Exceeding the Righteousness of the Pharisees

MP3 Audio:

This homily was preached on Sunday morning, August 11, 2013,
at Christ the King Orthodox Church in Omaha, Illinois, by Fr. Michael Keiser.


Gospel Reading:  Matthew 5:20-26

“Except your righteousness exceed that of the Scribes and Pharisees, you cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven.”

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, God is One. Amen.

The Pharisees in the New Testament get a fairly bad press. They’re kind of held up consistently as examples of people who are focused on the letter of the law, who are only concerned about doing the right thing, who are particularly interested in living their lives. And sometimes Jesus criticizes them harshly, calling them whitewashed sepulchers and empty tombs, which is a little hard.

In fact, although many of them probably were like that, as a group they were a fairly decent bunch of people who were trying their best to live out the law that God had given them. But the problem was that they did tend to focus on the external law, to get all wrapped up in the hows and why-fores of doing the piety that was normal to their faith. Just like today we have Orthodox Christians who will obsess about kinds of fasting, and types of fasting, and how deep they make their prostration or their genuflection or whatever, convinced that if you get it done by the numbers correctly, then you’re living up to God’s expectations.

In fact, there were very good, pious, righteous Pharisees who were supporters of Jesus and His ministry, if not overtly, you know from the sidelines. You had the famous rabbi Gamaliel, who when the Sanhedrin were debating how to stamp out this emerging movement of Jesus, says, “Look, if it’s of God you can’t stop it, and if it’s of men it will die out anyway, so what are you getting all obsessed about this for?” You have Joseph of Aramathea, who of course offered his own tomb for Jesus to be buried in and took his body, which at the climate of the time was a gutsy thing to do, clearly identified you as a supporter. You had Nicodemus, who was perhaps a little more laid-back, and came to Jesus once at night but also came to Him to ask, “What is this whole ‘born-again’ thing you’re talking about? I mean, how can you go back into your mothers’ womb?” Jesus explains to him that, “No, we’re talking about being born from God, being born from above.” So these were good and righteous men who were seeking God’s will and trying to do it.

Now for Jesus to say that your righteousness must exceed that of the Scribes and the Pharisees, was actually a kind of dangerous thing to say, because for those Pharisees who were obsessive compulsive about this whole thing, who were wrapped up in getting it right by the numbers, to say you got to exceed that means you’d be producing another generation of Pharisees. We have lots of Christians who are wrapped into that. Everybody’s got their own schtick. For some people it’s the way to fast. For others it’s “don’t smoke, don’t drink, don’t wear makeup.” I mean, whatever, but that externals become the end all be all of how they express their faith.

And the Lord knows, in this Church we believe externals are important things. It’s not that there’s something wrong with externals. But what we have to remember is that outward actions reflect an inward reality, an inward reality. Many of you may remember if you have a background like mine, the old definition of a sacrament in the Book of Common Prayer was “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.” Well, in that sense, all all our outward actions are sacramental; in a sense that they all speak to an interior reality. Some of them in fact may be sinful actions that speak to an evil interior reality. Some of them may be Godly actions that speak to a pure and righteous interior reality. But there is always, we have to remember this connection, between outward acts and inward disposition. So every act in that sense is a sacramental statement of what’s going on with us inside.

That basically should warrant us or teach us two different things. Number one, be very careful–and the saints in our tradition warn against this over and over and over–about the judgment you make about people’s actions and their inward disposition. Because ultimately we can’t crawl inside their heads and examine exactly what’s going on. Now, we do see the action, and the action we have to respond to. We have to recognize that we don’t know entirely where that action is coming from. We don’t know entirely what the disposition of that person is. We don’t know what the interior spiritual battle is that is being fought within any individual soul.

So if we see an action that is in of itself sinful–you see someone deck somebody or whack their kid in the supermarket–you can make a judgement based on that action only superficially, because you don’t know the struggle going on within that person’s soul. The saints warn against this over and over and over, even in terms of our own actions, since there probably have been no pure motives in human beings since the Fall. We may try to do something very very good for a very wrong reason. I know probably we all have encountered people in the outward acts of piety, not so much as they want piety, because they want praise from others: people who will feed the poor, but are doing so according to their own agenda, to what they want to be seen as, according to the way they want people to think about them.

Another thing we need to learn, from being very careful about the outer action and making determinations about the inner person, is that if we are to be truly repentant, we have to learn to disassociate our will from the evil act the sinful act and associate it with the pure and the righteous act. This is what true contrition is; this is what makes penance generally a sacrament, not if we just come and go through a laundry list of our sins and say, “Yeah, we acknowledge our guilt.” We’re being Pharisees, because the Pharisees were very much into guilt. For them, the way to get out of that guilt was to go back and do it right this time. “If I didn’t get the fast right the last time, I’ll certainly get it right this time.” Contrition does not consist of that.

A genuine repentance means attempting to change what we are doing. That’s why I say we have to try to learn to disassociate our will from the evil act, because if our will is linked to the sin that we have, if we begin basically begin to claim that sin for ourselves, there’s nowhere we’re going to break between will and action, it’s going to become absolutely impossible for us. Only if we choose to struggle to separate our will from sin and join it to righteousness, therefore to join it to Christ’s will, can we begin slowly, painfully, to begin that turn of our vision, which is focused on selfishness and our desires and actions and begin to turn it, so, so hard with such difficulty towards unselfishness and toward sacrifice.

Genuine contrition and genuine repentance ultimately issues in some kind of sacrifice. Now it might not always be horribly painful, but probably there’s going to be some kind of suffering involved in what is essentially dying to our own willfullness. If our sins weren’t enjoyable we wouldn’t do them, whatever they are. So if you’re going to turn away from those particular sins, for most of us that’s going to be a problem. The only way which we can overcome that, however, is to join our will with God’s sense of sacrifice, because only in sacrificing our desire and turning towards the righteous act we find true freedom.

What is it that typifies Jesus’s act and freedom? His sacrifice. If God didn’t have to die for us–if He could have figured it out some other way; after all He is God–I mean if there was some other way of saving us, He could have set His mind to that and figured it out. But the true sacrifice, the true freedom which you find only in God, because only God is free. Only God is free enough to sacrifice Himself. It’s precisely that sense of freedom and liberation which comes from turning away from the sin, pulling our will away from it sometime by the roots, then turning our vision our entire concept towards selflessness rather than selfishness, which means we have to begin to live the best for our spouses, our children, for God, and for His Church, rather than what we regard as being the best for ourselves. That’s the true “exceeding of the righteousness of the Scribes and the Pharisees,” because we take what is focused on the externals and turn it into an inward vision.

This is why Jesus tells us, in this whole ranking of things and various places, if you feel anger, that’s a bad thing, but if you go on–take somebody to the Council as an action, that’s a worse thing–and if you go to the point of saying, “You’re a fool!” That’s almost spiritual murder.  It’s one thing to wrestle with your anger internally; it’s another to let it get to the external expression of that anger. That’s the difference between the righteousness of the Pharisee, and trying to live according to the expectations of God. Jesus says, “Don’t do any murder. I tell you, if you have hatred in your heart, you’ve committed murder. I say don’t commit adultery, but if you even think about a woman in your heart you’ve committed adultery in your heart.”

I once talked to a guy that came to me who tended to have a wandering eye. He said, “Father, I think God basically said you can look but not touch.” I said, “In what and which gospel are you reading this in? He said precisely the opposite.” The eye is a totally innocent organ; it’s the use we put it in. The tongue is a totally innocent organ; it is the words we produce with it that presents a problem. In all of our bodily functions, these are pure and clean and innocent. It’s the use we make of them that lead us into sin.

So to exceed the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees isn’t to get into some kind of prostration of fasting contest with them. It’s to begin to look honestly and truly, with clear vision into your own heart, and to begin to see those things you must separate your will from, if you’re going to live in the Kingdom of Heaven with God.

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, God is One. Amen.


This homily was preached on Sunday morning, August 11, 2013,
at Christ the King Orthodox Church in Omaha, Illinois, by Fr. Michael Keiser.

Transcription provided by Steven Johns.

About Fr Joseph Gleason

I serve as a priest at Christ the King Orthodox Mission in Omaha, Illinois, and am blessed with eight children and one lovely wife. I contribute to On Behalf of All, a simple blog about Orthodox Christianity. I also blog here at The Orthodox Life.
Video | This entry was posted in Fr. Michael Keiser, Matthew 5:17-20, Matthew 5:21-26. Bookmark the permalink.

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