The Flexibility of Righteousness
For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.
One of the first lessons we are taught as children is that some things are right and other things are wrong. There are rules to follow at home. There are rules to learn in school. There are rules for the games we play. There are rules for just about everything. And if we obey the rules, we can become good little boys and girls. We can do well in school. We can win the game. And so we all learn to be very good at the rules. That’s why we rehearse the rules in our minds, write them down in our hearts, and follow them in our day-to-day lives. Isn’t that what being a good person is all about?
Not according to our Savior. Yes, we are to keep the commandments of God and let them illumine us as we saw last week. Nevertheless, simply writing down the rules (being a scribe) or acting according to them (being a Pharisee) is not enough. The goodness of heaven requires something more than the rules of earth. Like the sky above, the righteousness of God has an expansiveness that opens its arms even to the unwelcome and a freedom that allows even the wingless to soar.
According to Saint Cyril of Alexandria in his commentary on Saint John, the rules prepare us for a new way of being in Christ, but if we get stuck in the rules we remain as children playing in the shadows. This is especially true concerning the rules about love. In the law, there are beautiful and holy commandments about this the highest of virtues. In particular, Deuteronomy 6:5 declares, “And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might,” while Leviticus 19:18 states in the context of grudges, “thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” And yet the righteousness of Christ requires something more that He Himself reveals when He taught His disciples, “A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another” (John 13:34).
What is new about Christ’s love? Its inclusivity, its magnanimity, and its flexibility that defies all rules, even the most holy ones, knows no boundaries, even those set in stone, and values each soul, even the greatest outcast, more than the entire world. Some psychologists define psychological flexibility as “contacting the present moment as a conscious human being, fully and without defense, as it is and not as what it says it is, and persisting or changing in behavior in the service of chosen values” (Hayes, Pistorello, & Levin, 2012). Doesn’t such flexibility characterize the way Christ encountered those in the Gospel, being fully present to the soul before Him and giving Himself fully to that soul, not being constrained by what that soul might have done, not being restricted by what others may think, not being limited by the rules of time and place?
The rules say the leper is untouchable, yet Christ touches him (Mark 1:41). The rules say, “the Jews have no dealings with the Samaritans” (John 4:9), but the Savior gives a sinful Samaritan woman the living water of the Holy Spirit. The rules say the “the adulteress shall be put to death” (Leviticus 20:10) yet the only Friend of the human soul responds, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her” (John 8:7). What were the values that guided such freedom and flexibility? The will of the Father and the salvation of the world. Through them, He walked where rules would not permit, He opened doors that rules had tightly closed, and He transformed lives that the rules had relegated to stagnation and death. This is the kind of flexible single-mindedness (to join two words that are usually held apart) that should characterize Christian righteousness, the righteousness of the kingdom of heaven.
Flexible single-mindedness is what the Blessed Augustine was referring to when he said, “Once and for all, a brief precept is given to you: Love, and do what you wish: if you hold your peace, out of love hold your peace; if you cry out, out of love cry out; if you correct, out of love correct; if you spare, out of love spare. Let the inner root be love, for from this root nothing else can shoot forth except for that which is good” (On the First Epistle of John 7,8 PL 35.2033). This is the righteousness that knows how to bend down, that knows how to reach out, and that knows how to look up. It can’t be learned by repeating the rules, but only by learning to see beneath the surface, by learning to listen to the voice of the one who is speaking, and by learning to love even when that which is loveable can scarce be found. Through the grace of God Who is everywhere present and the love of Christ that fills all things, may we all dare to flexible enough to make such righteousness our own.
Hayes, Pistorello, & Levin (2012). Acceptance and Commitment Therapy as a Unified Model of Behavior Change. The Counseling Psychologist 40 (7), 976-1002.