In Sunday's Gospel, Jesus says to his followers, "For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20). That's a tall order, isn't it? Let's reflect on that.
Jesus says that the goodness of his followers must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees and then he offers examples of how the letter and the spirit of the law need to be joined together for abundant living. As we consciously align our lives with divine commandments and principles, over time we are formed into living expressions of them. Jesus tells us that he did not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. The fulfillment of the law occurs when external rules become internal inclinations, when rules for living become a way of life, when the seed takes root and produces virtuous fruit.
When Jesus says, “You have heard it said in ancient times… but I say to you,” he is calling us from merely avoiding negative behaviors to intentionally behaving in positive, life-affirming ways. A life beyond the law is not a lawless life but an abundant life. Abundant life, according to the teachings of Jesus, is about more than following the rules; it is about the formation of character and virtue. Following the rules is but the first step toward fruitful and virtuous living in the realm where God reigns.
St. Paul refers to the Law of God as a tutor, which guides us until our characters are so formed that the point of the Law is inherent in the way we live. He also likens the following of spiritual rules to the discipline followed by an athlete during training; when the contest comes, the athlete is prepared.
My career on the track team did not last long. But it lasted long enough for me to recognize the discipline of training, including the use of ankle weights. After weeks of running a quarter of a mile with weights strapped to my ankles, I discovered I was much faster without them on the day of the race.
We practice things like not lying so that we might become people who are known for our truthfulness. We avoid coveting and stealing what belongs to others so that we learn to be grateful for and generous with what is ours. We refrain from murder so that even our murderous thoughts are replaced by loving actions toward our neighbors.
The things God has commanded us to do or not do are supposed to lead us to a point when we are not merely slaves to the rules but people in whom the deeper purpose of the rules is fully expressed in the way we live. God has given us the Church so that through our gathering together we might help each other grow toward the greater righteousness of which Jesus spoke in his Sermon on the Mount.
I’ll conclude with a prayer we sometimes pray prior to worship. It is the Chorister’s Prayer of the Royal School of Church Music. This prayer has origins at least as far back the fourth Council of Carthage (398 AD) and beautifully expresses the relationship between the actions of our lives and the inner results for which we hope.
Bless, O Lord, us Thy servants,
who minister in Thy temple.
Grant that what we sing with our lips,
we may believe in our hearts,
and what we believe in our hearts,
we may show forth in our lives.
Through Jesus Christ our Lord.
I’ll see you in Church!
The Very Rev'd Ron Pogue
St. Martin-in-the-Fields Episcopal Church