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. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.
Law without justice is superficial; it is only about words and appearances of justice. We use all kinds of substitutes for wisdom. If a court doesn’t know how to decide, it consults precedent. But that precedent was either based on another precedent, or it was someone’s guess at justice in a particular case in the past. Yesterday’s guess becomes today’s justice.
The scribes and Pharisees loved to quote other scribes and Pharisees. One translation says, “If you are not righteous in a better way than the scribes and the Pharisees....” The present translation (NRSV) says, “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. ‘Better’ is a rather neutral word; ‘deeper’ says more. It is clearly the sense of the passage. The law doesn’t go down to the roots of things: to the mind and heart. It is in the mind and heart that all our actions are conceived and born. Murder is the ultimate flowering of an anger that began small and grew unchecked in the mind and heart. If we never look into those sometimes dark places, we could find later that we have been breeding monsters there.
Superficial virtues are the opposite of virtue. They are an attempt to prove that I am not what I am. Cowards become daredevils (Enneagram 6), weak people look for a way of having power of some kind…. Such ‘virtues’ are an over-reaction to the unpalatable truth of what I am; they hide their opposite within themselves.
But then how are we to understand St Paul’s statement “When I am weak then I am strong!” (2 Cor 12:10)? He was not speaking of a false strength that is only a denial of weakness, but of real strength that comes from accepting one’s weakness. Virtue that does not grow out of the truth is like a plant with no roots: it looks all right for a while.
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