Jesus said, “Except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:20).”
Here come the Summer Olympic Games, and if you’re like me you are getting a little excited. I spent my boyhood summers at the Woodlands pool in Walnut Creek, California, and every four years I eagerly awaited watching the Olympic swimmers. They were a personal concern because every time I passed through our club’s entrance, I saw a board that posted the pool records, most of which were held by the famous Mark Spitz who won seven gold medals in the 1972 Munich Olympics. When he was fourteen, he moved to Walnut Creek and swam at our club. Though his accomplishments far surpassed all I hoped to achieve, every time I passed by that board I felt a quiet thrill, feeling connected to his greatness as if we shared a common baptism in our pool’s waters. I wanted to be like Mark Spitz, though I knew my desires and efforts could never make me an Olympian like him.
Since then, Olympic athletes have inordinately impressed me. Years later in seminary at Berkeley, our dormitory housed members of the UC Berkeley swim team and rowing team, several of whom were in training for the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona. These athletes seemed larger than life, as if they burned inside with a hot blue flame; it seemed they spent every minute of every day working, training, and learning how to be the best they could be. I become friends with one of the rowers named Tim, who from childhood had spent thousands of hours training, lifting weights, honing his technique, and rising before dawn to row and glide across the misty waters of the Oakland estuary. Tim defeated many world-class rowers and seemed to be a natural candidate for the Olympics. He even took a year off from school to train in Australia, learning the latest techniques from some of the world greatest trainers to shave even a few precious seconds off his time and earn a spot on the U.S. Olympic squad. But Tim had a problem. The key to rowing is not mere strength; it is a matter of physics, of using the body’s geometry to leverage one’s strength to maximize speed. All things being equal, all passion and effort and technique being the same, Olympic rowers need a specific, perfect body type. Privately, Tim’s friends told me that he was simply one inch too short of the perfection he needed. After years of dedication and sacrifice, Tim went to the Olympic trials in New Jersey in July of 1992, from which the American delegation to Barcelona would be selected. There he gave the best rowing performance of his life, dropping a staggering thirty seconds from his time. But his competitors had also improved, and Tim missed a spot on the national squad by a mere two seconds, betrayed by his body’s imperfection. Tim showed more desire and effort than I had ever seen by anyone about anything, but his desire and effort were not enough to make him perfect.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus addresses those who seek to enter the Kingdom of Heaven through perfect effort. His audience of Palestinian Jews lived their lives observing the religious examples of the scribes and Pharisees, whom they idolized like Olympic athletes. To them, the scribes and Pharisees seemed larger than life, having dedicated their entire lives to learning every detail of the Law given by Moses on Mt. Sinai, and to living every minute of every day by them. Like my friend Tim, they started their training at a young age, attended special schools, and traveled to world-class scholars who could teach them all they could learn about the Jewish religious Law. In the same way that I wanted to be like Mark Spitz, all Palestinian Jews in the first century wanted to be like the scribes and Pharisees. Jesus knew this, and in today’s Gospel, as He stood like Moses on a mountaintop, Jesus challenged the Palestinian Jews to center their lives on a greater, deeper, and more abundant understanding of God’s law that transcended the scribes’ and Pharisees’ Olympian efforts. He said, “except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:20).” The Kingdom of Heaven requires something that surpasses total personal effort. Jesus told His audience that if they insist on entering the Kingdom of God by following God’s laws, they must be willing and able to be perfect as God is on every level of their being. The problem with this is obvious: as my friend Tim discovered, desire and effort are never enough to make us perfect. We will always be, so to speak, one inch too short, and two seconds too slow. Jesus suggests that because our all-consuming efforts to be perfect are doomed, we must follow a different way if we are to enter the Kingdom of God.
Jesus preached that the Good News of the Kingdom of God is that God is love. God loves you, and has always loved you, and will always love you, no matter what you do or do not do. God’s love for us does not depend on how hard we work at being perfect; He simply loves us, and would do or give anything for us. God’s love for us does not depend on whether we give Him 10% or 100% of our income; He loves us even if we give nothing. God’s love for us does not depend on whether we serve one hour or one hundred hours each week to support His work in the church or in the world; He loves us even if we do not serve Him or anyone at all. God’s love for us does not depend on whether we pray or read the Bible ten minutes a day or ten hours a day; He loves us even if we do not pray or read the Bible at all. God is love; though we live and worship God imperfectly, He loves us perfectly and forever. He loves us so much that in the person of Christ, He laid down His life for us by dying on the Cross and opening to us the gates of the Kingdom of Heaven as a free gift. The Good News of the Kingdom of God is that our imperfection, which once made us despair, is the gateway through which we enter and surrender to our acceptance of the love of God. We cannot earn God’s gifts through our personal efforts to be perfect; we cannot seize the Kingdom of Heaven through hard work. In Christ, God has already done all of the hard work. Through His death and Resurrection, Christ has freed us from our neurotic and doomed efforts to be perfect; He offers us the perfect peace and joy of the Kingdom of Heaven right now, just as we are. The most abundant life of righteousness comes through surrendering to the love of God and accepting what He has already done perfectly for us by dying on the Cross, rising from the dead, and offering His new and eternal life to us. We do not need to be religious Olympians; we do not have to earn our way into God’s Kingdom; our ultimate happiness does not depend on the clarity of our desires or the perfection of our efforts. All we need to do is to surrender ourselves to the love and grace of God, in whom and through whom we find all of the perfect love and joy we could ever desire or work for.
You may have heard about another Olympic athlete named Eric Liddell, the famous Scottish runner whose Olympic victory was portrayed in the film Chariots of Fire. You may remember that he was favored to win the 100 meter race in the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris, but refused to run because the finals were scheduled on a Sunday, which his Christian principles led him to believe was a violation of honoring God’s Sabbath. You may recall that a member of the British team gave Liddell his place to run the 400-meter race, which he was not expected to win, but was not held on a Sunday. Before the race, an American masseur gave Liddell a slip of paper quoting I Samuel 2:30 in which God says: “Those who honor Me, I will honor.” Liddell kept this slip of paper in his palm as he ran to not only win the Gold Medal but to establish a new world’s record. But this Olympic victory was not Eric Liddell’s greatest victory. After those Olympic games, Liddell traveled to northern China to serve as a Christian missionary. While he was there, in 1941 the Japanese invaded Manchuria, prompting the evacuation of all British nationals. Liddell chose to stay in northern China to serve Christ’s poor, bidding farewell to his wife and two daughters (and an unborn third, whom he would never see). In 1943 Liddell was interned in a Japanese concentration camp, where he so completely shared the love of God with its families and children that one of them later wrote a book describing Liddell’s camp as “The Courtyard of the Happy Way.” In 1945, Winston Churchill himself brokered an exchange of prisoners that was meant to liberate Liddell, but Liddell gave his place to a pregnant woman, laying down his life to save her and her unborn child. Five months before the war’s end, amid squalor and tyranny, Liddell died. His last words were, “It’s complete surrender.” This total surrender was Eric Liddell’s greatest victory.
Greater than the gold medal, the greatest victory any of us can achieve is to surrender to the love of God, through which we become more luminous than all our efforts could make us. You may be like me: I spend too much time and energy trying to redeem myself by myself. Sometimes we forget that the righteousness and perfect joy we seek cannot be achieved through our desires and efforts. Perhaps a healthy challenge for us this week is to look at all our struggles and challenges—or even just one—, to recognize that we cannot prevail over them on our own, and to spend a few minutes each day simply surrendering them to God. He does not require us to be religious Olympians who are larger than life; He invites us to be His trusting children living ordinary lives, casting all our cares on Him, Who cares so much for us. The righteousness that exceeds the scribes’ and Pharisees’ is a daily surrender to God, revealing the simple, loving trust that God wants from all His children. What we need is less Olympian effort, and more surrender to God’s grace, which alone leads us to true joy, perfect peace, and “the crown of glory that fadeth not away.”