Friday, March 6, 2009

Your Righteousness Must Surpass That of the Scribes and Pharisees.

The topic of today’s readings is Righteousness. Righteousness is defined as: acting in accord with divine or moral law; free of guilt or sin. As is typical for Scripture readings, the Epistle and Gospel of the day deal with both sides of the question: Righteousness and unrighteousness, or, phrasing the notion in religious terms: virtue and vice.

In today’s First Reading from the prophet Ezekiel, the LORD God ponders a question: What should He do about the man who has been wicked throughout his life. But, as death approaches, he repents of his sins, and asks God’s forgiveness? And, the opposite question: What about the man, who has been virtuous all his life but, in the end, starts to do all sorts of terrible things?

The LORD’s answer: If a wicked man turns away from sin, and starts doing what is right and just, he will be saved, because of the virtue he has practiced. If a virtuous man turns away from virtue, and starts committing all sorts of “abominations” to use the prophet’s word, he will be condemned.

I can hear it now, and I’ve heard it often. “That’s unfair! God ought to judge everyone on the full record of our lives, and balance the good against the bad. He should not condemn people who are good for most of their lives, and turn to sin at the end.”

My usual response (borrowed from Ezekiel). “Let’s turn the question around. If you have a friend or family member who has lived a wicked life for many years, and they turn their life around in their old age, as they see death approaching, wouldn’t you want God to be merciful and forgiving to your friend or relative? Wouldn’t you say, ‘If I were in that position, I would want to be saved?’ I sure would!”

Today’s Gospel takes another perspective on the same question. Jesus is talking with his disciples about Righteousness: acting in accord with divine or moral law : free from guilt or sin (Merriam-Webster online).

Jesus says to his disciples: You have to be more righteous than the Pharisees and the Scribes, or you won’t enter the Kingdom of heaven. Now, the Pharisees and the Scribes considered themselves very righteous folks, according to one of those dictionary definitions: They were careful to obey every detail of the Law of Moses, as found in the Hebrew Scriptures.

But they were not truly righteous, according to Jesus. Remember the story of the man who was traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho on the Sabbath day, and got set upon by robbers, and left bruised and bleeding on the roadside? A Temple priest and a Levite walked right on by, because they didn’t want to become “unclean” by touching the man’s blood. The one who stopped and helped was a Samaritan, whom the Jews considered a half-step higher than the pagans. I can’t tell you whether he was bothered by fear of infection – that’s a rather modern consideration – but he was justified, and the other two weren’t. Jesus says that doing good for your neighbor in need is a higher priority than obeying every letter and punctuation mark of the written law.

The very first words of today’s gospel are these words of Jesus: Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you shall not enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Another translation reads: “Unless your virtue goes deeper than that of the scribes and Pharisees …” Jesus does not intend to add more precepts to the Torah, or more rules and regulations to the Mishneh Torah (a commentary on the Torah, similar to our Catechism and Code of Canon Law). Rather, Jesus emphasizes the need to engrave the Law not on books but on the human heart. Imagine, if you will, a faith commitment that would require us to forgive those who have offended us, and, perhaps more critically, to seek forgiveness from those whom we have offended, before we bring our gifts to the altar or approach to receive the Sacrament. But that is just what Jesus calls us to do in today’s Gospel.

A word of caution! There is a bit of the Pharisee in all of us – it comes with the territory of being human. Reading the paragraph above as I’m writing it, I can’t help but think of the folks who, over the years, have stayed in their pews at communion time, because they felt that they needed to be reconciled with their neighbor about some matter or other. I would remind them that saying a sincere Act of Contrition is all you need to do if you wish to receive the Eucharist, and you feel “unreconciled” with someone who you have offended. Our Lord has heard your expression of sorrow, and He knows both that you are sincere, and that you are imperfect. Don’t starve yourself because you don’t feel worthy of your invitation to the banquet. Jesus did not call the righteous, but sinners. You know why? Because every human person is a sinner, and it is not our own effort, but His mercy, that will transform our sinfulness to righteousness. And it will take a lifetime!

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