Jesus said to his disciples: ‘I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
‘You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder”; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgement.” But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “You fool”, you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.’
Jesus said: Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
Jesus’ words at the beginning of today’s reading would have been counter-cultural to many who heard them. The scribes and the Pharisees were the religious elite of first-century Judaism. Their learning and their religious practices had been honed over many centuries and were rooted in a profound knowledge of scripture. They were the ‘experts’ when it came to matters of religious law, and yet Jesus seemed to be condemning them out of hand.
The scribes and the Pharisees were certainly men of profound faith, but that faith was based on an interpretation of God’s law. They took the literal words of the many commandments that are in the Hebrew Scriptures (our Old Testament) and applied them rigorously to themselves and to others. But, as they strived to meet an impossible and human-centric view of religious practice, they became those who judged and condemned, rather than those who nourished and served, forgave and nurtured the straggler and the lost.
In our modern world we see many examples of the scribes and the Pharisees who created a religious view of their own. We see church members, and even clergy, who feel that their way of looking at scripture and doctrine is more valuable than that of anyone else. Such people, and sadly there are many of them, develop a carapace of certainty that alienates others and builds barriers rather than bridges between the mortal and the divine.
In today’s reading Jesus is making it clear that we should not be creating a religion which is a comfortable fit, but following his way, a way that sets self to one side and focuses on others. Jesus’ teaching was as counter-cultural in the first century as it is today. We all think we know best. We so often fail to seek reconciliation before we offer our pious prayers to God. We do not realize just how far from God we are when we condemn the faith and the practices of others.
Let us pray that we might set aside the meaningless show of piety and follow the path of reconciliation, the path that leads to God. Let us pray that through our generosity and love others might come into a deeper relationship with God. Let us pray that we might shine with the light of Christ rather than the darkness that causes so much pain to others.