To call someone a hypocrite or to tell someone that they are a Pharisee is pretty much the same thing. They both symbolize what is sinister and false. The Pharisees, you will recall, were the most vicious of all those who hated and opposed Jesus. Yet at the same time the Pharisees followed the law and did what they were supposed to do. They paid their debts, observed their religious rituals, and were leaders in their communities. Some were very rightfully respected men. Yet, in Matthew’s Gospel (5:17-37) we hear Jesus telling us: “Unless your holiness surpasses that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you shall not enter the kingdom of God.” Evidently being a strict follower of the rules isn’t good enough. Jesus expects us to be better than just followers of rules.
So what’s going on here? In answering that question we need to see that in Jesus’ mind righteousness is not a question of merely observing the Commandments; it is not a question of what I must do to observe the law. It is a question of how much more I can do, how much more I want to do. In following Jesus the requirements of the law are way behind. It is what’s in our hearts and souls that matters.
The goodness of the Pharisees was superficial; they only kept up appearances. Oh, to be sure, they didn’t commit murder. But their hearts were filled with hatred. So just because we appear to be good on the outside doesn’t necessarily mean that we are good on the inside. We may never commit adultery, but our hearts can be filled with lust. We may never be convicted of theft, but we can rob another person of their value in the eyes of others. We may never murder, but we can blow others away. We may not steal, but we can cheat and thereby take from others what is rightfully theirs.
You don’t have to use a gun or a knife to destroy another person, and you don’t have to beat up on another person with your clenched fists. You can batter them with abusive language, demean and humiliate them. You can talk them down in front of others. You can stab them in the back with your whispered words and murder their reputations. In other instances your words and attitudes can destroy relationships and friendships.
You may never commit adultery, but you can regard another man or woman simply as a sex object. You can use other people simply to satisfy your pleasure. Lust turns the bodies of others into idols. When you lust you fornicate or commit adultery in your heart. You can use other people simply as objects for your own personal gain. It what is in your heart that matters.
You may never physically hurt or harm another person, but you can ignore them and give them little or no attention. You can not take them seriously. You can give them the silent treatment; you can freeze them out of your icy heart and give them a cold stone instead of a warm heart.
You may think that you are better than so-and-so, even better than most people around you. You can pridefully set yourself above all others, all the while forgetting that the word Pharisee in Hebrew means precisely that: “One who is separate and apart from others – one who is chosen – one who is special.”
The truth is that all people, each one of us here, are a strange mixture of good and bad. If we were all totally honest we would have to see that there is some bad in the best of us… and there is some good in the worst of us. We are always a strange mixture of good and bad. Our motives are mixed, too. We hardly ever decide to do anything for one simple reason. Usually we decide to do things for an array of motives that are both good and bad, selfish and unselfish.
Jesus wants us to have a clean record on the outside and a clean heart on the inside. For Jesus, to be good means that we must not only not kill people but we must also in our hearts not want to do away with them. To be good we not only should avoid lusting after others and not commit adultery, we should likewise not use other people simply for our own pleasure and personal gain. It is genuine love that matters, not just words or appearances.
And for Jesus, to have the sort of goodness He wants us to have, we must go way beyond simply not telling a lie – we must disclose the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. There is a big difference between not lying and telling the whole truth. If you are not aware of that difference you haven’t been listening to the news over the past year.
Laws are good things; laws preserve and protect values, values we want to have not only for ourselves but for our society. But laws are only superficial and external. No law ever made us good. Laws only direct us away from evil, they don’t direct us toward being good. Just because a man takes an oath in a court doesn’t mean he won’t go out into the street and lie through his teeth because out there he’s not under oath. If someone signs a written legal contract to do or not do a certain thing doesn’t mean that he or she will do what is wanted. It only means he or she will not do what’s not wanted. What’s wanted is the ability we should all have to rely on someone doing what they say they’ll do whether they’re under contract or not. It’s one’s word that matters, one’s word given from one’s heart, not simply the words that so easily fall from one’s lips.
Jesus looked at all of this external and superficial posturing and cried out: “Look, why don’t we just forget all of this game-playing nonsense and simply tell each other the simple truth. If you say “yes,” let it mean simply and totally yes. And if you say “no,” let it mean simply and completely “no.” If you give your word, simply and completely keep it. Anything else is headed to hell; anything else belongs to the Prince of Darkness and the Father of Lies. All else are the Devil’s words.”
To observe means to follow the letter of the Law; to live it means to go beyond the letter, to go beyond the mind and allow it to sink in the heart. For this reason the Lord did not allow himself to be limited by traditions, customs, or even by the times. He went right to the heart of the matter and cut right through our stony hearts.
True Christians do not ask whether something is legal or illegal and then stop there. They love God, they love Jesus, and they love their brothers and sisters. Their only concern is how they can serve and love them more and more. They want to work with Jesus and with his brothers and sisters to build the Kingdom of God. No matter how much they do, they know they can still love more and do more and be more. Just doing the minimum is not enough. Obedience to the minimum requirements of laws is not enough. What Jesus taught and what He showed us is that love knows no boundaries.