For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.-Matt. 5:20
The spirituality of the Pharisees wasn’t any different from the values of the world except that it was cloaked in religiosity. They shared the same standards. They only cared for people who were like them. They only invited their friends to their banquets. They did seemingly charitable works but always ensured that everyone knew about it. They cared for their community but it was always tainted with ulterior motives or blatant self-promotion. Jesus said that they had already received their rewards. The Pharisees believed that they were the custodians of the Law but Jesus said that their spirituality did not reflect the essence of the Law. Of course, the Pharisees might have brushed this off as a question of opinion. They were right in a sense. They had no obligation to listen to Jesus’ opinions whereas for Christians, only the opinion of Jesus counts in this matter.
There is another parable found in the same gospel which I believe is closely related to this. It sheds light on the kind of spirituality that Jesus is looking for in people. The parable is a familiar one; it is about the sheep and the goats. It talks about the end of time where the King will come to judge the world and He will separate the sheep from the goats. He will set the sheep to His right hand.
Then the King will say to those on His right hand, ‘Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: for I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me.’- Matt. 25:34-36
Those who heard these words were surprised that they had been serving him and the King tells them, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.’
The hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and the prisoner; these are the people the Pharisees would overlook in their personal and public lives. They are ones through whom God has chosen to manifest Himself in this world. We should not romanticize these groups. Superficially speaking, there is nothing appealing or beautiful about these little ones of the gospel. Sometimes people tend to paint a picture of them as being sad and lonely people who are always open to our warmth embrace. The truth is that usually they are not easy people to serve. Most of the time, they might not even be likable. The hungry and thirsty can be so consumed by their basic necessity that they may seem angry and impatient and perhaps ungrateful. The stranger might not trust you and treat you with suspicion and disdain. The naked in the Bible are usually the mentally ill. They may not even acknowledge your presence. As for prisoners, they can be dangerous and manipulative people. Usually, no one really wants to care for them. Many would prefer to see them suffer in their cells. They are not easy people. Nevertheless, Jesus tells us He is present in them in a mysterious way. This is not some romantic idea. It is merely stating that nothing has changed in Jesus’ ministry. In His earthly ministry, He was present among these little ones and it makes sense that His Spirit continues to dwell among them in the present. His presence in them does not make the prisoners innocent and less dangerous or the hungry and thirsty less angry, the naked less mad or the strangers less suspicious. It only means that when we ignore them like the Pharisees of these world, then our lives become poorer and our spirituality becomes barren. The source and strength of spirituality comes from our daily encounter with the Living Christ. He is present where He is needed the most. We must find Him there.