Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees
Sermon by Bernard Moss Wednesday 20th March 2019
Matthew 5 v 20
If you were with us on Sunday morning you will recall that Paul North spoke about how easy it is to give the Pharisees a bad press – the ecclesiastical baddies if you like – all lumped together and tarred with the same brush
And yet we heard of the group of Pharisees who came to Jesus to warn him that his life was at risk..maybe to save him from harm or just to remove him from the Jerusalem hot spot – who knows… but warn him they did about the plans Herod had for him. They cared enough about him to warn him, not to be the ones who cast the first stone in resentful anger at his teaching.
Historically of course the Pharisees had played a vital role in keeping the faith – in keeping the people of God focussed on the law -when Israel had been taken into captivity and exile, and then years later allowed to come home, it was the Pharisees who insisted on keeping Gods holy law – in obeying all the rules and regulations that they believed gave them their true God-given identity
It was the Pharisees who said “look ! this is what happens when you disobey the rules and regs God has laid down for us – no wonder we were punished as a people – no wonder we were crushed by our enemies – that’s the law of cause and effect – get the wrong side of God and there’s trouble ahead.”
And yet Jesus who knew the law of God so intimately – who also taught that Gods law must be obeyed … not the smallest letter – not the least stroke will disappear until everything is accomplished ( v 18) – Jesus went on to say that your righteousness must exceed that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law
And this surely was a statement about the quality of our relationship to God not adding even more religious rules and regs (the Ts and Cs we call them today) above the 617 that were in place in his time
It wasn’t that Jesus was saying – what only 617 laws ?! – let’s double them to be safe and sure of gaining God’s approval.
No ! he was surely guiding people to the God to whom those Ts and Cs pointed
He said elsewhere that you are my friends – as if to say the holy loving God wants us to be living in a warm friendship with him – not in a soulless legalistic relationship.
When you love someone you tend to want to avoid doing anything that hurts dismays or undermines them – any behaviours that undermine that love and trust need to be avoided, but in the end it is that enjoyment of that love and trust and being together that is what it is all about.. not a tight-fisted anxious following of relationship rules and regs, constantly checking out who has done what and wondering who has got something wrong
So Jesus offers us that friendship with God. If our heart is in the right place to be in a loving friendship with God ,that is when we realise what is really on offer. The Pharisees’ insistence on rules and regs in the end is what got in the way of the loving friendship God had on offer.
St Augustine caught the spirit of this when he said Love GOD and do as you like by which I guess he meant that when you really love someone you will do everything possible to care for and respect them – a love will shine through in a way that a sterile keeping of the law will never achieve
This I think is why the word GRACE appears so powerfully in the Christian story -the hallmark of God’s love reaching out to us, undeserved and undeserving – inviting us into friendship and to journey together based on what took place on the Cross at Golgotha
Two things for us to take away this morning.
First – it is very easy for us too – like the Pharisees – to get caught up in the rules and regs of the church and sometimes – certainly in the discussion of how the Bible should be understood and interpreted in the complex human issues we face today -– to get trapped by the letter of the law rather than flourishing in the spirit of the living God
Secondly – it is Lent – and we always do well to check and recheck that nothing in who we are and what we do gets in the way of that loving friendship we have been offered through Christ Jesus
And we also do well to remember that when we make a mess of it (as we so often do) to realise that God’s love and forgiveness are greater than we ever dared imagine.