“For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisee, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt. 5:20)
For us, as self-righteous white conservative evangelicals in America, we can all too often quickly declare, “Done. And done. I’m not a Pharisee!”
Yet, that wasn’t the connotation in Jesus’s day. Being a Pharisee or a scribe was the ideal. It was what you aspired to… kind of like leading an influential megachurch or at least being on staff at one.
We all have our tendencies toward legalism and fundamentalism. It’s not a “right wing” or “left wing” issue. It’s not a “conservative” or “progressive” issue. It’s a human issue. We can easily fall into legalism and fundamentalism because we are convinced of our “rightness” and “history is on our side.” Therefore, we can easily identify who is “in” and who is “out.”
While we may try to avoid the tag of “fundamentalist,” I have come to conclusion there are aspects of legalism and fundamentalism that bring comfort to us and we can easily slip into those modes. I have to be constantly vigilant of the possible Pharisee in me.
The rest of Matthew chapter 5 is a list of examples (and it is not a comprehensive list) where it is so easy to fall into the mode of “I’m not that bad.” We can find our low level water mark and settle in.
It may be dealing with anger. We let rage overtake us. We are tired of dealing with people who don’t see the world our way and we consign them to hell or at least banish them from our presence. Contempt is an easy low level water mark in our culture.
It may be dealing with easy fixes. Divorce is so easy. Goodness, lack of commitment is so easy. We too often look for the easy out instead of the deep covenantal relationship that will carry through deep and difficult waters.
It may be dealing with the desire for revenge. “Don’t tell me about loving my enemy! You don’t know what that monster did to me!” We shy away from generosity of soul.
We settle far too easily in our lives. It is difficult for me (at least) to keep monitoring the possibilities of turning to Pharisaism again… and again. But if I want abundance of soul in my life, I turn away from the Pharisee and set my sights on the King and his Kingdom.
It is necessary to take the Law and move it from stone tablets and get it onto my heart. It is necessary to know the basics of the Kingdom and allow the Spirit to mold those basics into everyday action. It is the worthwhile hard work.
The easy work is to slip into our normal human attitudes and settle far too easily in our lives.