For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. "You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, 'You shall not murder'; and 'whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.' But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, 'You fool,' you will be liable to the hell of fire.
We can be redeemed from our vices fairly easily, but it is almost impossible to be redeemed from our virtues. The Pharisees were extremely virtuous people. Even Jesus could make very little headway with them. But he had no trouble at all with tax-collectors and prostitutes.
“Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees….” Another translation says, “Unless your virtue goes deeper than that of the scribes and Pharisees….” Jesus is not adding more rules to the multitude of rules that the scribes and Pharisees deduced from the Law; rather he approaches everything from a deeper level.
You may own thousands of acres, but if they are just barren rock you will starve, because nothing will grow there. Where there is no depth of soil, the seed comes to nothing (see Mk 4:5); and likewise when our actions do not spring from a deep life they wither before they can bear any fruit.
We see this clearly today, but of course we have to see out of both eyes. Our blindness today is more likely to be the opposite of that of the Pharisees. We are tempted to make the ‘interior’ life into another kind of object: a source of ego satisfaction. But there can be no privileging of one over the other. Everything hidden becomes visible. Every word has to become flesh eventually, in one way or another. “Whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in hidden places will be proclaimed on the housetops” (Luke 12:3). Meister Eckhart put it well. “Not that one should give up or neglect or reject one's inner life, but in it and with it and from it one should learn to act in such a way as to let the inward break into activity and draw the activity into inwardness, and thereby train oneself to act in freedom…. If the outward work tends to destroy the inward, one should follow the inward. But if both can be as one, that is best, then one is co-operating with God.”
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