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Greater Righteousness

by Jun 13, 2024Friar Reflection

In today’s Gospel Jesus calls us to a “greater righteousness.”  The word “righteousness” in Matthew’s Gospel means knowing and doing the will of God.  We pray for righteousness in the Our Father: “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done.”  God’s Kingdom and God’s righteousness is present wherever God’s will is done.  Jesus challenges his disciples to a greater righteousness: “…unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will not enter into the Kingdom of heaven.”  Jesus continues by giving his own interpretation of the Torah or Law which goes beyond a legalistic or literal fulfillment of the Law to its underlying meaning.

Sometimes Christians preachers and teachers make the Pharisees into scapegoats so that they do not have to look at their own faults.  The historical Pharisees were a Jewish lay reform movement.  They were zealous for the things of God and for knowing and doing the will of God.  They were not per se legalist or hypocrites although some of them were just as some Christians, preachers and teachers, are also legalist or hypocrites.

When Matthew is writing his Gospel the Pharisees were the de facto leaders of Judaism and some of the polemical criticism in this Gospel reflects the tension between Pharisees and Jewish Christians.  We know for example, St. Paul, a Pharisee, persecuted the church:

“I am a Jew, born in Tarsus in Cilicia, but brought up in this city.  At the feet of Gamaliel, I was educated strictly in our ancestral law and was zealous for God, just as all of you are today.  I persecuted this Way to death, binding both men and women and delivering them to prison.” (Acts 22:3-4).

But this same Rabbi Gamaliel earlier called his fellow Jews to tolerance and understanding of the Christian movement:

“But a Pharisee in the Sanhedrin named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law, respected by all the people…  So now I tell you, have nothing to do with these men, and let them go.  For if this endeavor or this activity is of human origin, it will destroy itself.  But if it comes from God, you will not be able to destroy them; you may even find yourselves fighting against God.” (Acts 5:34, 39)

Later in this Sermon Jesus will challenge us to look at our own faults and not the faults of others: “Stop judging, that you may not be judged…Why do you notice the splinter in your brother’s eye, but do not perceive the wooden beam in your own eye?” (Matthew 7:1, 3).  So, the greater righteousness that Jesus calls us to today is to look at our own legalism and hypocrisy instead of deflecting and using the Pharisees as scapegoats.

Image: “Two Torah scrolls” by Davidbena is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.