The words you just heard are from the Sermon on the Mount. A sermon Jesus gives to His disciples, which others get to listen to. A sermon that begins with Jesus describing the blessed life. His life. The life, not of pride or self-serving, not of doing what you think is best, not of feeding your disordered passions so that anger gets the best of you, affection turns to lust, and my truth denigrates Truth Himself. Rather, the blessed life, the Lord’s life—the life His life describes, and shows, and gives us for authentic living. That blessed life is to deprive yourself in order to live in obedience to God, no matter how much it hurts. That blessed life is to give up who you think you should be in order to become the human God designed you to be. That blessed life is to sacrifice whatever you hold most dear within your being, in order to attain heaven.
Our Lord says that we are truly capable of this blessed life. That we are the only creatures specially designed to embrace, and be fully filled with this blessed life. If only we can begin to be what we truly are: children loved to life by God our Father, men and women knitted to Christ’s glorified body, people animated and renewed with a right life-giving Spirit.
This blessed life is not an impossible dream. When we hold to the gift He is, and the grace He gives, then that blessed life is ours. When we let go of all the things we think we must hold with both hands, then Our Lord fills us with hope to live through our fears, with intimacy that dissolves our loneliness, with mercy that overwhelms whatever threatens us, and with a love that completes us in ways we never could imagine.
The worst enemy of the blessed life is not anarchy or atheism. The worst enemies are the Scribes and Pharisees. Not those guys from back then. But the scribe and the pharisee that lurks in the dark corners of our heart and mind. The scribe in our mind that looks for the loopholes, and seeks a work-around so that we can still get what we want while looking Christian. And the Pharisee in our heart that is more concerned with judging others than with looking critically at ourselves; more concerned that they do what they should and not mistreat me, rather than working on the amendment of life that strips away our fake niceness and false layers.
The Scribe and Pharisee in us works hard to bend and constrict, massage and manipulate the Lord’s commands. Then we’re not intent on rejoicing and living the spirit of the Lord’s Word, but rather aimed at sticking others with the letter of the law. And then we’re more intent on displaying our self-chosen identity while not caring who we damage or grind down or dismiss or oppress.
To our inner Pharisee, nothing matters except that I am heard. To our inner Scribe, a little part of us dies every time we say about someone, “I really don’t care.” The hurting, the confused, and the weak—no matter how loudly we dispute this, they are not our deep-down concern. We are too often concerned mostly with letting everyone know how right we are.
To call us to our senses, and to help us see how much we are hurting ourselves, Our Lord says that the blessed life depends on a righteousness which exceeds the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees.
What does that mean?
Consider this law: thou shalt not kill. For the scribe in you, that’s all about intent, and degree, and motive. And then you work the loop-holes in order to prove to yourself that you’ve kept the law. And for the Pharisee in you, killing is fine if you’re avenging, or defending someone’s rights, or making a better outcome. And then you work the logic to see if the ends justify the means.
But Our Lord reveals the lie within this thinking. He shows that anger kills more than a knife. Words wound more deeply than a gun. Name-calling and unfounded assumptions and hateful posts and tweets are more damaging than any other weapon.
Others are harmed when I’m angry. But the greatest destruction is to my soul. My words typed in rage, while the bile rises, are hurtful to others. But I ruin my soul more than theirs.
And that’s why Christ Jesus points to anger, rather than something else. For anger kills a part of you, and so leads you away from the blessed life—the life He wants for you, the life He plants in you, the life He sacrificed all to give you.
And what anger does, so does lust. And so does shaping my own narrative, making my own truth. Like anger, lust and truth-manipulating wound and threaten me more deeply than someone else. Because anger, lust, and truth-shaping are all about me living for me; about me not facing the fears which are running me; and about me caring about everything but my soul. So when I’m filled with anger, lust and the denial of Truth Himself, I hunger and thirst, not for righteousness, but for revenge, or gratification, or looking good.
Not restraining the temper, giving into unsacramental sexual desires, manipulating truth’s reality—all of these lead us into temptation, and deliver us into evil. For every time we feed them, we are going our own way, and not living within the Way that Christ says He is.
Christ Himself is the life we truly desire. And Christ Himself exceeds the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees—not for His sake, but for ours. And He does this by His humility, by His willing sacrifice, by His refusal to be run by His passions.
In a mercy and kindness that surpasses and outstrips any generosity we know, Christ pours into us His humility, His sacrifice, His self-restraint; together with His intimate and affectionate love which truly can chase away all isolation and loneliness when we let Him fill us.
And that’s the key: to let the righteousness that Christ is fill us fully. Or, to say it another way: to get out of our own way, and to truly lay down our fear, and then let Him, in His grace, carry us to the heights of heaven.
St Paul says it this way: our Lord Jesus is ‘The grace of God that brings salvation.’ And that grace, which He pours over us and feeds into us—that is what truly exceeds the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees, even as it also helps us achieve holy living.