Exceeding the Righteousness of the Pharisees

This will be short, I promise.

Yesterday, I entered a protracted conversation with some folks on Twitter around the centrality of scripture to my Christian faith. The conversation actually began when someone suggested that the Holy Bible prohibited the ordination of women. It quickly became a conversation where words like “false-teacher,” “rather of God,” and “heresy” were lobbed at me because I said that I considered the Holy Bible to be authoritative but not inerrant.

The labels did not bother me much because I grew up in a tradition that purported the inerrancy of the Holy Bible and responded to critics of this view by dismissing them as irrelevant, false-teachers who were probably going to end up in Hell and lead many of people astray in the process. I knew the conversation was headed in that direction from the very beginning. The conversation also touched on issues of grace and righteousness and what entry into the Kingdom of Heaven requires. For the proponents of Biblical inerrancy in this conversation, entry into the Kingdom of God was not based upon God’s grace, but based upon our ability to get it right. For them, salvation was our job, not God’s. I left the conversation with a profound sense of sadness for people who live their lives under this shadow of doom with a  God who resembles more of a drunk, abusive father waiting for any small mistake to validate punishing you rather than a loving parent who is desirous of welcoming all of creation into the arms of safety, love, and shalom. I also left grateful that I made the decision to leave that tradition behind and to strike out on my own in pursuit of a God whose love knows no bounds.

So when I came across the Gospel reading for today’s celebration of Holy Eucharist (Friday in the First Week of Lent), Matthew 5:20-26, I couldn’t help but think of these four or five men who were so well versed on the letter of the Law of scripture. Jesus tells his disciples and followers: “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” This always struck me as a curious statement, particularly given the well-known relationship between Jesus and the Pharisees (spoiler alert: it wasn’t good). Given this reality, it struck me as odd that Jesus would use the Pharisees as a model for entry into the Kingdom of Heaven until I focused on the word “exceeds.” Unlike the scribes and Pharisees who could quote and follow scripture with the best of them, Jesus was instructing his followers that the Kingdom of Heaven is about going beyond the letter of the law into the intent of it. The rules and regulations that are given to us through scripture are not an end unto themselves, but a means to an end – right relationship with God and one another. For Jesus, orthodoxy (right belief) and orthopraxy (right practice) are secondary to orthopathy (right relationship). To be certain, belief and practice can and do shape relationship, but relationship is the point.

I cannot tell you the number of people who approach issues like the ordination and empowerment of women in our congregations, the support and affirmation of LGBTQ people, the healing work of racial justice involving people of color, and many other issues of contemporary theological relevance by applying the Bible has a precise rule book. This gets messy really easily because the Bible seldom agrees with itself on anything. That is why the Bible can lift up the voices of Miriam, Deborah, and the Virgin Mary on one hand and then include the Apostle Paul suggesting that “women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says.”[1] It is why scripture can recall a God can go to great lengths in Exodus to free a people from involuntary and perpetual servitude as immigrants slaves while also including places in the New Testament advocates the docility as obedience of slaves their earthly masters. The words of Holy Scripture do not speak with one voice. The Holy Bible is a conversation that we are called to faithfully enter and engage to hear what God might be saying to us now and then to apply our best effort to following what we perceive to be the will of God while carrying the blessed assurance that God’s grace is sufficient to cover us when and where we fall short.

Rather than striving to follow the letter of the law, we are called to go beyond it to the central focus of faith in God first given by Moses to the assembly in the wilderness and then reinforced by Jesus in the Gospels: “Love the Lord you God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength… Love your neighbor as yourself.” The point of Torah and Gospel is the build the framework for the restoration of right relationship with God and one another. If we follow the letter of scripture without love and compassion in our hearts for others, we are only doing what is required not what is intended.

This begs the question: “what does love and compassion for others look like?” It starts with humility, with wrapping our minds around the reality that we just might be wrong or at the very least what we know to be true might just be incomplete. It includes openness to different perspectives and experiences, even those that threaten to dismantle the carefully constructed worlds we live in. It involves a willingness to listen to and affirm voices we have long dismissed as irrelevant. The affirmation of marginal and minoritized experiences in our faith communities is about “exceeding the righteousness of the Pharisees.” It is about listening to and seeking to understand the experiences of women, queer and trans-people, people of color, and many others who are often on the receiving end of our legalism and righteousness. It is about learning that love requires us to go beyond comfortable spaces and well worn paths to affirm the presence and power of God in another person. If orthopathy is the point, then for God it is better to be in relationship than to be right.

The Pharisees did what was asked of them, nothing more and nothing less, and in so doing, they missed the point of religion in the first place: to provide scaffolding for our unfolding deeper connection to ourselves and our relationship with one another and God. That profound groundedness is the Reign of God in our lives.


[1] 1 Corinthians 14:34 (NRSV)

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