Monday, January 30, 2017


Duccio - The Prophet Isaiah
For several weeks, the Sunday readings have been forging a connection between the Old Testament and the New. In the Gospel for this week, Jesus himself makes the connection. “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill”. But then he adds a seemingly impossible demand –“unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven”.

How are we to understand this? The passage from Isaiah suggests one solution.  It ridicules ‘bowing down the head like a bulrush’ and ‘lying in sackcloth and ashes’, and instead praises ‘sharing your bread with the hungry’, and ‘bringing the homeless poor into your house’. ‘Is not this the fast that I choose’ God declares ‘to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?’
This ethical version of ‘righteousness’ sounds far more attractive to the modern mind than either the ritual observances of the Jews, or the austere devotional practices of, say, the Desert Fathers or the Celtic hermits. And yet, we know in our hearts that most of us are no more likely to make the kind of sacrifices that this high ethical ideal requires, than we are to build shrines among desert rocks, or stand praying in icy water. The greatest possible effort will not enable us to exceed this alternative standard of righteousness any more than it will the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees. The Gospel passage, in short, still reads unhappily close to a council of despair.

Yet this very fact can serve to point us in a different direction. In his letter to the Corinthians, St Paul openly acknowledges his ‘weakness and fear’. This acknowledgement is an essential first step to putting his faith in Jesus Christ, and so believing that Christ’s perfection can overcome his own imperfection. It is sometimes suggested that emphasizing our imperfection is just using Jesus to get us off the moral hook. The Gospel passage, however, still assigns us a vital role in the economy of salvation – not to be perfect, but to be ‘the salt of the earth’ and ‘the light of the world’. The reality is that our lives as Christians will never be models of rectitude. But they can still ‘give light to all in the house’ by reflecting what St Paul calls ‘the mind of Christ’. Accepting the truth about our frailty makes us honest, and in so doing enables us to give the glory where it truly belongs -- to our Father in heaven.

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