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Sermon - 5 Epiphany

In the Name...

A friend from Kentucky once joked with me that he had always thought the Sermon on the Mount referred to the instructions to the jockey. I responded that the difference between him praying in church and at the track is that at the track he really meant it.

Well, today’s Gospel comes from the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, the one by Jesus, and this morning's passage gives us all those memorable verses, "you are the salt of the earth", "let your light so shine before men", "I have come not to abolish but, to fulfil", etc., etc., etc. But, the last verse we heard, while not the best known or most easily quoted seems to sum up all that has preceded it. "Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees you will never enter the kingdom of heaven."

Now, let's consider who we're talking about - the scribes and Pharisees. In some translations, the scribes are referred to as "lawyers" But, the law which these men studied was the Law of God, the Scriptures. In a society where people worried every day about making God angry or happy, these men dedicated themselves to reading and interpreting the Bible. And the result of their labours was the group called the Pharisees - Jews who tried to live every aspect of their lives by the Law of God - Jews who were noted for their strict and uncompromising adherence to every detail. Their very name - Pharisee - derives from the Hebrew word "pharash" which means "to separate” and they were separated from other Jews by what many regarded as their fanatical obsession. They weren't always liked, but, they were respected.

So, together, the scribes and the Pharisees were regarded as the most eminent of men, the wisest and holiest in society. And, as for their righteousness, Jesus himself gives us an example in his parable of the Pharisee and the tax-collector. "Lord, I give thanks that I am not like other men.," the Pharisee says, "I fast twice a week, I give tithes of all I get."

Imagine giving thanks for being different? Most people don't want to be different. They just want to go with the flow, be one of the crowd, whatever crowd it is. The Pharisee, however, did not consider himself a follower. He considered himself a leader - showing less observant Jews the way they should be going. Fasting - that is, doing without luxuries - praying, and tithing were not part of most people's routines back then, even though the Bible is pretty clear that they should have been. So, the "righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees" looks pretty impressive. And Jesus says if we can't exceed that, we're out of luck.

How depressing. How can I know more about the Bible than someone who studies it day and night? How can I hope to live to a higher standard than someone who focuses all his attention on keeping the highest standard? Surprisingly, quite easily. That's right. There's no need to get depressed. The truth is that it's really easy to exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees and we can do it.

And we know we can because a Pharisee has told us so. This Pharisee was a leader among leaders, an exemplar among his people, a 24-carat solid gold Pharisee, and yet a man who could write to the struggling Christians of Corinth, "you (with all your problems) nevertheless impart wisdom to the perfect."

If the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees was all there was, then Saul of Tarsus would have had a front row seat in Heaven. But, as Paul the Apostle, he knew that for all their wisdom in study, for all their perfection in living, the scribe and Pharisee both failed miserably when it came to understanding not merely the spirit of the Law, but, the spirituality of their faith.

In the Gospels, people are always coming up to Jesus and asking him, "What must I do to be saved?" and they never like the answers they get because Jesus never tells them what to do. Instead, he tells them how to be and that's a very different thing. Leading a righteous life, for a Pharisee was all about keeping strict rules such as not opening a window on the Sabbath because that was forbidden work. Yes, the Pharisees were faithful to their wives and respectful to their parents, but, they wouldn't give money to a poor man because they regarded poverty as a divine punishment, so why should they interfere?

They were quick to condemn the immorality and laziness of their fellow Jews, but, they didn't give a sinner one good reason to repent. They studied their Bibles, but, never led a Bible study. They tithed, but, didn't know the meaning of the word "outreach." Their righteousness was all about themselves. They made a religion whose guiding principle was, "How can I better my neighbour?", into, "How can I be better than my neighbour?"

Self-righteousness is the antithesis of godly righteousness. In fact, it can become the most insidious of sins because it is the most difficult to recognize. It's not particularly hard for a prostitute to know that she is, or for a murderer or thief to know that he is. But, it can be harder for a liar, or a covetous person, to recognize his sins. The self-righteous person "knows " he is righteous and he "knows " that he knows it.

When the Pharisee in Jesus' parable gave thanks he wasn't like the tax-collector, he was right that he wasn't guilty of extortion and collaboration, but, he was guilty of being prideful, judgmental, and egotistical. Hardly worth mentioning.

The scribe and Pharisee laboured to present God with a good life. The Christian exceeds that by presenting God with a good heart. Exceeds, by the way, not replaces. That is, thinking good thoughts doesn't excuse us from obeying the commandments. We're still supposed to lead a godly, righteous and sober life; fast twice a week and give tithes of all we get; and be thankful that we are different in that the way we act is dictated by what we say we believe. We are still supposed to be leaders, not followers, leading others to a deeper and more meaningful relationship with God in Christ.

And we won't get it right all the time. But, as long as we're trying, we're miles ahead of the greatest Pharisee.

This morning, we heard St. Paul tell the Corinthians that, "Those who are unspiritual do not receive the gifts of God’s Spirit, for they are foolishness to them, and they are unable to understand them.”, whereas, "Those who are spiritual discern all things."

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