Why Does Jesus Tell Us to Surpass the Pharisees?

Talk show hosts make a living on it. Show after show, they bring before our eyes stupid, unjust and wasteful situations in order to produce outrage. We love to listen and get ourselves all worked up. Our indignation keeps us tuned in and the show’s ratings high.

It’s easy to focus on the outrageous things that others do.  It’s easy to clamor that this intolerable situation must come to an end now.  For to say this requires little or nothing from us–our demand is that others do something about it, that others mobilize and take action, that others be set straight.

This is “holiness of the Pharisees” mentioned by Jesus in Mat. 5:20 that he says we must surpass.  They were so preoccupied with removing the splinter from the eye of others that they missed the log in their own.  When it comes to confronting our own sinfulness and foolishness, we, like the Pharisees, tend to lose the sense of outrage.  We procrastinate, rationalize, and change the subject.

That’s the very point of one of hardest sayings of Jesus. “If your hand is your difficulty, cut it off! Better for you to enter life maimed than to keep both hands and enter Gehenna” (Mat. 5:30). The Lord is not encouraging self-mutilation here. He is rather calling for aggressive action, even action that hurts.

Of course, our hands, feet, and eyes are just bodily organs.  Of themselves, they can’t cause us to sin.  But some places that our feet take us, some things we do with our hands, some things seen by our eyes can damage our relationship with God.  Going to a particular club may not be in itself sinful.  But what if every time I go there I happen to get myself in trouble?  Every person is a child of God.  But hanging around with certain children of God may present me with a near occasion of sin.

We tend to try to manage it. “I’ll keep my cable subscription, but just not watch that channel.” “I’ll keep surfing the web, but just won’t visit that site.” “I’ll go the club, but stop after two drinks.”

If it works, great. But when it doesn’t, many of us go on fooling ourselves that it will—the next time. We keep trying half-measures, avoiding the necessary treatment because it will sting too much, cost too much.

Jesus says to wake up, get real, and take aggressive action. If the internet is your problem, shut it down. If TV is your problem, turn it off. Better you go through life unplugged and offline than spend eternity in Satan’s internet cafe.

However, to avoid taking aggressive action against our own personal compromises with the devil, we frequently change the subject and point out the sins of the liberals, the right-wingers, the Muslims, the politicians.  This was the habit of the Pharisees.

Persistently, the Lord brings us back to the real issue, the issue we want to avoid.  He bids us to forget about others’ issues and attend to our own . . . our own divided hearts, our own hidden hypocrisy, our own little compromises.

Fortitude, one of the four Cardinal Virtues, is not just about enduring evil and hardship for the sake of doing good. It is also about taking aggressive action against evil.  If we see sin in our lives, we mustn’t tolerate it, make excuses for it, and procrastinate.  We must pounce on it and rip it out.

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Dr. Marcellino D’Ambrosio writes from Texas. For info on his resources and pilgrimages to Rome and the Holy Land, visit www.crossroadsinitiative.com or call 800.803.0118.

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