February 16, 2014


Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes & Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. – Mt. 5: 20

   Here indeed is one of the “hard sayings” of our faith. The statement of this principle was our Lord’s reply to the charge that he was trying to abolish the Law, to set Himself above ancient teachings & encouraging youth to disregard authority. What did He mean by this reply?

   The Pharisees were the canon lawyers of their day, & to their way of thinking a person was righteous in the sight of God so long as he obeyed every jot & tittle of the Law. They were law & order advocates with a vengeance. Needless to say, since they were about the only ones thoroughly versed in the Law, they had something of a monopoly on righteousness.

   Our Lord was not saying that they were wrong – only that they were half right. They had put the cart before the horse. Righteousness or union with God does not come from obeying the Law; rather, one obeys the Law because he is first righteous, & this in turn depends upon charity or love. If one is to be righteous, to enter into the presence of God & know Him, he must go beyond the Law, beyond external observances, to the spiritual realities which make the Law & the observances possible in the first place. But Jesus was not content to state an abstract principle & leave it at that. He went on to apply this principle in terms of the sixth commandment (Thou shalt not kill).

   To the Pharisee the breaking of this commandment meant simply the physical act of murder. So long as one did not kill he was accounted righteous. This is what brought one under the judgment of the local courts. One the one hand, this approach is common among even Christians today – so much so we often take it for granted. Still, it was an uncommon attitude in the ancient world where the standard reaction to murder was simply to commit another murder by personally avenging the loss of a relative or friend. However, as our Lord points out, that mere external obedience to this law is not enough:

“But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; & whoever says to his brother ‘Raqa’ [an insulting term that roughly translates as ‘empty headed nitwit’], will be answerable to the Sanhedrin; & whoever says ‘You fool,” will be liable to fiery Gehenna.”

Jesus knew that feelings lead to thoughts which in turn lead to words & deeds. In this case, anger can lead to hatred or contempt, which can lead to physical violence – whether it be murder or insulting words which themselves can kill. We’ve seen this recently in a spate of young people killing themselves because of verbal bullying.

    Only the person who is already righteous, who already stands in the presence of God, only he who is filled with the love that God is (the kind of love that can turn the other cheek & ask for nothing in return), can avoid this vicious chain of events. The further down this chain we travel the greater our imperfection & the greater our distance from God.

   Just as the sixth commandment or any of the commandments are products of God’s love, then if we are truly to obey them we must first love even as God does. This is what St. Augustine meant when he said “Love God & do what you will.” The implications of this text are many & far reaching.

   First, all legitimate laws & ethical codes are products of underlying spiritual truths, & any that fail to reflect these truths (above all charity) are houses built on sand.  Ultimately civil law cannot be separated from religious faith without being self-defeating. Any law motivated by pragmatism or convenience alone is destined for trouble because it contradicts a basic truth of life: man was created to love. Mere passage of laws followed by repressive enforcement cannot solve the crime & violence we are faced with. It is the human spirit that must be conquered first, & only the Cross can accomplish that.

   If our righteousness is to exceed that of the Pharisees, it must also include theirs. In our fallen world spiritual truths are expressed in material terms; & if the Pharisees of yesterday & today have been unable to see beyond the rules to the spiritual realities behind them it is because they do not have even a looking-glass to see through. Unless the rules spring from (& lead to) charity, we are as sounding brass & tinkling cymbals. All of us have been angry with others & have used insulting language. That is why our Lord insists on our being reconciled first with our neighbor before we can be reconciled at the altar with God.  AMEN!