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(Part 45)


June 12, 2014
Today’s gospel: Matthew 5:20-26

We are called to holiness and are to be saints. “He saved us and called us to a holy life” (2 Tm 1:9a). What is “holiness”? We look to those who have been declared saints and say that is holiness. Today Jesus points us to certain persons and helps put parameters on holiness. “I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter into the kingdom of heaven.” (Mt 5:20).

So let us see how the Pharisees were. They were very scrupulous about living the law of Moses. “I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.” (Lk 18:12). This Pharisee was “not like the rest of humanity­greedy, dishonest, adulterous” (Lk 18:11c). Thus they were exemplary in outward compliance with the law. Thus Jesus told the crowds, “do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you” (Mt 23:3a).

However, Jesus also said, “but do not follow their example. For they preach but they do not practice.” (Mt 23:3b). They were hypocrites. They look good outside but are rotten inside. “You are like whitewashed tombs, which appear beautiful on the outside, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and every kind of filth.” (Mt 23:27b).

Since our righteousness is to surpass that of the Pharisees, let us examine ourselves in relation to them. This is also especially appropriate with servant leadership. Indeed, between his denunciations of the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus says, “The greatest among you shall be your servant.” (Mt 23:11). What are wrong actions or postures of the Pharisees?

  • “All their works are performed to be seen.” (Mt 23:5a). This is when we look to being acclaimed and admired for our works. It is when we do only what is popular and not controversial. It is when we seek to cater to the crowd.
  • “They love places of honor at banquets, seats of honor in synagogues.” (Mt 23:6). This is when we look to position, power, privilege and prestige.
  • They love “the salutation ‘Rabbi.’” (Mt 23:7b). This is when we become proud about out positions of leadership and even the titles that go with them. This is one reason, even a small one, why we changed the leaders’ titles from “heads” to “servants.” The title “servant” is not very complimentary to the outside world.
  • “They devour the houses of widows and, as a pretext, recite lengthy prayers.” (Mk 12:40a). This is when we are outwardly pious and prayerful, but commit great acts of injustice, such as in economic or political affairs.
  • “You pay tithes of mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier things of the law: judgment and mercy and fidelity.” (Mt 23:23b). This is when we are strict and legalistic on observance of the covenant and our duties, but fail in love and compassion.
  • “You cleanse the outside of cup and dish, but inside they are full of plunder and self-indulgence.” (Mt 23:25b). This is when we portray ourselves outwardly as pious, but have serious unseen sins, such as lust, envy, pride.

The Pharisees were considered holy in their day. They were zealous in observance of the law. However, they were not to enter into the kingdom of heaven. Yes we are to observe the law, but it is not just an outward observance, but should reflect the condition of our hearts.

This is why Jesus raised the bar on the law. “You shall not kill; .... But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment” (Mt 5:21b,22a). If in our heart we wanted to kill, then we have already sinned grievously.

Holiness and servant leadership are not about going through the motions or even looking good. They are not just about doing no outside wrong regarding the law, but about being inwardly right regarding God.

People see what is outside, but God sees what is inside. Thus our righteousness must surpass that of the Pharisees.

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