More Righteous than the Scribes and Pharisees

Fifth Sunday after Epiphany
Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Isaiah 58:1-12
1 Corinthians 2:1-12
Matthew 5:13-20

In a world where ever more people think of themselves as “spiritual but not religious,” one may be suspicious of any serious concern with and reflection on ritual observance. That suspicion may draw some energy from this Sunday’s reading from Isaiah 58. The people of God to whom Isaiah shouts out like a trumpet seem genuinely baffled by the criticisms lodged against them. Their ritual observance seems to have been devout. They seek God. They “delight to know [God’s] ways.” They fast, humble themselves, and observe the Sabbath.

As we read further in this passage, it is clear that all of this ritual devotion is completely disconnected from the common life of their society. There is rampant injustice in their commercial dealings. They are indifferent and inattentive to the needs of the poor. They neglect their own family members. As the LORD makes clear, these are the activities that form the basis of worship that pleases God.

It would be a mistake, however, to see ritual devotion and social justice as mutually exclusive. They are not in competition with each other. If we look deeper into Isaiah’s criticisms of the people of God, we can begin to unpack the assumptions and presumptions that drive their life with God. It would seem that the people of God see their relationship with the LORD as primarily a set of transactions. Their religious devotion has become a type of currency they give to God in exchange for God’s blessing or protection or, worse, turning a blind eye to the rest of their lives. This is where the problem lies, not with ritual devotion itself.

The LORD desires the daily life of the people of God to reflect God’s own concerns: attention to righteousness, justice, freedom from oppression. Even here it is important to recognize that attention to these concerns instead of concerns with ritual devotion is not a way of buying off or appeasing God. That would keep a transactional relationship with God intact and merely exchange one currency for another. Rather, our attention and concern with the things God is concerned with should flow from our love of God, a love that is the appropriate response to God’s prior love of them. Within this sort of relationship, the common life of the people of God emerges out of their love for God.

When our relationship with God is based on our loving response to God’s love of us, a common life based on justice and compassion is what one would expect. In the same way, ritual devotion that is pleasing to God also becomes the appropriate response to God’s love. Isaiah is not asking the people to abandon ritual devotion in favor of social justice. Rather, he wants the people of God to recognize that both of these elements of life with God originate in response to God’s love. This is the way for ritual devotion and social justice to flourish as part of a unified, righteous life with God.

In this light we can approach Jesus’ claim that, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” For people deeply acquainted with Christianity, the Scribes and Pharisees may simply serve as symbols of pedantic hypocrisy. If that is the case, one has to admit that Jesus has set the bar for entry into the kingdom rather low.

For Jesus’ audience, however, the Scribes and Pharisees represented the height of rigorous devotion. Matching their righteousness would have seemed inconceivable for most everyday folk, exceeding it would have been impossible. Although this picture is more accurate historically, it does not really sound like “good news.” Now the bar seems impossibly high.

Moreover, Jesus has some of his harshest conflicts with the Scribes and Pharisees. Making them the minimum standard of righteousness seems odd. One reason for their mutual hostility is that both Jesus and these others shared a common goal. They all were seeking the reform, renewal, and revival of Judaism. Though they shared a common goal, Jesus and the Scribes and Pharisees pursued very different paths toward achieving that goal.

The Scribes and Pharisees assumed that ever more rigorous devotion to the law would open the door for God to bring about the renewal of the people of God. This makes a sort of sense. God has given the law. Obedience to the law in all of its detail would be an appropriate response. Jesus seems to agree when he claims he has not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it, right down to its smallest detail.

As chapter five of Matthew develops and as the rest of Matthew’s gospel unfolds, it appears that for Jesus, fulfilling the law primarily depends on adhering in love to the deepest intentions behind the law, in binding oneself to the heart of the law-giver. Such a loving response to the love of God, is the way to cultivate the righteousness Isaiah calls for, a righteousness that exceeds that of the Scribes and Pharisees.

This is all well and good. It raises, however, the question, of how one learns what is in the heart of the law giver. Matthew has already told us that Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us. Jesus, rather than the law, is the perfect mirror of the heart of the lawgiver. The incarnation of the Son of God in the person of Jesus is God’s loudest, clearest expression of God’s loving desire to be in fellowship with us. As Matthew sees it, becoming a follower of Jesus is the appropriate response to encountering this living manifestation of God’s love. Entering into the common life of those fellow followers of Jesus provides the communal context for just action and attentive devotion without driving a wedge between them.

Image: Christ in the House of Simon the Pharisee, by Philipe de Champaigne

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