Reputation can be all. At the moment the TSB Bank is going through a crisis in its reputation as computer glitches have disrupted business. No longer is the TSB seen as a reliable and person-friendly bank.
Pharisees tend to have a bad reputation amongst Christians. Christians tend to see them as being among the enemies of Jesus. Pharisees are seen as being legalistic, upholding a Law that crushed. They tend to be narrow-minded bigots.
And yet, Jesus is portrayed as saying unless our righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees we will not enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus is saying at least two things. Firstly, the Pharisees are actually righteous. Secondly our righteousness needs to exceed that of the Pharisees. We are being summoned to take them seriously. Not as cartoon characters but of serious intent.
Who were the Pharisees?
So who were they? In Jesus’ time they were a religious group that aimed at the restoration of Israel. That restoration was to come about by a truly faithful adherence to the Jewish Law. People had drifted away from the Law and that meant that military defeat and occupation by the Romans had happened. To restore Israel meant that the Law must be observed in its fullness. This was not just about worship, but about the Law as lived during the day. This was the righteousness that Jesus picks upon and urges his followers to measure themselves against. This means that when Pharisees tithe dill and cumin, herbs and spices, Jesus is seeing this as part of their righteousness for they are following the Law.
They were a religious group summoning Israel back to the Law. Slightly after the death and resurrection of Jesus there was another war against the Romans and Jerusalem and the Temple were destroyed. They became crucial for the survival of Judaism. They became the Rabbis that served not in the Temple but in the synagogues and enabled Judaism to adapt to the end of Temple worship and undertaking synagogue worship alone.
The Christian scriptures often portray Pharisees as being bigoted and narrow-minded. I think that this picture might reflect the dark side of Pharisaism. An absorption with the Law could lead to a narrow-mindedness. Narrow-mindedness could lead to bigotry. However, Matthew’s gospel, the Jewish gospel, portrays Jesus as saying unless our righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees we will not enter the Kingdom of Heaven.
This reference is one of a number of references that suggest that Jesus could be on the edge of the Pharisees. That the Jesus Movement, the proto-Church, is a ginger group located with the Pharisees. This would also explain the very real tension between the two. These groups occupy similar territory but have serious differences.
We can see these differences played out in the rest of our reading from Matthew’s gospel. Jesus talks about the righteousness of the Pharisees. And then blows apart the definition of the Law by redefining what Law can mean. He gives the ancient commandment against murder. And then says that anyone who has anger against his brother or sister must be brought to judgement. Law is being radically extended to involve feelings, emotions, attitudes, intentions. Jesus’ Law is actually stricter than the Law of the Pharisees because Jesus is seeking to control of attitudes.
If we take Jesus seriously, our righteousness will exceed that of the Pharisees. The real problem is that we may not be taking Jesus seriously.