12 February [6th Sunday in Ordinary Time]
"Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
The scribes and Pharisees get such a bad press in the New Testament that we might imagine they were purely malicious people. This would certainly be unjust to them as a group. They were generally dedicated and conscientious people, though narrow and legalistic in outlook. Not all of them were as extreme as the sub-group called the Kizai, or 'Stumblers', mentioned in the Talmud, who shut their eyes when they went out, so that they might not see a woman. St Paul, while he was still Saul, would not have remained long a Pharisee if they were all as we usually imagine them. Even after his conversion he could still describe himself as a Pharisee (Acts 23:6-8). Still, on the first notice of them in the New Testament (Matthew 3:7), they are ranked by Jesus with the Sadducees as a "generation of vipers."
In today's reading, however, Jesus might appear to be exceeding even the Pharisees in strictness of interpretation of the Law. "Until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished." Many Christians (and others) have a core feeling that religion is essentially about strictness and restraint; and so they feel that the more rigid they are, the more religious. Of course there is a place for strictness and restraint, but it is not the first place. Without wishing to trivialise this, one could imagine a driver who rigidly observed all the rules of the road, but drove "without due care and attention." It would be hard to imagine Jesus on the side of the Pharisees; so we have to read this passage very carefully.
"Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil." When is a law perfectly fulfilled? When it is observed to the letter? Hardly. The scribes and Pharisees adhered to the letter of the Law, yet Jesus accused them of “setting aside the commands of God and clinging to human traditions” (Mk 7:8). A law is being fulfilled, surely, when the purpose for which it was made is being fulfilled. A law is a means to an end; but if the end is being subverted by the law, then it is no longer a law. This is the revolutionary teaching of St Thomas Aquinas. Law, he said, is an act of reason (ordering a means to an end), not an act of will. Law is not the grip of someone’s power over you, but guidance for your mind. It subverts neither your mind nor your will, but guides you along a path. It does not take away your freedom, but supports, enlightens and defends it. This is how there can be such a thing as the law of God. It makes us open our eyes, not close them. Strictness is not the essence of law; the essence of law is seeing. Jesus told the Pharisees they were "the blind leading the blind" (Mt 15:14).
"Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees," Jesus said, "you will never enter the kingdom of heaven." For 'exceeds', another translation says 'goes deeper than'. A shallow religion has to compensate for lack of depth by excessive strictness; and it tries in advance to make rules for every possible situation. Konrad Lorenz gave a memorable description of the little semi-blind creature, the water newt, that makes its way around by memory rather than sight. A superficial religion is like this. We pay a heavy price for refusing to open our eyes.
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