Perhaps the most misunderstood text in all of scripture is the one where Jesus says to us: “Unless your virtue goes deeper than that of the scribes and the pharisees, you will never enter into the kingdom of heaven.”
We generally misunderstand that because we wrongly think that Jesus is referring to the vices of the scribes and pharisees, not their virtue. We look at the hypocrisy, jealousy, double-standard, and rigid legalism of the scribes and pharisees and easily distance ourselves from that. But it wasn’t their vices that Jesus was referring to, but their virtues.
What was the virtue of the scribes and pharisees? In fact, they had a pretty high standard. The ten commandments, strict justice in all things, compassion for the poor, and the practice of hospitality, constituted their ideal for virtuous living. What’s wrong with that? What’s required beyond these?
In Jesus’s view, what’s wrong is that, in the end, it’s still too easy. Any good person does these things, simply on the basis of decency. What’s wrong is that ultimately we still give back in kind, an eye for an eye – dollar for dollar, goodness for goodness, kindness for kindness, slight for slight, hatred for hatred, murder for murder. Nothing is ever really transformed, moved beyond, redeemed, transcended, forgiven.
Simply put, if I’m living the virtue of the scribes and pharisees, I react this way: If you come to me and say, “I like you! You’re a wonderful person,” my response naturally will be in kind: “I like you too! Obviously you’re a wonderful person!” What I’m doing is simply feeding your own good energy back to you. But that has a nasty underside: If you come to me and say, “I hate you! You’re a charlatan and a hypocrite,” my response will also be in kind: “I hate you too! Clearly you’re a very petty person!” This is ultimately what “an eye for an eye” morality, strict justice, comes down to. We end up feeding back the other’s energy, good or bad, and replicating the other’s virtue, good or bad. That’s the natural way, but it’s not the Christian way.
It’s precisely here where Jesus’ invites us “beyond”, beyond natural reaction, beyond instinct, beyond giving back in kind, beyond legal rights, beyond strict justice, beyond the need to be right, beyond even the ten commandments, beyond the virtue of the scribes and pharisees.
Indeed the litmus-test for Christian orthodoxy is not the creed (Can you believe this set of truths?) but this particular challenge from Jesus: Can you love an enemy? Can you not give back in kind? Can you move beyond your natural reactions and transform the energy that enters you from others, so as to not give back bitterness for bitterness, harsh words for harsh words, curse for curse, hatred for hatred, murder for murder? Can you rise above your sense of being wronged? Can you renounce your need to be right? Can you move beyond the itch to always have what’s due you? Can you forgive, even when every feeling inside of you rebels at its unfairness? Can you take in bitterness, curses, hatred, and murder itself, and give back graciousness, blessing, love, understanding, and forgiveness? That’s the root invitation inside of Christianity and it’s only when we do this that we move beyond “an eye for an eye”.
Admittedly, this isn’t easy, either in theory or in practice. Much inside of conventional wisdom, pop psychology, and contemporary spirituality, will object to the very theory of it, pointing out that carrying tension isn’t healthy for us, telling us that we have a duty not to enable abusive behaviour, and challenging us not to be doormats and victims, but mature persons who claim the legitimate space that’s needed in order to be free, giving persons, responsible to God, others, and self apposite to developing our innate potentials and bringing our gifts to the world. All of these objections are right, of course, though none of them negate Jesus’ challenge. His invitation, cleansed from overly-simplistic interpretation, remains: Don’t be a victim or a doormat or an enabler of abusive behaviour, but do consider, willingly and without resentment, laying down your life for others by living this more sublime challenge.
And it’s exactly on this point, to do this willingly and without resentment, that its practice grows difficult. It’s not easy to do this and not grow resentful and manipulative. More commonly, we carry others’ crosses – but end up being bitter about it and sending them the bill. The scribes and pharisees had this down to an fine art. That too was part of their virtue. Growing resentful or manipulative while serving others is a perennial danger, though, as Goethe says: “The dangers of life are many and safety is one of them.”
And so the invitation of Jesus to what’s higher, more sublime, more noble, remains; as does the gentle, understanding, faithful, non- threatening, non-coercive, non guilt-inducing, but persistent and uncompromising, presence of God.