Frances writes on this Sunday’s readings :- The Pharisees wanted everyone in Israel to live according to the codes prescribed for the temple priesthood, that is, with higher standards than those espoused by most and it is generally assumed that Jesus did not follow their teaching. We think of him, quite rightly as the friend of the poor and outcast and his ministry was certainly lived out amongst ‘sinners’; that class of people whose physical defects, jobs and so on made it impossible for them to fulfil the law of Moses, people like shepherds, undertakers and tax collectors. But we do well to remind ourselves that Jesus was not some liberal wet, but one rather who was the true image of the Father and his perfect copy and who required everyone to aim at the very highest.
Our exposition of the Sermon on the Mount (here 5:17-37), is precisely this, Jesus’ taking on and developing of the Law and all that it implied. The Sadducees, the Jewish elite did not believe there could be any development or explanation of the Law; it was a fixed thing which one either fulfilled or broke. Scribes and Pharisees were by contrast given to endless discussion and commentary on the Law and we should think of the Sermon on the Mount as part of this process. In doing this Jesus insisted on the ardent fulfilment of the Law whilst at the same time calling his opponents to book by insisting that they all broke precisely the law on which they set such score. I tell you, if your virtue goes no deeper than that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never get into the kingdom of heaven. The whole point was they believed they would!
The law, as Paul pointed out to the Romans was there merely to expose our sin, not to be a means of redemption and if we live simply by ticking boxes we are getting nowhere. Jesus then went on to point out all the myriad of ways we all regularly break the Commandments: by making crushing ‘killing’ remarks to our family members; by being judgmental to others; by sexist and lustful attitudes often deeply implanted within our hearts, by attitudes towards our own and others bodies which harm our relationship with God and our fellow men and women be it alcohol or drugs or the many kinds of exploitation our society not only permits but positively exploits. Jesus was of course intensely aware of just how abusive his own world could be and the ways in which the Law protected and encouraged such abuse. One way was the easy divorce laws of both Jews and Gentiles and he would have been conversant with the pain, rejection and destitution this caused many women and children. The fact that these abuses were (and are legally sanctioned was no excuse), those who are destined for divinity need to be reminded that we live and flourish by God’s grace and not by any presumed efforts we may or may not make. It is no accident that the Lord’s Prayer is injected as an antidote into all this seeming moral puritanism.
It was this kind of thinking that Paul was attacking too in 1 Corinthians 2:6-10 when he spoke of a different kind of wisdom, one completely averse to that of the age and circumstances of Corinth in the 50-60’s AD. Against the self-vaunting ‘knowledge’ and ‘wisdom’ of the philosophers and educated men of the city he spoke of the wisdom of God revealed through the Spirit to the faithful through the scriptures – the story and example of Jesus, God incarnate who had lived a human life and is the only exemplar of what true humanity is about.
By way of contrast the Church requires us to read a portion of Ecclesiasticus or Ben Sirach (15:15-20). This piece of very late Jewish literature comes from the 2nd century BC and is the work of a man concerned to get people thinking about their faith and personal behaviour and whose belief was that the firmly shaped believer would and could live well by dint of his good personal choices. What Ben Sirach seems to be groping towards is that openness to the faith, that formation of character which enables people to make good judgments under the unrelenting gaze of God. Ben Sirach had of course no concept of what Christians call ‘grace’, nor had he experienced, unlike Paul, the redeeming power of Christ, but we can see within his taut thinking a will for humanity to live wholly at one with its creator and when we read our different readings this week we do so in the knowledge of precisely how much we owe to God who has loved us into his life in Christ, he can be our only exemplar, our only hope of glory and the sole means of salvation we have and when we have learned to live as he has then we shall truly be wise, knowing God.