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Sixth Week of Ordinary Time

Mt. 5:17-37

Allow me to introduce you to an acquaintance of mine. This person happens to be a man. He is not wealthy but he pays his way. He lives in a comfortable house and drives a nice car. He goes to church, supporting it with his money and his prayers.

He is a good family man - still married to his first wife and takes good care of his children. He loves his country, and would die to defend it. His personal conduct is above reproach. He never gets drunk nor cheats on his wife, and is never in trouble with the law. In short, this man is a model citizen, respected by his peers and envied by those of lesser rank.

This acquaintance of mine, of course, has his faults. Although he loves his country, he does not much care what happens in other countries, so long as it does not affect him. His family loyalty is also limited. He is glad for his prosperity, but is not especially grateful to God for what he has. He believes he deserves what he possesses because he earned it. Since he prides himself on the moral life he leads it is not surprising that he is not merciful to those who do wrong.

Do you know this man? His like has belonged to every generation for at least 2,000 years. Jesus certainly knew him. In fact, the two of them were often in conflict.

In the New Testament, this man was known as a Pharisee. We have come to think of him as a bad person. He is not a thief, nor a liar, an adulterer, a murderer, nor any of the other things that we associate with bad characters. This Pharisee was, in a manner of speaking, a good person - and except for that title we would not judge him harshly.

He is not, in fact, unlike our friends and neighbours. Indeed, we can even see, in him, a strong similarity to ourselves. Few things we would hate more than to be called Pharisees. But we might not be that different. They were Jews and we are Christians but all religions have produced Pharisees - and ours is certainly no exception.

In today's Gospel, Jesus said to His first disciples, "Unless your holiness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you shall not enter the kingdom of God." Why did He say that to them? Could it be that He had seen in His friends some of the same attitudes that were evident in His enemies? Jesus knew that His disciples would not become bad people of the criminal sort, but He was fearful that they would settle for a kind of goodness like that of the Pharisees.

These words of warning surely have meaning for you and me. It does not seem probable that we will run foul of the law and end up in prison. It is much more likely that we will become good and decent people, but when we measure ourselves by the standards of Jesus, we will find that we are not good enough. All goodness is not alike. Why did Jesus object to the holiness of the scribes and Pharisees? What was wrong with it, and why is it not good enough for the kingdom of God?

One factor to be considered is motive. People are inclined to lead good and decent lives for a variety of reasons. Some children may obey their parents because they know if they don’t they will be punished. In countries ruled by strict Islamic law, a thief who gets caught will have his hand chopped off. No doubt, some refrain from stealing because they fear that punishment. In our own society, we obey certain laws for the same reason. That is why many of us pay our taxes. Such motivation, however necessary it may be, is somewhere near the bottom of the scale of goodness and it certainly cannot produce the kind of character that Jesus wanted for His disciples.

Another motive for a good life is the desire for public approval. This was apparently a primary consideration with the Pharisees. Jesus pointed out that when they prayed, gave alms, and fasted, they did it in order to be seen by others. They wanted their fellow citizens to think good of them. It was for that reason, they practised good deeds. Are we like that? All of us want the acceptance and approval of other people. But the desire for public approval alone can never produce the kind of character that Jesus wanted for His disciples. The motivation that guided His life was a desire for God's approval alone.

Another factor to be considered in a good life is method. The Pharisees’ holiness was external. They did not commit murder, and that was good, but they allowed themselves to hate certain people. They did not commit adultery, and that was good, but they allowed themselves to think of women as mere objects of pleasure. The goodness that is merely external will not pass the approval of Jesus.

You and I do not have a right to stand at a safe distance of 20 centuries, and throw stones at the Pharisees. We too can be like them. Our decent behaviour is too often motivated by human approval and not that of God.

Lord Jesus, the Pharisees were regarded as good people, but they were not good enough for You for they paraded the good they did to be seen by men. We must learn from their mistakes and seek only the approval of God.

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