The scribes and Pharisees get such bad press in the gospels that you might imagine they were bad people. Scripture scholars tell us that, although sect-like and legalistic in outlook, they were a dedicated and conscientious group. They gave Jesus, whom they saw as the prince of liberals, a hard time. Every religion has its version of ‘Pharisees and scribes.’ In today’s gospel, Jesus might appear to outdo them in strictness where he says, “Until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or the smallest part of a letter will pass from the law, until all things have taken place.” That religion is about strictness and restraint is a core feeling many religious people have. And they feel that the more rigidly they behave the holier they are.

In Jesus’ book the one supreme law is that we are to love God with all our hearts, minds, souls and strength, and our neighbour as ourselves. “On these two commandment depend all the law and the prophets” – Matt 22: 40. Lesser laws should be seen and judged on the basis of that supreme one: they are there to serve the supreme law. A law is observed rightly and justly when the purpose for which it was made is honoured. The observance of a law is a means to an end, not an end in itself. “Law is an act of reason,” said Thomas Aquinas, “not an act of the will.”

Do not think that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfil. The scribes and Pharisees adhered to the letter of the Law, yet Jesus accused them of “setting aside the commands of God and clinging to human traditions’ – cf. Mark 7:8. A legalistic religion is in some respects appealing. All one has to do is act according to what the book says. Jesus says all we have to do is to love God and be a neighbour to others – cf. Luke 10: 29ff. That may seem more appealing, until we try doing it!

“The Sermon on the Mount lends itself to moralising reading – Jesus is telling us what and what not to do.  Lectio Divina reading invites us to start from our experience. When did I experience Jesus telling me these things? The reading thus becomes a celebration of moments of grace, teaching through experience. As always we can remain with one section of the passage, or try to discover – with the heart, not the head – a thread running through the entire Sermon. The gospel passage describes a conversion experience, ‘going deeper than the virtue of the scribes and Pharisees’. Thus we need to retrace our spiritual journey, from a scribe and Pharisee attitude to one that is deeper – from a single issue approach to one that is holistic and transformative” – Michel de Verteuil.

FR QQ.  02/09/2022


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