Delivered at St Francis of Assisi, Mannofield, Aberdeen.
The gospel passage: Matthew 5:20-26
If your virtue goes no deeper than that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never get into the kingdom of heaven.
This is the key phrase in today’s gospel passage. Now, after a couple of millennia of reading the gospel, we have a very clear and well-established understanding of the Pharisees as Jesus’ fierce but hypocritical opponents. Jesus lambasted them many times. So, with such a strong opinion on the Pharisees it’s easy to read today’s gospel as another outpouring of Jesus’ scorn of them. Yet the opening phrase can be read from a different angle and lets us see the whole tirade in different light.
I’d like to use a slightly different translation of the phrase: I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees. Jesus uses the righteousness of the Pharisees as a reference point and he does it intentionally. Jewish common folk looked up to them as their spiritual and religious elite, someone to admire and to imitate. They were the teachers and leaders of the people, in opposition to the seemingly corrupt priestly cast of the Temple cult. They were respected for their efforts to keep the Mosaic law in a strict way and to defend it against any alien or foreign influence. They were individuals full of good intentions and clear vision what their religion looked like in practical terms. They set high moral and religious standards; standards hardly achievable for common folk.
And yet Jesus says that those standards are only a starting point for his followers. That they have to exceed them or go deeper. How’s that even possible? How can we go even higher, if the Pharisees’ standards already seem out of reach? The set of examples that follows by Jesus offers an answer to those questions. Jesus doesn’t call for more rigid rules, stricter practices or harsher self-mortification. In fact, Jesus’ main gripe with the Pharisees was their focus was of rigid, inflexible application of the law, without taking the person’s circumstances into consideration. From their high moral ground they didn’t see a person, but only a subject of the law. What Jesus offers here is a policy shift: a fellow human being must be at the centre of attention; any laws, regulations and rules must serve as means of helping the person to change their lives (if needed) or develop it. The main driving force must be charity. St Paul reinforced that call in his 1st Letter to the Corinthians: If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
As we progress through Lent, it’s worth asking ourselves whether our resolutions and self-mortification of choice will lead us to greater pride of our own greatness, or will they benefit those around us?