I think that if you took a survey, nearly everyone would want to say that they are righteous, that is, that they do the right thing. But I also think that survey would reveal how amazingly different each person’s definition of righteousness would be. One person’s idea of righteousness might be that they do what everyone else is doing – how could that be wrong? Everyone does it. Another person’s idea of righteousness might be rather selfish: they do what’s best for them, or for their family – they take care of number one. Still another view of righteousness might be that one picks and chooses a set of rules by which they decide to live their lives, and never deviate from them to one side or the other. This view, of course, was the view of the Pharisees who had over six hundred such rules by which to abide.
If you’re wondering what’s wrong with any of these, today’s Scriptures have the answer. Jesus tells us that none of these self-righteous positions is going to cut it: those who follow him have a much more strenuous rule of life, and we call that rule the Gospel.
Do you count yourself among the blessed because you’ve never murdered anyone or participated in an abortion? Well, that’s a good start, but if you’ve harbored anger against another person, if you have refused to forgive them, if you have marginalized a person because of their race, or their language, or their religion, or their sexual orientation, or because of a physical disability, if you have belittled people by sarcasm or bullying, if you have hated another person in any way at any time, then you’ve murdered them in your heart, you’ve violated the fifth commandment, and that’s not okay.
Do you feel righteous because you’ve never had extramarital relations with another person? Great, but that’s just a start. If you have had lustful thoughts about another person, if you have looked at pornography, or fantasized about a relationship with another person; if you have nurtured a relationship that is improper in any way, then you have violated the sixth commandment, and it’s time to turn back.
Do you feel that your word is good as gold because you have never lied under oath? Again, it’s a good start, but if you’ve told a lie of any kind in any situation, even a white lie in most circumstances, if you have not told the whole truth when the truth was called for, if you have misrepresented the truth in any way or have not lived what you believe and profess, then you have violated the eighth commandment and have been dishonest to some degree.
These are not words of comfort today, are they? I bring these all out in my preaching today because Jesus makes them urgent. I do it with a sense of deep humility, because I know that I have failed in some of these things more times than I’d care to admit.
Jesus tells us today, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” That seems pretty harsh. The Scribes and Pharisees had those six hundred or so laws by which they lived their lives, and some of them were pretty nit-picky if you ask me. So how can we ever hope to enter the kingdom of heaven? It just seems like an impossible task, doesn’t it?
But what Jesus is asking of us isn’t to come up with a list of a whole lot more nit-picky rules. Jesus is asking us to embrace the spirit of the law, and to live it with integrity. That too is daunting, but the good news about choosing to live that kind of righteousness is that it comes with grace. It comes with the gift of the Holy Spirit poured out on us to live the Gospel. We have to pray for that grace every day, and we have to strive to live the rather rigorous righteousness that Jesus calls for in today’s Scripture readings.
As the writer of Sirach in our first reading tells us, this kind of righteousness is a choice that we must make. He says,
He has set before you fire and water
to whichever you choose, stretch forth your hand.
Before man are life and death, good and evil,
whichever he chooses shall be given him.
When we make the wrong choice, or fail to make the right choice, we have sinned. But we know that our sins are not who we are and are not who we are called to be. We have the Sacrament of Penance to set us back on the right path and to wash our sins away. If you haven’t made a confession in a while, now is the time. Take advantage of the healing grace our Lord longs to pour out on you. I’m always amazed at how much joy I feel when I have gone to confession. It’s the only cure for our unrighteous thoughts, words and actions.
Jesus gives us an incredible challenge in today’s Liturgy of the Word. But he does not leave us without the grace to live it out. We just have to choose, every day, to live the Gospel. We have to pray, every day, for the grace to do that with integrity. And when we fail, we have to receive the Sacrament of Penance so that the grace to do better will be poured out in our lives. It’s not the easiest way to live our lives, but it is the most blessed. As the Psalmist says today, “Blessed are they who follow the law of the Lord.”