For 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.
What was wrong with the Scribes and the Pharisees? If we were to meet someone with the religious behaviour of a scribe or a pharisee I am certain that we would be in awe of their faith, their moral care, their charity, their prayerfulness, their devotion to the Lord in the reading of Sacred Scripture. By just about every standard we could think of we would judge the Scribes and the Pharisees as nothing short of exemplary. If they were a member of our congregation we would probably regard them as one of the best. There is a lot of interest in the Pharisees, and increasing evidence which shows them in a different light. An excellent recent book ‘The Pharisees’, edited by by Joseph Sievers and Amy-Jill Levine, which shows that the classic villains of the gospels were some of the best of their age: religiously progressive innovators who had the ability to spread belief in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob beyond the strict boundaries of Jerusalem and its temple to embrace the world.
To make matters even worse the Lord Jesus went on to spell out what this ‘greater righteousness’ looks like. It is not that we must simply abstain from the outward expression of sin —murder in the case of the gospel lesson this morning— nurturing in our hearts and minds the anger which is the driving force behind murder renders us liable to the same judgement.
Those who heard Jesus’ teaching must have despaired! If believers in God like the Pharisees and the Scribes are not good enough, which of us can hope to be judged as acceptable?
We are faced with what seems to be an impossible standard. As the Lord Jesus put it a few verses later in Matthew 5: ‘Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.’
How can we even begin to live up to this standard? And I think that is precisely the point. The Law does not, cannot show us how acceptable we are. it doesn’t show us that we are basically alright, but that we have a fundamental problem, that right down to my heart, to the core of my being, my default is to turn from God, and to cling to things which are not God.
It is when the Holy Spirit opens my eyes so that I realise that I have this problem that I can begin to trust God, that what I lack he can supply: that Jesus Christ himself suffered the consequences of my waywardness when he died for me on the cross, so that, in the words of our first reading from St Paul’s epistle to the Romans, I die, as it were with him. That the goodness of life which I lack God will give me by clothing me in Jesus Christ’s own goodness, raising me from the death of sin to live a new life in Christ.
This is the spiritual humility at the heart of the Christian life. In the Prayer Book communion service we express this humility: “We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness.” I stand before God, confident of his Fatherly love, not because I am worth it (because I know that I am not), but because Jesus Christ is worth it, and in God’s mercy I have become through faith so identified with Jesus Christ that his goodness is now my goodness. I have been clothed in him.
That is what we do when we come to receive Christ’s body and blood in the Eucharist, we seek to be drawn deeper into the mystery of his death in our place, and in doing so to allow the power of his resurrection to fill our lives that we might live more truly for him, that we might, by God’s grace, even become perfect as our heavenly father is perfect.