scribes and the Pharisees
The Sixth Sunday After Trinity
Isaiah 57:13b-19, Psalm 85, Romans 6:3-11, St Matthew 5:20-26
Grace Is for Grown-ups
As John Wayne and other cinematic prophets have shown us, a personal code can be a fine thing, Pilgrim. But substituting one’s own code for the established law can have its drawbacks. In Rapid City, South Dakota, in 1992, police apprehended an armed robber named Dennis Lee Curtis.
When they shook him down they found in his wallet a sheet of paper on which appeared his personal law code:
- I will not kill anyone unless I have to.
- I will take cash and food stamps – no checks.
- I will rob only at night.
- I will not wear a mask.
- I will not rob mini-marts or 7-Eleven stores.
- If I get chased by cops on foot, I will get away. If chased by vehicle, I will not put the lives of innocent civilians on the line.
- I will rob only seven months out of the year.
- I will enjoy robbing from the rich to give to the poor.
We might applaud some of the sentiments on that list, but they appeared to have no effect on the judge. He went by the law on the books and not the one in Dennis Lee’s hip pocket, and sent the robber up the river.
Some centuries earlier, the scribes and Pharisees were the rock stars of righteousness. They were the custodians of the law in Israel, and they shaped it to suit their fancy. By the time the Lord Jesus appeared, they had bred laws like bunny rabbits, amassing 613 of them. All was kosher . . . or was it?
If a deer entered a house through an open door on the Sabbath, could the householder close the door to capture it for later butchering and eating? No, said the rabbis, closing the door constituted work, which was forbidden on the Sabbath.
Could a tailor carry his needle home from his shop as dusk approached on Friday, when the Sabbath began? Yes, said the rabbis, if he stuck it in the sleeve of his coat; no, if he carried it in his hand. That would be work.
These holy men of Israel set a standard that made them the only righteous ones. Rumor has it they formed a band and called it the Righteous Brothers.
Their law was not God’s law, which revealed to men their sinfulness, God’s holiness and the need for reconciling the two, which only God can do. Their law made man responsible for healing his ruptured relationship with God. When he does – if he could — he reaps glory — the glory that belongs to God alone.
If God’s law seems a burden, it’s really not – when properly understood and applied. Following a list of rules – or not – is a pretty straightforward matter. It’s grace that’s scarier than a horror movie double feature.
Grace is for grown-ups. It demands sound judgment and good decisions, sober reflection and godly wisdom. Grace makes you think . . . and choose . . . and squirm.
In the Sermon on the Mount, where the prayer book takes us today, our Lord Jesus has set out the Beatitudes and then declared that He has come not to destroy the law but to fulfill it. Grace can only flower when sinful man despairs of keeping the law for himself and throws himself on the mercy of the One who has done it for him, the only One who is good enough.
Dallas Willard put the matter elegantly: “In the Sermon on the Mount we are not looking at laws, but at a life: a life in which the genuine laws of God eventually become naturally fulfilled.”
Jesus has come, proclaiming His grace. And He says: “For I say to you, unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20).
This statement sends a tremor throughout the Holy Land – and not only through the leaders. The great unwashed cannot imagine even approaching the righteousness of these scribes and Pharisees who know their law so thoroughly and keep it so rigorously.
They even tithe of their mint and cumin. How could the rank and file dare consider surpassing such righteousness?
This Jesus of Nazareth speaks in parables and says things none have ever heard. Righteousness exceeding that of the scribes and Pharisees? What can this Prophet mean?
And so once again Jesus has flipped Israel’s collective wisdom on its head to frame the question He wants before them: What is righteousness? He will take them on a pilgrim’s quest, and a few alone will complete it. Those who do will arrive in an enchanted place called Grace.
He will show them a faraway country beyond the land flowing with milk and honey. Their inheritance is the very kingdom of heaven — carnelian and jasper, sapphire and emerald, streets of gold. But, oh, so much more than that — eternal worship before the throne of God.
Good news? There can be none better. As St. Paul will declare, “There is no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus.” The Father will remember your sins no more.
In Christ Jesus, God’s grace has erupted in His creation and this world will never be as it was. The law pointed men to our sin; grace turns our eyes to God’s mercy upon us. The law made men wear that sin like burlap skivvies; grace feels as soft and fine as a satin robe . . . once we get the hang of it.
How, then, to get this grace? How to become more righteous than the scribes and Pharisees? How to enter the kingdom of heaven? The Lord has promised, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled.”
We hunger, Lord; we thirst. We would be filled. But how?
By faith. But faith not in your own righteousness before the law; rather, faith in the Lord who came to fulfill the law. Faith in the righteousness of the One who came to seek and save the lost, faith in His tender mercy on the lost sheep of Israel and the forlorn outsiders called gentiles, faith in His love for all mankind so deep that it will bear Him to the cross . . . faith in God’s grace.
Reach out both hands and take what He offers at great cost to Him as a free gift to you. And you shall be righteous.
The scribes and Pharisees, trussed up by their law, are devout believers – in a righteousness of their own invention. The Lord flays their pretense bare with a whip of words. You have defaced grace. “But I say unto you . . .”
Over and again in our Trinity season gospel lessons, we see the interplay between human attitudes toward God and our fellow man. Love God, love your neighbor. Hate your neighbor, hate God.
Now the Lord says that anyone who bears anger for his brother must not approach the altar of God. The law said, “You shall not murder,” but Jesus says you shall not harbor malice or hurl insults or call out hurtful names. The first will be liable to judgment, the second to the council, the third to the hell of fire.
Jesus appears to be holding up a mirror to the progression of capital punishment in Israel. First, in each important city, judges sat in the gate and tried, condemned and executed murderers. Their judgment meant beheading.
Second, a more notorious killer appeared before the Sanhedrin, or ruling council of the nation. They applied the more horrible sentence of stoning.
Third, in especially egregious cases, the council could call for death by burning in the valley of Gehenna, where a fire burned continuously to consume rubbish.
Jesus here pronounces progressively harsher punishments not on those who commit murder but on those who bear anger for another.
The Greek word for “fool” is moros, from which we get “moron.” It speaks not just of idiocy but immorality and godlessness as well. Raca is an Aramaic term that can be translated “blockhead” or “numbskull” or “empty-headed one.”
To be without sense is to be without grace. To be without grace is to be without God, and thus bound for the hell of fire. Is Jesus saying the accuser will endure the curse with which he has cursed another?
Offering a gift to God at His altar is proper ritual, prescribed by God’s own law. But in the age of grace, the Lord says, reconciliation with your brother takes precedence over cultic practice. The burden here falls not on the angry man but the object of his wrath, implying a just cause: Leave your gift at the altar, make amends, then return and make your offering to God.
Mark well the words “angry with his brother without a cause.” Some have cause. St. James charges, “O vain man” and St. Paul “thou fool.” Jesus Himself says to His adversaries, “O fools, and slow of heart.”
There is a righteous anger, that directed against those who slander God and the corruption they bring into His creation. But handle it with care. A man told of meeting Mother Teresa and asking if she did not become angry at all the social injustice she had seen in her work in the slums.
She asked him, “Why should I expend energy in anger that I can expend in love?” Mercy is usually a better choice than wrath.
Only when the requirement of the law is fulfilled – not destroyed but fulfilled – can grace pour forth in torrents from the throne on high.
In our passage, prison is hell, the destination of all who will not abandon their hostility toward God. They will not go free until they have paid the last penny, and the last penny will never be paid. Love God, love your neighbor – in this life. Then the judgment.
And the Judge is Christ. The One who fulfills the law is its sovereign interpreter. Men may reject Him as Savior but none will escape Him as Judge.
Another story about another habitual crook: He rejoiced when he learned the lawyer who had represented him in his earlier misdeeds was now the judge before whom he would appear – until he heard these words from the bench: “It is not now my business to defend but to judge. I will deal with you according to my oath of office.”
Our Lord Jesus intercedes for us today; He will pass sentence on us in the last day.
Grace means, for us, living in the balance. God’s greatest gift to us demands of us judgment and discipline. In the early church, they had a fine hullabaloo over the dietary laws. Must a gentile live like a Jew to become a Christian?
St. Paul addressed the matter of eating food offered to idols, decreeing that since idols are nothing, food offered to them carries no contamination. But if eating this food might cause a weaker brother to stumble, abstain. This is not law but grace, demanding discernment and discipline.
We’ve all witnessed grace incarnate – if we’ve trained ourselves to look for it. Marjorie and I were on the homeward tack, beating down I-45 well south of Dallas. I pulled off for a final pit stop before we pitched up in Houston.
She went inside as I pumped gas. We got back on the road, nothing apparently amiss, and covered three or four miles before we heard the siren. Ask not for whom the siren shrills; it shrills for thee. I pulled over.
The sheriff’s deputy was burly, and businesslike: driver’s license, proof of insurance. Then he said, “Why didn’t you pay for the gas back there?”
Bonnie looked at Clyde and Clyde looked at Bonnie . . . and it hit us. This was in the early days of that civilizational advance known as pay-at-the-pump. This station didn’t have it yet. She assumed I paid at the pump and I assumed she paid inside.
This was rural Texas. I could hear the judge rumbling, “I’m gonna put you under that jail, son.”
The deputy ordered me to follow him back to the station, where I apologized profusely and ponied up. The young lady was understanding. The deputy, after monitoring the entire transaction, told me to be on my way.
I was guilty as sin; he could’ve booked me. But the law worked and the breach of justice was healed, and I got grace. And Bonnie beat the rap, too.
Under grace, how do we obtain the righteousness for which we hunger and thirst? We join ourselves to the Righteous One. In our epistle lesson for today, St. Paul sets out for us in Romans 6 the effect of our union with Christ, which makes us both receivers and judicious dispensers of His grace.
We have been baptized into His death, buried with Him in baptism so that we might rise from the dead with Him and walk in newness of life.
“What does being baptized into His death mean?” asked the fourth-century patriarch of Constantinople, John Chrysostom. “It has to do with our dying as He did. We do this by our baptism, for baptism is the cross. What the cross is to Christ, baptism is to us. Christ died in the flesh; we have died to sin. Both are deaths, and both are real.”
Likewise, he continues, both resurrections are real: “Do you believe that Christ was raised from the dead? Believe the same of yourself. Just as His death is yours, so also is His resurrection; if you have shared in the one, you shall share in the other. As of now, the sin is done away with.”
But we have a role to play, says St. Chrysostom: “Paul sets before us a demand: to bring about a newness of life by a changing of habits. For when the fornicator becomes chaste, when the covetous person becomes merciful, when the harsh become subdued, a resurrection has taken place, a prelude to the final resurrection.
“How is it a resurrection? It is a resurrection because sin has been mortified (meaning put to death), and righteousness has risen in its place; the old life has passed away, and new . . . life is now being lived.”
Beloved, the new life does not hang on a neat little list of rules for Boy Scouts but a framework for a life of repentance, thanksgiving, obedience and, in the end, adoration of God — for mature believers. The New Testament sets out attitudes, not edicts. Grace demands that we use the minds God gave us.
The law, misused, heaped self-recrimination on men’s heads; grace gurgles like a fount of forgiveness. The law provoked men into bitter quarrels, grace slathers on the balm of unity in the Lord. The law channeled men into a maze with no way out; grace sweeps us up and away to the Morning Star.
Because the Righteous One died on the cross, our righteousness can exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees. He is beckoning us to follow Him on a pilgrim’s journey into an enchanted place, that place called Grace, where newness of life flows into life everlasting. Amen.