Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time: Greater than the Pharisees

I wonder if what really makes conservative Catholics angry at Pope Francis is that he refuses to pat us on the back.  It’s what liberals love about him, too.  It’s not that he’s nice to them – it’s that he’s tough on us.

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

Similarly, lately it seems to me like almost the central theme of the Gospel, almost more than the identity of Jesus, is his criticism of the Pharisees.

That’s the heart of this Sunday’s next section from the Sermon on the Mount.

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It’s the passage on the fulfilling of the Law: you have heard it said, but I say to you.  Jesus goes through the fifth, sixth, and seventh commandments, and says that beyond not murdering, committing adultery, and breaking our oaths, we should overcome anger, lust, and any kind of untruth.  Ouch.  That’s a tough standard.

But perhaps the heart of the reading is not the fulfilling of the Law but the scourging of the Pharisees: “Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.”  On the one hand, it sounds like they are pretty righteous.  On the other hand, it sure implies that they’re going to Hell.

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The second part of this reading, about adultery, is the most arresting but also the easiest to understand.  Jesus says two things: he condemns divorce, even pleasant, upright, Pharisee divorce.  And he condemns lust.  Ouch.

But that’s not all Jesus opposes.  We could be totally opposed to divorce and still be on the Pharisee side of this debate.

Jesus opposes anger, too.  There’s a sign of how shocking Jesus’s words are in the manuscript tradition.  A long line of Greek texts – including the ones the King James Version used – added the word “idly.”  If you’re angry for no good reason.  But that’s not what it says.

If your brother has something against you and you are bringing your gift to the altar – don’t bother.  Go be reconciled.  The Greek word is tough: not just “smooth it over,” but “change things completely,” before you come back to the Temple.  Ouch.

If you are on your way to court, make a settlement, don’t fight for your rights.  “Otherwise your opponent will hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard,” etc., “until you have paid the last penny.”

Maybe the best way to understand that text is in John’s Gospel.  (John is always recasting these sayings, to take us deeper.)  With the women caught in adultery, Jesus says, “he who is without sin, let him cast the first stone.”

If you want to think of yourself as righteous, go ahead.  But you will stand before the judge, too.  Jesus is not commending adultery.  (Nor is Francis.)  Rather, he is telling us that we need a deeper righteousness than the Pharisees and the stone throwers.

Jesus gives us no high fives, doesn’t tell us we Christians are awesome, unlike those other people.  He tells us to live love all the way to the end.  That means living the commandments, and a lot more besides – he’s not making things easier, he’s making them much harder.  We have to go all the way.

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This week’s reading from First Corinthians reminds us that we live by a higher wisdom, “God’s wisdom, mysterious, hidden.”  It is a wisdom, on the one hand, “for our glory.”  And it is a wisdom, on the other hand, without which “they crucified the Lord of glory.”

Jesus reveals to us his face, his face of righteousness and mercy, his face of the Beatitudes, his face hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, foreign, and imprisoned.  He calls us to take on that face, to put on his wisdom – and most of the time, like Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor, we would rather crucify him than follow that path.  We want a God who pats us on the back, not a God who calls us to glory.

The first reading, from Sirach, presents a simple choice.  “If you choose you can keep the commandments.”  Well!  That sounds Pelagian – but then he says, “If you trust in God, you too shall live.”

Jesus waits to make us holy, to clothe us in his righteousness and mercy.  The awesome challenge of the Sermon on the Mount, to be without anger and lust and untruth, is possible, if only we accept his grace.  But we have to receive it from him, and we can’t be self-righteous Pharisees.

The choice, says Sirach, is fire and water, life and death, good and evil.  Jesus is not messing around.  We can have all – or nothing.  But we must accept the way of the Beatitudes, the fulfillment of the commandments, the whole awesome love of Christ, and him crucified.

At what points do you find yourself stopping to throw stones, instead of following the Beatitudes of Christ?

 

eric.m.johnston

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