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Peer Pressure

Thomas J Parlette

“Peer Pressure”

Matthew 5: 13-20



Whenever I sit down to start working on a sermon, I like to look back over what I have preached before. Sometimes I find that I have not preached on a certain passage before at all. And sometimes I find that I have done 3 or 4 sermons on one passage over the years. This is one of those passages that I have preached before – many times.

There are three main “preachable” themes in this passage from Matthew.

1.    You are salt – where the preacher can delve into all the ways we as Christians are called to flavor our world with a different lifestyle – a lifestyle based on God’s will. That’s a great theme, I’ve certainly touched on that over the years.

2.    You are light – another good one. Lots of possibilities here on letting our good works shine as an example to those around us of God’s love. Check – done that one too.

3.    I have come to fulfill the law, not abolish it – Lots of room around this theme to talk about Jesus taking the Ten Commandments, and the rest of the law that had developed over time and condensing down to a few simple points, like love God and love your neighbor. Or, as Micah put it last walk – do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with your God. Good preachable theme.

But this time around, my imagination was drawn to that last verse in this passage – “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

I have never preached on that particular theme, the idea that we have to be better than the Scribes, more righteous than the Pharisees. Usually when we hear the words Scribes or Pharisees, we immediately picture dark, shadowy figures, lurking somewhere in the shadows, plotting against Jesus. They are the bad guys in the biblical story – we know to start booing whenever the Scribes or the Pharisees are mentioned.

So it seems like an unusual thing for Jesus to say. It seems he’s using them as an example here. In other places, we’ve heard Jesus say “Woe to the Pharisees, they are hypocrites… don’t be like them, do what they say but not what they do.”

But here, Jesus doesn’t say that. He doesn’t condemn the Scribes and the Pharisees. In fact, he seems to hold them up as a model to follow, an example of righteousness. “We all know how righteous the Pharisees are – well, you’ll never get into heaven unless your righteousness exceeds theirs.”

In keeping with the Super Bowl weekend – it might be like saying, “Even though lots of football fans don’t like them, look at the Patriots, we all know how good they are, with Bill Belichick and Tom Brady. If you can’t play better than them, you will never get to the Super Bowl.”

Truth be told, even though we cast them automatically as the villains, the scribes and especially the Pharisees, were actually the spiritual superstars of their day. When it came to righteousness, they were hard to be beat. Jesus knew that they were passionate about the law of God. They were supportive of synagogues and schools. They were meticulous in following all the regulations about purity and cleanliness.

As a result, the Pharisees exerted an enormous amount of spiritual peer pressure on the Jewish community that Jesus preached to. And Jesus says that our righteousness has to be even more than the Pharisees. Not just do what they do – but do more, be better than even the most righteous among you.

Wow – what are we supposed to do with that?

Well, peer pressure is not always a bad thing. Peer pressure can sometimes inspire us to be better, to do the right thing. Sit next to the best student in class, and those study habits just might rub off. Watch your neighbors install solar panels, and you might be moved to do the same thing. Or, if you’re like me – you come home one dark early December day and you notice that yours is the only house on the street with no Christmas light – all of a sudden, you find some motivation to hang some decorations. Positive peer pressure can be a good thing. One of the first things they tell someone coming out of rehab is to look for a new social circle. Don’t start hanging out with the same group of friends who have enabled your addiction in the past. Get some positive peer pressure.

But peer pressure can also hurt us. For instance, when we are exposed to our best peers, we might get a little discouraged about ourselves. Their pressure might cause us to give up altogether.

There was once a 104 year old lady who was asked, “What is the best thing about being 104.”

And she said, “No peer pressure.”(1)

Todd Rogers is a professor of public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. He has studied the peer pressure 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, kind of like the Pharisees.

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, or someone who is voting might motivate you to do the same. 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, you are probably not going to be inspired – just depressed.

Rogers studied more than 5,000 students in a massive on-line course. As part of the course, the students graded each others 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 that made them feel inferior – so they gave up.(2)

That’s exactly the effect the Pharisees had on the Jewish community of Jesus’ day. They were so good, so righteous, everyone else just gave up. They let the Pharisees define for them what righteousness was. And they couldn’t measure up, so they quit trying altogether.

The Pharisees might be better than anyone else in terms of following religious rules and regulations, but Jesus has a new approach to righteousness that is not based on rigorous law-keeping. Instead, he wants his followers to be salt of the earth and light of the world, fulfilling the law in new ways – as he does.

What do righteous people look like? Do they look like the Pharisees and Scribes?

No – they look like salt.

Salt is sort of like bacon, or chocolate. Everything is better with bacon. Everything is better with chocolate. And everything is better with salt.

Salt has no value on it’s own. In fact, by itself, salt isn’t very good. Nobody eats plain salt. Salt is best when it is applied to other things. Salt makes everything taste better.

So a person who is salt makes everyone and everything around then better. That’s what we are called to be. A righteous person is like salt.

A righteous person also looks like light. Just like salt, light isn’t that beneficial by itself. Do you benefit from leaving your lights on while you are away all day? Of course not – only the electric company benefits from that. You don’t.

Light only has value when it is applied for other people, when it is used to drive away the darkness and allow other people to see. Hence, in saying we are light – Jesus means we are to be a light to benefit others, to dispel the darkness of evil and lies and let people see the light of God. That’s what we are called to be. A righteous person is like salt and light.

The Pharisees problem was that their definition of righteousness was all about following rules and regulations, and policies and codes of conduct. They overlooked things like justice, kindness and compassion. Jesus said, “Don’t let the Pharisees and the Scribes define righteousness for you. Remember, you are salt, you are light. You exist for others – to offer grace, compassion, justice and kindness. You don’t exist for some book of rules. Don’t let others define you. I will define you. You are salt, and you are light.”

There is an old African tale about a man and his lamb. He fed it by hand and played with it everyday. When hard times came he was forced to take his pet lamb to market so he could sell it.

Now there were three thieves who heard of the man’s plan, and they plotted to take his lamb from him in a most unique way.

Early in the morning the man rose and put the lamb over his shoulders, to carry it to market. As he traveled down the road the first thief approached and said, “Why are you carrying that dog on your shoulders?”

The man laughed, “This is not a dog. It is my pet lamb. I am taking it to market,” he said.

After he walked a bit further, the second thief crossed his path and said, “What a fine looking dog you have there. Where are you taking it?”

Puzzled, the man took the lamb off his shoulders and looked carefully at it. “This is not a dog,” he said slowly. “:It is lamb and I am taking it to market.”

Shortly before he reached the market, the third thief met the man and said, “Sir, I don’t think they will allow you to take your dog into the market.”

Completely confused, the man took the lamb off his shoulders and set it on the ground. “If three different people say that this is a dog, then surely it must be a dog,” he thought. He left the lamb behind and walked to the market. If he had bothered to turn around he would have seen the three thieves picking up his lamb and going toward their home.(3)

Don’t let others define you. Don’t let the world around you define truth for you. Don’t let anyone define what you have or what you are called to do. Don’t let peer pressure define what righteousness is. Jesus has done that already.

We are Salt. We are Light. Called to show God’s truth and love.

As we approach the table this morning, let us keep that in mind, and define ourselves as Jesus did – then we will exceed even the most righteous of the Scribes and the Pharisees.

May God be praised. Amen.


1.    Homiletics, Vol. 29, No. 1, p.42.

2.    Ibid…p.42-43.

3.    Ibid…p..45, 47.