Peer Pressure from the Pharisees

Matthew 5:13-20

“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled underfoot.

“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

Peer pressure is a powerful force in our lives, and it can both help us and hurt us. David Greene, the host of NPR’s “Morning Edition,” explains that peer pressure can help us by inspiring us to do the right thing. Sit next to a good student in class, and her study habits can rub off on you. Watch your neighbors install solar panels on their roof, and you might be motivated to do the same thing.

But peer pressure can also hurt us. This happens when we are exposed to our very best peers and find ourselves becoming discouraged about ourselves. Their pressure might even cause us to quit. A 104-year-old woman was once asked by a reporter, “What do you think is the best thing about being 104?”

She replied, quite simply, “No peer pressure.”

Todd Rogers is a professor of public policy at the Harvard 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.

Says Rogers, “When you are compared to people who are doing a little better than you, it can be really motivating.” Someone who is conserving energy might inspire you to use less energy, and someone who is voting might motivate you to vote. But peer pressure turns negative when you are compared to people who are unattainably better than you. If you decide to train for a 5K race with an Olympic distance runner, for example, you are not going to be inspired. You are going to be really intimidated and probably drop out.

Rogers studied more than 5,000 students in a massive open online 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 far more likely to quit the course 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.

Jesus, however, is not trying to get people to give up, he is pointing out that the ways of the world are not the ways of God or the kingdom. Jesus said, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (v.20) So how do we gain that righteousness that Jesus talks about—by being salty and shining the light. Being salty has taken on a new meaning today, especially among the younger generation.

According the insight of Urban Dictionary, “salty,” when used as a slang term, can be used to describe someone who is “angry, agitated, or upset,” as well as someone who is “mean, annoying, and repulsive.” A Salty Girl is also names given to women who adopt this kind of persona and being salty is a common descriptor on Twitter. It’s also my favorite female qualifier—“Not to be salty but…” Female students used to start off stories all the time like that when I was teaching school.

Jesus is referring to something that becomes totally worthless. Back in the day salt was not as pure as we have now. In fact, salt cannot lose its saltiness today because of the removal of impurities. But in Jesus day it was common and when that happened the salt not only lost its flavor but also was not good for anything even worse than manure. At least manure could be a fertilizer unflavored salt killed anything it came into contact with.

Jesus tells those gathered on the side of the mountain for a sermon that day that God has made them a useful being—filled with salt. However, care should be taken not to lose that saltiness. Being salty is an example of losing that usefulness. When we are mean, annoying and repulsive no one wants to listen to us. When we bicker and fight with those around us, we are being salty. The Pharisees used to love to point out others people’s sins while claiming that they were sinless. More on that in a minute—let’s look at the example of light that Jesus used.

“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” (v. 14-16)

Remember from last week how he told the people that the weakest and mournful and peacemakers would inherit the kingdom. Now the low-life from Nazareth is telling those same people that the light of God is shining on them. The movie stars are not the poor and the mourning, the immigrant and the refugee, the beggar and the homeless. The people have to be looking around and eyeballing the religious leaders of the day. All of the bright lights do not come from the scribes and Pharisees but from God. That’s insane—no one cares what’s happening in their lousy lot in life. Now it’s the scribes and Pharisees turn to be a little salty as the younger folks say.

Jesus knows it and feels it and turns on them as well. He tells the people that the peers you are looking to, the ones who think they are better than you, we must be more righteous than they are. Jesus said, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (v.20)

Just like in the days of Jesus, there is no shortage of those who want us to think they are more important than we are. The desire to fit in with our peers grows each day especially on the social media platforms. Pick your political party and if you are not salty enough then no one cares. If you are not bashing the other side, calling them names, making derogatory statements then you are worthless salt. If you don’t spend your money in the cool stores buying the latest styles or food products then you are ugly. That is U-G-L-Y and you got no alibi. Just look at the money that was spent last weekend on advertising during the Super Bowl. If we want to live out the beatitudes take all that money and you will care for all of the homeless, the hungry, the aged, the veterans and any other group that our politicians trot out as being on the chopping block.

Paul tells us that we have another alternative to peer pressure. “2 For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” (1Cor. 2:2) We have been given the greatest gift of all in the grace of God and Christ’s redemption that was won for us on the cross. That is being salt and not salty. That is letting our light shine and not trying to blind the world with our own bling. And again, Paul said in v. 12 “What we have received is not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may understand what God has freely given us.”

This old world is filled with sages that will tell us how to think and spend our money, what to do with our free time and our driving habits, how to invest and what the future will look like if we invest properly. But our still small voice is from God’s Spirit and it is speaking of what Gad has freely given us. I don’t want to walk with a cane, walker or use hearing aids or get new glasses because what will people think of me. I don’t want to go to the doctor or therapist because I am really not that sick. I sure as hell don’t want someone else telling me what to do—unless I can look cool doing it. I have these same battles inside of me and maybe you do as well.

God has freed us from these pressures from our peers whether they have names or they are preconceived images. When we can be true to ourselves, then we can allow the light to shine. Like the lady who was 104, we do not need to feel the pressure of society—we just need to stay a little salty and let our light shine to illumine Christ our Savior. Amen.

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