The Pharisees set high standards. Because of what we know about their relationship with Jesus, we are inclined to be fairly dismissive of their piety. We see them as mere legalists. It is entirely true that they had become over-concerned with minute details. As Jesus himself once said – it’s recorded in Matthew 23:23 – You hypocrites! You give to God a tenth even of the seasoning herbs, such as mint, dill, and cumin, but you neglect to obey the really important teachings of the Law, such as justice, mercy and honesty. Indeed, he went further in verse 24 – Blind guides! You strain a fly out of your drink, but swallow a camel. In saying that, Jesus was over-stating the case. I don’t imagine there was ever a Pharisee who drank a liquidised camel. But the point remains. They thought that getting all the details right would ensure living in the way that God wanted. Jesus recognised that it is not so simple. He wants us to have the bigger picture as our guide.
Still today there are many, and many within the church, who would prefer things to be the way that the Pharisees set them out. Many of these people don’t realise that to be what they are seeking; but they, explicitly, or sometimes more subtly, ask for a line to be drawn and it to be made clear where everything fits, on the forbidden side or on the permitted side. Jesus recognises that life is far too complex for us to be able to list every possible and decision to be made and make it clear on which side of the line it sits. Indeed, there are, I am sure, particular actions that can be right in one situation, but wrong in another. Jesus is pursuing what we might describe as an enlargement agenda. As one commentator puts it, referring as an example to the comments on murder and anger – “The verses on anger offer us an interpretation that enlarges the frame for understanding the prohibition against murder …. Clearly Jesus is not rescinding the prohibition against murder, but he does place murder on a continuum of outcomes related to anger.”
If we approach this using a different concept, we can think about radicalisation. Because of some of the things that have opened the past few years and the use of that term, not inappropriately, as a description of those, we have tended to see radicalisation in a negative light. However, radicalisation can be positive, as it is here. Sticking with the murder/anger case study, we may see that “Jesus radicalises the matter by insisting on going to the heart and addressing at that level the anger that can lead to a whole scale of insult and injury to others, of which murder would simply be an extreme outcome.”