…unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees,
you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (Mt. 5:20)
The Pharisees were members of a Jewish religious group known for their devotedness to the prescriptions and demands of the law. They held and taught that strict observance of the Mosaic law makes one righteous before God. In his own teachings, Jesus challenged the Pharisees’ understanding of righteousness and emphasized a deeper understanding of fidelity to the commandments. He insists that mere observance of the law and all the external manifestations of strict adherence to the dictates of the Decalogue remain empty if they are devoid of true conversion of the heart and mind. God’s commandments exist, not merely for external observation, but especially to foster a disposition for virtues that lead to righteousness. The emphasis is on true conversion and, in this context, sin is not just mere breaking of the letters of the law but also takes into account the interior disposition of the individual. Hence, Jesus condemns not just the actual sins, but also the conscious choices and assent to the lure of sin that occur in the mind. This implies that any sin once assented to, has been completed in the mind, irrespective of any possible obstacle that may later halt its realization. “All battles are first won or lost in the mind.” – St. Joan of Arc.
Christianity invites us to a higher level of discipleship that goes beyond mere observance of the law. It is a call to perfection. Jesus invites his followers not just to avoid the “big” sins, but also pay attention to the imperfections or weaknesses that could constitute fertile ground for sin. He says: you heard how it was said… you shall not kill… but I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment… you heard how it was said, you shall not commit adultery. But I say to you, everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Mt. 5:21&22, 27&28) While confirming the old law in its condemnation of killing
and adultery, he goes further to condemn the attitudes or motivations that often lead to killing and adultery: anger and lust respectively. By so doing, Jesus invites his followers to deal with the roots of sin and not just the sin itself.
He did not stop at condemning adultery but also warned against lust which is mental predisposition to the sin of adultery. In prohibiting divorce altogether, Jesus places the man and woman on the same plane: they are mutually responsible for making their marriage work. That is the attitude of mind, the salutary disposition which God’s laws should engender among God’s children.
The observation of the law as taught by the Pharisees constituted the background against which Peter asked Jesus: “Lord, how often must I forgive my brother if he wrongs me? As often as seven times? (Mt. 18:21) Maybe he needed to begin the count. Jesus made it impossible for him to count, for he told him: I tell you not seven times but seventy-seven times. Jesus encouraged him to develop the virtue of unconditional forgiveness that does not keep count of wrongs up to seven times before revenge. That again, is a salutary disposition that leads to righteousness, the righteousness that surpasses that of the Pharisees.
The call to discipleship is a call to authentic holiness that goes beyond mere externalism and strict observance of the law. Ultimately, it all about freedom and choice. God has set before us, life and death, good and evil (Sir. 15:17)
We have the freedom to choose how we live our lives. But whatever be our choice, the first reading today reminds us that God “never commanded any one to be godless, he has given no one permission to sin” (Sir. 15:20)