Gospel clearly reflects both this intra-Jewish conflict and the plight of the Jewish people under their Roman overlords. An important concept for Matthew is dikaiosyne (“justice” or “righteousness”), a central theme within the Sermon on the Mount and throughout Matthew’s Gospel. This double-sided term expresses Matthew’s perspectives on God, on Jesus as Messiah, and on Jesus’ disciples.

First of all, for Matthew, justice-righteousness is a central attribute of who God is and how God acts. Jesus calls his disciples to seek “the kingdom of God and his righteousness” above all earthly needs (Matt 6:33). And in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus tells his disciples about God the “landowner” who hires vineyard workers and pays them “whatever is right” (Matt 20:4). As Matthew sees it, justice, or righteousness, is a concept with origins in God’s very character and actions.

But Matthew also attributes this same justice or righteousness to Jesus’ identity and ministry. When John the Baptist hesitates to baptize him, Jesus responds, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness” (Matt 3:15). Jesus views his entire ministry as one that exhibits the righteousness of God. Jesus’ blessing on those who are “persecuted for righteousness’ sake” (Matt 5:10) is in fact a blessing on those who suffer persecution on “my account” (Matt 5:11). Even Roman outsiders recognize Jesus as a righteous man who has “done no evil” (compare Matt 27:23).

Ultimately, Matthew associates justice-righteousness with the mission and the character of Jesus’ followers. Jesus calls his disciples to “strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness” (Matt 6:33), and he blesses those who “hunger and thirst for righteousness” (Matt 5:6). This justice is above all a way of life. Jesus commends John the Baptist as one “who came…in the way of righteousness” (Matt 21:32).

And this is a challenging vocation. Jesus calls his disciples to a justice-righteousness that “exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees” (Matt 5:20). And he illustrates this life in vivid and wide-ranging terms. On the one hand dikaiosyne is the collective term for almsgiving, prayers, and fasting (Matt 6:1-18). But this justice-righteousness also feeds the hungry, gives drink to the thirsty, welcomes strangers, clothes the naked, attends to the sick, and visits the imprisoned (Matt 25:31-46). And it “fulfills the law” in extraordinary ways by forbidding anger, lust, divorce, and oaths, and by calling Jesus’ followers not to “resist [the] evildoer” but instead to “love [their] enemies” and to “pray for those who persecute [them]” (Matt 5:17-48).

Dorothy Jean Weaver, "Concepts of Sermon on the Mount", n.p. [cited 25 May 2017]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.org/en/passages/related-articles/concepts-of-justice-righteousness-in-the-sermon-on-the-mount

Contributors

Dorothy Jean Weaver

Dorothy Jean Weaver
Professor, Eastern Mennonite Seminary

Dorothy Jean Weaver is professor of New Testament at Eastern Mennonite Seminary, Harrisonburg, VA. Her publications include Matthew’s Missionary Discourse: A Literary Critical Analysis (Sheffield Academic Press, 1990) and Bread for the Enemy: A Peace and Justice Lectionary (Mennonite Church Peace and Justice Committee, 2001).

A message usually delivered orally by a religious leader.

A broad, diverse group of nations ruled by the government of a single nation.

A gospel is an account that describes the life of Jesus of Nazareth.

Service or a religious vocation to help others.

A program of good works—or the calling to such a program—performed by a person or organization.

Another name often used for the area of Israel and Judah, derived from the Latin term for the Roman province of Palaestina; ultimately, the name derives from the name of the Philistine people.

A collection of Jesus' moral sayings, including the Beatitudes and several parables, recorded in Matt 5-7.

Matt 6:33

33But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

Matt 20:4

4and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went.

Matt 3:15

15But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented.

Matt 5:10

10“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Matt 5:11

11“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.

Matt 27:23

23Then he asked, “Why, what evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Let him be crucified!”

Matt 6:33

33But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

Matt 5:6

6“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

Matt 21:32

32For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw ... View more

Matt 5:20

20For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

Matt 6:1-18

Concerning Almsgiving
1“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.2“So w ... View more

Matt 25:31-46

The Judgment of the Nations
31“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory.32All the nation ... View more

Matt 5:17-48

The Law and the Prophets
17“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.18For truly I tell you, ... View more

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