Peer Pressure from the Pharisees

Peer Pressure from the Pharisees
February 5, 2017
Matthew 5:13-20

When it comes to righteousness, the Pharisees are tough to beat.

Jesus knows that these Jewish leaders are passionate about the law of God. They are supportive of synagogues and schools. Attentive to purity rules and regulations. Focused on the resurrection, with a deep hunger for heavenly rewards.

The Pharisees are the spiritual superstars of their day, exerting an enormous amount of peer pressure on the people around them. “I tell you,” says Jesus, “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20).

Jesus says that our righteousness has to exceed that of the Pharisees. Not just match it, but surpass it. How are we supposed to respond to this?

Peer pressure is a powerful force in our lives. Have you felt it? I know I have. At times, it can be good. David Greene, the host of NPR’s Morning Edition, says that peer pressure can help us by inspiring us to do the right thing. If you sit next to a good student in class, her study habits can rub off on you.

But peer pressure can also hurt us. This happens when we are exposed to high performers and become discouraged. Most of us don’t enjoy peer pressure. When a 104-year-old woman was asked to name the very best thing about being 104, she replied, quite simply, “No peer pressure.”

Todd Rogers is a professor of public policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School. He has studied the peer pressure that comes from people who are a little better than us, as well as the pressure that comes from people who are way better than us. In other words, the Pharisees.

Says Rogers, “When you are compared to people who are doing a little better than you, it can be really motivating.” But peer pressure turns negative when you are compared to people who are way better than you. If you decide to train for a 5K race with an Olympic runner, for example, you are not going to be inspired. You are going to be really intimidated.

Todd Rogers did a study on peer pressure involving 5,000 students in a course. As part of the course, the students graded each other’s work and learned from each other. What Rogers discovered was that ordinary students became more likely to quit when they were paired with the best students. The ordinary students grading top quality papers assumed that everyone in the group was brilliant, and this made them feel inferior.

This was exactly the effect of the Pharisees on the people around them. Their peer pressure made everyone else feel inferior.

The apostle Paul started his life as a Pharisee, and he didn’t hesitate to brag. “If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more,” he wrote to the Philippians: “a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee” (3:4-5). Paul was a top-performing Pharisee, way better than many of the people around him. You can understand why his peers would feel inferior and want to quit.

But Jesus is not interested in making people give up. Yes, it is true that he compares us to top Pharisees when he says, “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (v. 20). But Jesus has a new approach to righteousness that is not based on rigorous law-keeping. Instead, he wants us to be salt of the earth and light of the world, fulfilling the law in new ways — as he does.

As Christians, we don’t have to feel peer pressure from the Pharisees. Our righteousness is achieved in a whole new way. Even the apostle Paul came to see that his achievements as a Pharisee were really losses “because of Christ” (Philippians 3:7).

So what do righteous people look like, from a Christian point of view?

Jesus says that they are “the salt of the earth” (Matthew 5:13). In the ancient world, salt was a valuable commodity used for sacrifice, purification, seasoning and preservation. Christians are to play all of these roles in the world. We are to remain salty by staying true to our mission and avoiding contamination. “If salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored?” asks Jesus. It cannot, of course. Contaminated salt “is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot” (v. 13).

Our communities today are multicultural and filled with people of diverse faiths and traditions. This can create a challenge for Christians who want to remain salty. Faced with such diversity, some people choose to minimize their differences. But our diverse traditions are part of what make us salty, with distinctive flavors and functions. Better to embrace our differences, talk about them, share them, and respect them in each other.

This is what we did here at FPC on Tuesday night, when we hosted an event called a “Gathering of Friends: Christians and Muslims Talk.” Seven clergy and about 100 Christians and Muslims gathered to talk about what our holidays and festivals mean to us. This kind of open and honest conversation enables us to be true to ourselves and faithful to Jesus Christ.

In the Bible, the definition of righteousness is to be in right relationship — right relationship with God and right relationship with one another. We cannot be right with God or with each other unless we maintain our saltiness and remain true to our Christian identity and mission.

Jesus goes on to say that Christians are “the light of the world” (v. 14). Light does not exist for its own benefit, but for the benefit of everything it illuminates. Light provides warmth and energy to the world around it, and encourages life and growth. We do the very same thing when we act as the light of the world, and when we reflect the light of Christ to others.

“No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket,” says Jesus, “but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all” (v. 15). Our righteousness as Christians depends on doing whatever we can to be lights to each other, and to the world around us. We are to be open and honest, instead of hiding in the dark. To offer other people warmth and encouragement, instead of being cold and discouraging. To be an energy source for others, so that together we can advance the mission of Christ in the world.

“Let your light shine before others,” says Jesus, “so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven” (v. 16). Our challenge is to shine as a Christian community, so that others will see what a life of love and faithfulness looks like. In a world of self-righteousness, we can be an example of Christ-righteousness — right relationship, that is, with God and neighbor.

There is so much darkness all around us, so much loneliness and isolation. Righteous Christians can be a light to the world — beacons of peace and reconciliation in a world so full of conflict. Our job is always to do what Jesus commands us to do: feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, care for the sick, visit people in prison (25:35-36). If we perform such good works, people will see them, says Jesus, and “give glory to your Father in heaven” (v. 16).

The Pharisees may have been the spiritual superstars of their day, and Jesus respected their passion for the law. But he criticized their failure to put God’s law into action, saying, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you … have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith” (23:23).

We have only one role model for righteousness: Jesus Christ, the one who invites us to be salt and light. He offers us the very best peer pressure, which inspires us to rise to the challenge of advancing his mission in the world. As salt, we can talk with openness and honesty about who we are as Christians. As light, we can bring warmth and energy to the world around us. We can work for justice and mercy and faith.

Today, we gather at the Communion table for the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. This is the meal in which Jesus feeds us with his body and his blood. He nourishes us to be his people in the world. We’ll be sitting at the table just as his first disciples did, receiving the food that enabled them to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world.

As we prepare to receive this meal, I have a request to make. Our Worship Ministry needs help with the preparation of Communion, every Sunday in the 8:45 service, and on the first Sunday of the month at 11:15. If you would like to learn more and serve in some way, speak with me or our worship elders Sara Bowden and Meg Brancato. This will be a simple but important way to serve this church and “let your light shine” (5:16).

Being salt and light makes us right with God and right with each other. That is a righteousness that even a Pharisee would envy. Amen.

Boring, M. Eugene. “The Gospel of Matthew.” The New Interpreter’s Bible. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995. 181-188.
“Peer Pressure May Not Work The Way We Think It Does.” NPR’s Morning Edition, March 25, 2016,


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