“For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.” [Matthew 5:20]
I am not a strict bible reader in that I do not stick to the rule of spending the first hour of my day immersed in the scripture. Sometimes I read my bible at night or on my morning break at work or even miss a day here and there. Why? Because I live a normal life. Things happen. I forget. I grow tired and fall asleep in my recliner after dinner. I prefer that hour of sleep in the morning over the struggle to keep my eyes open all day long. So, I am not the kind of person who is so stuck on the bible that I demand from others what I don’t demand from myself. However, I do believe that reading and studying the bible as often as possible, if not every day, is important for Christians to do.
Top that off with this: The bible is not like a novel—one never finishes it. You read it start to finish and then you start again, continually, forever. That might sound daunting or terrible or even impossible for some folks. Okay, that’s fine. I believe this is the reason why there are people like me in the world, who seek to become members of the clergy and want to spend their lives teaching others based on what they see in the words of this book.
If God wanted to have 7 billion clergy-bound earthlings instead of the wide variety of gifts in us all, he would make 7 billion clergy. We could all spend our lives doing nothing aside from debating and discussing the nuances of this library and never need to do anything else. But that’s not what God did. Knowing this and knowing that the message from Jesus was to let our righteousness exceed that of the leaders seen in the world, it seems natural that people would place a higher standard and perhaps even a higher stature on this position of the clergy; one of authority and knowledge that presents an image to the community. It existed in Jesus’ time so if what he saw as needing to be outshone was already a high authority, it would make sense that this new position Jesus called us to would be at an even higher and mightier authority.
But we’re humans. No person called to the task of fulfilling a role in the clergy is perfect in any way. Even in the best of circumstances, we are fallible creatures with bills to pay and struggles with family and uncomfortable or unwanted sexual desires and mouths that say the wrong things and hearts that hurt and minds that think negative thoughts. I challenge the idea that any one of us will ever live up to the high standard of perfection demanded in being a person who teaches from the bible, let alone in being a person who follows the bible’s teachings. The standard is imaginary. It is a collective of ideals and not something that any of us can become as human beings. It is impossible, and that, my friends, is part of the ultimate message of Jesus of Nazareth.
This seems completely counter to what he told us in Matthew 5:20; that we Christians ought to seek to be greater than the leaders we see in the Old Testament—greater than the Jewish people and their practices. But it isn’t counter to it at all. Look to Matthew 5:17. Here Jesus said: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” Any Christian who has attended church more than once, and especially the Catholics among us, will know what I mean when I use the phrase “new covenant.” Jesus did not want people to think that all the rules they’d been given by God were voided. He didn’t want people suddenly thinking it was okay to kill each other, steal from each other, etc. All those rules were the same and they were valid. God’s word had not changed.
What Jesus wanted from his followers was for them to follow him AND the rules. All the stuff that the prophets told the people about the coming messiah was being fulfilled in the ways in which Jesus was about to give his life and his blood. He was the sacrificial lamb of God. It’s the reason that Passover was chosen as the time for Jesus’ crucifixion: Because the new covenant was about to be created and the old covenant fulfilled.
BUT WAIT! There’s a lot more to this.
What about all those rules? How are we supposed to follow both Jesus and the same rules that the people found it so hard to follow? Rules like:
*Not carrying a load on the Sabbath. [Jeremiah 17:21] What constitutes a load? Is an infant child or sick person or paralyzed man considered a load? What if a large rock falls on you or a loved one and you need to take it off to save a life?
*Not lighting a fire in your dwelling on the Sabbath. [Exodus 35:3] This is desert territory—it gets cold at night. Sabbath is from sunset to sunset. You can’t light a fire to keep your family warm inside a tent or cave or stone dwelling during this time. Therefore, if the fire you lit before sunset goes out, you will have to light one outside and try to stay warm that way. Can you carry wood to the fire to keep it stoked? How about cutting more wood? And cooking would have to be done outside on that day or you went without eating. And who is to say you can even carry anything around or kill an animal to eat the meat without breaking other rules? In some ways, even walking was considered to be against the rules.
*Not mixing fabrics. [Leviticus 19:19] Weaving was a way of life. If you wore a tunic of wool, undergarments needed to be wool also. And no leather sandals—bare feet it was because you can’t mix leather and wool.
*Not eating certain foods. [Leviticus 11] Imagine you’re a male child, not trained to cook for yourself. You have been given food by a parent and you have no idea what you’re eating. What if it’s pork? Or rabbit? These are forbidden. I guess you’re a sinner and unclean.
This list of crazy and impossible rules just got longer and longer with each generation, and Jesus and his followers knew it. They watched the so-called high priests and other members of the clergy glorify themselves again and again, all the while putting regular people under the weight of their demands. What was happening in the streets and in the temple had become a big show. Wearing fancy robes, jewelry, and gowns, dousing with perfumes, and offering expensive sacrifices were ways that the very rich and powerful kept the lowest people away from the temple. The rich made the rules and their rules had become impossible for the average peasant farmer or soldier or slave to follow. People were being made to perform insane rituals, pay lots of money, put in jail, and even being kept from going to the temple at all if they didn’t comply.
This was a real problem. Oppression within the church was disastrous to the community. It is still happening today, but Jesus told us how to stop that. We simply need to listen to him and do as he’d instructed.
Jesus preached against shouting your own praises when giving to the poor, praying on for long-winded and complicated prayers that must be memorized just right, or making a spectacle of oneself in public by doing these things. [Matthew 6:1-8] He teaches that we need to be less driven by the things we do for God but instead, we should look to the ways in which we can serve those around us, for these are God’s children. [Romans 3:28, James 2:26]
So here is my challenge to you, my friends… Go out into the world and do the things you can to help people. Do so without hesitation and without needing praise from those around you. Give what you can give to charity without needing to announce it on social media. In fact, make your donation anonymous and tell no one. Pray for someone you dislike or someone whose behavior is poor and genuinely ask for them to receive the Lord’s peace and light. Ask God to help you to forgive those who have hurt you. If you attend church or temple, give if you can. If you can tithe the 10% that is asked of you, do so. If not, give as much as possible without spending rent money and don’t envy those who give more, or look down upon those who give less—we can only do what we can do. And along those same lines, if your church looks like a wedding each time you go inside, with people wearing fancy clothes and putting on huge shows of wealth, it’s probably not a good place to meet Jesus. He tends not to hang out among worldly strangers. If you do not attend church, explore the reasons why. If you feel that the church is a big show that makes people feel worse when they leave, you’ve not really met Jesus there. Then remind yourself that it’s okay to hear him when he says: “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” [Matthew 18:20] So, pray at the kitchen table. While you do that, work to find a church you feel holds your heart and if it takes you the rest of your life, keep trying. I still have not found a church despite my efforts. I might have to start one someday. I don’t know. But I will not stop looking if you won’t. I was raised Catholic and do not feel welcome nor called to that denomination of the faith. I don’t condemn anyone who is so if Catholicism is your home church, live there with Jesus in peace and know that I send my prayers to all my Catholic brothers and sisters.
I say these things because I think they matter. I think that like me, some people see these mega-church pastors with mansions and private jets and millions of dollars in their bank accounts but no works to show for it. From this show of wealth and status, they get the idea that this is what Christianity is. It isn’t. God hasn’t changed his word.
Jesus didn’t get rid of the rules we follow. What he did was light the path to getting it done. I know that those living without Jesus truly can find themselves walking in the dark and being totally lost. He is the way. [John 14:6] Somehow in turning to him, we find comfort and guidance in our confusion. As long as it continues to work, I will continue to do it.
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