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

3 Responses to “More Righteous than the Scribes and Pharisees”

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  1. Phil says:

    Stephen, you wrote…

    “It would be a mistake, however, to see ritual devotion and social justice as mutually exclusive.”

    I agree, in theory.

    However, in the real world, ritual devotion allows one a very easy alternative to acts of social justice. All one has to do it sit there for an hour on Sunday and watch the priest or pastor put on their show, and then one can cross religion off the check list for a week. This is the reality of the Christian experience for very many people, perhaps most. The talking of the talk is not a bad thing in itself, but it so often becomes a replacement for the walking of the walk.

    What if there were no rituals? What if when one showed up to church on Sunday everyone piled on to a bus which took them down to serve at the local homeless shelter? Well, there would quickly soon be far fewer Christians. But the credibility of Christianity would be greatly enhanced.

    And would there really be far fewer Christians? Or would it be more the case that then we’d know who the Christians are?

    • Stephen Fowl says:

      Dear Phil,
      Thanks for your comment. I think we agree that too often Christians separate religious devotion from social justice as a way of ignoring social justice.
      I would point out, however, that keeping the two together is much more than a theoretical possibility. Throughout the history of the church many of its most significant contributions to social justice were and are initiated and sustained by monastic communities, communities for whom devotion and justice are simply part of the fabric of their day to day lives.
      This would also be the case for at least the early years of the Catholic Worker movement and the civil rights movement as well as those intentional communities often associated with the “New Monasiticism.”

      I guess I would say keeping devotion and justice together does not happen enough, but much more than you seem to grant.

      • Phil says:

        Hi Stephen, thanks for your reply, and your thoughtful article.

        You make good points, and I appreciate you helping to edit my over simplification of the issue. You’ve helped me reflect further, and perhaps what I’m trying to propose is that social action, acts of love, the walking of the walk, are the real religious devotion.

        If that is true, then all other aspects of the Christian experience such as ritual, ceremony, community, prayer, the talking of the talk etc can be measured by the degree to which they are stepping stones to Christian acts. If such practices succeed in leading us towards action, they can be declared helpful. If such activities become a replacement for action, then they might be considered more an obstacle.

        I’m attempting here to interpret the advice “die to be reborn”. The word “die” is a verb, it implies an act of surrender. There’s nothing wrong with attending a ceremony which we enjoy attending, but it’s hard to define that as an act of surrender.

        Does engaging in the talking of the talk make me a Christian? I think not, as it comes far too easily, and is typically hijacked by the expanding balloon of my ego. But the talking sounds Christian, and therein lies the danger of self delusion. From this personal experience, I’ve become suspicious of everything but the actual acts, because it’s much harder to fool oneself about that.

        Might we consider devotion etc as we would football practice, and Christian acts as game day? Did the devotion help me win the dying game, or did I become confused and think the devotion was the dying game?

        Will look forward to your future articles, and thanks again for engaging.

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