In today’s gospel passage, Jesus is still preaching on the mountain. People are already seeing him as the new Moses. The reason for this is not far-fetched. Moses climbed the Mountain of Sinai where God gave him the law to pass on to the children of Israel; now, Jesus is on the mountain, and he is telling his followers what God wants from them. But because of the authority with which he is teaching, the people are beginning to make up their minds that Jesus has come to destroy the Old Law. Jesus then corrects that notion saying, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” The Law and The Prophets were meant to structure the relationship between God (heaven) and people (earth). For example, the first three of the Ten Commandments govern the relationship between human beings and God, while the remaining seven govern the relationships among human beings. The goal of the Law and the Prophets is to bring about a smooth and perfect relationship between God and human beings; and it is in Jesus Christ that this perfect union of divinity and humanity (hypostatic union) has been achieved.
He looks at how the Pharisees and the Scribes are so engrossed in the externalities of the law, and he says to his followers, “Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the Kingdom of heaven.” What is it about the Scribes and the Pharisees that Jesus is warning us against? In Judaism, the Scribes were the teachers and the interpreters of the law. The name “Pharisee” means “separated” or “the separate ones.” The Pharisees were a lay group; they were members of a sect in Judaism. For them, religion was all about the law. They appeared to be very strict in their observance of the law. Jesus condemned their self-righteousness and hypocrisy. The word “hypocrite” comes from the Greek hupokrites, which means “actor,” one who pretends to be what one is not. They pointed accusing fingers at others, but they were not free of the same sins. They covered their sins and exposed the sins of other people.
Going further, Jesus picks the commandments, one after the other. “You have heard that it was said… You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment. But I say to you, whoever is angry with brother will be liable to judgment…” Here, Jesus is not condemning the commandment “Thou shall not kill.” Instead, he takes us to the origin of the action, the heart. Assuming I ask to know how many of us here have ever killed our fellow human beings. I guess most, if not all of us, will claim innocence. But murder is an act of aggression that begins from the inside. Inside the murderer there is anger, hatred, and contempt, which eventually overflow to abusive speech and eventual act of murder. The past commandment focused on the final act, which is the culmination of the process, but Jesus takes us to the origin and growth of the thought.
Jesus goes on to say, “You have heard that it was said, You shall not commit adultery. But I say to you, everyone who looks at a woman [or a man] with lust has already committed adultery with her [or him] in his [or her] heart.” Now, I ask if you have never committed adultery, indicate by a raise of hand. Before you celebrate your holiness, revisit Jesus’ explanation of this commandment in today’s Gospel passage. As a man or a woman, when you look at a woman or a man that you are not married to, and many thoughts find space in your heart, thoughts that you are ashamed of sharing publicly, you know that you cannot sit in judgment against someone else.
When we look at people through the eyes of the Pharisees, it is very easy to judge and condemn people by their actions. But when we understand life through the eyes of Jesus, we will come to realize that we may not be as innocent as we think we are. We will come to realize how much of the grace of God we need to be holy. Archbishop Fulton Sheen went for prison ministry one day. He looked at the prisoners, and he said to them, there is only one difference between you and me: you got caught, but I was not caught. There is another story about the English evangelical preacher, John Bradford. The story has it that whenever he saw criminals being led to the scaffold, he would say, “There but for the grace of God, goes John Bradford.”
My dearly beloved in Christ, the Scribes and the Pharisees relied on their power and failed. Jesus brings us additional help; it is called grace. Instead of sitting in judgment against others, let us harness that energy to work on ourselves in humility, and pray that the grace of God may be sufficient for us until we come to our heavenly inheritance, through Christ our Lord. Amen.