Today’s Gospel readings present us with two sorts of temptation, both of which are covered it it: one is to behave like the Pharisees whilst codemning them – thanking God we are not like those people who observe the letter of the Law but not its Spirit; and the other is to miss the message that the Law still matter; either way, we fall into a trap of our own devising – one Jesus outlines well if we read with care.
In thinking ourselves better than the Pharisees, we become them, and in thinking that the Law does not matter, we forget that Jesus said that ‘unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.’ The Law provides a framework from God, but it is not a cross on which we are called to crucify ourselves or our fellows; it is a boundary fence, if you will, it provides for what we need if we are to coexist in communities. Jesus came to fulful the Law, and the early Church decided that this meant that many of the ritual practices set out in the Torah did not apply to new Christians; but the moral law was in no wise abrogated. If we love God, which Jesus said is the greatest commandment, then our hearts incline to obey his law; and that being so, we will observe the second of the greatest commandments, to love our neighbour as ourselves. It is on these. as Jesus reminds us, that the who of the Law and the teaching of the Prophets hang.
In criticising the Pharisees, Jesus is noting that what is on their lips is not in their hearts. They observe the Law, but they do not practice it in love. To them it has become an end in itself, as set of codes to govern every aspect of life – and something to buttress their own power. They condemn the disciples for not obeying the ritual laws, but they are not observing what Jesus and the disciples are doing. What is Jesus doing? He is healing the sick, he is comforting the widow and the orphan, he is preaching that the jingdom is at hand? Are there more important things than this? The Pharisees, by implication, think that they are; Jesus should be observing the letter of the Law. That is why Jesus calls them hypocrites – the Greek root of the word used means ‘actors’. Jesus sees into their hearts, as he does into all our hearts, and sees they are playing a part. They know all their lines, they are word-perfect – but they do not know what the words they are saying mean – if they did, they would not be askign Jesus what they are asking him, or levelling at him the criticisms they are aiming.
But we should not, and Jesus warns us of this, simply condemn them and then suppose their have no merit and the Law is a dead letter. Jesus did not come to abolish it, but to fulfil it. We are not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. The Ten Commandments still apply, but we are reminded that the Law is love – of God and of neighbour. We are to obey God’s laws, but we are not to make a fetish of them, we are not to worship them as objects, but rather to open our hearts so that they may be inscribed there, and that through love of God and of neighbour, we may hasten the coming of the kingdom. We are still running that great race, we cannot ignore the rules of the race, but neither should we ignore the reason we are running in the first place; it is the prize, not the race itself, which matters most.