‘For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven’. Matthew 5:20
To be more religious than the scribes and the Pharisees would have been almost impossible. Being religious was their obsession, every detail of every aspect of daily life was subject to religious rules. There was not a thing that could be done without regard for the observance of the hundreds of laws by which they lived. Disagreements might arise about the interpretation of how the most minute decisions might be taken.
Jesus is unambiguous in telling people that being religious is pointless, that for all their attention to every letter of the Law, the scribes and Pharisees will not have a place in heaven.
Yet despite the clarity of Jesus’ words, Christians became just as obsessed with people keeping rules.
In Northern Ireland in the 1980s, there were people who were described as ‘good living.’ They were people who would never have gone to the cinema or smoked a cigarette or drunk a bottle of beer. They were people who would never have gone inside a pub or a club and certainly would never have attended a a pop concert or anything else they regarded as ‘profane.’
It was a religion as dead as anything of the scribes and the Pharisees. ‘Good living’ meant a sense of self-righteousness that allowed them to frown upon anyone who differed from their interpretation. Like the scribes and the Pharisees, they might disagree with each other about details of what was permissible. In some places, even to have a piano was considered a heresy, in others, the only thing that might be sung was the words of psalms, in others, only the words of the King James Version of the Bible might be read.
It is hard to imagine that Jesus would have been welcomed at most of those places. Someone who kept the sort of company that he kept would have brought as many mutterings of disapproval among those who called themselves ‘Christians’ as he received from the religious people of his time.
How did the faith encouraged by Jesus become the religion that could make miserable the lives of so many people? How could a man whose first miracle was turning water into wine become the sort of figure preached by the churches?
The scribes and the Pharisees were people focused upon control. The religion they embraced was not something that was only personal, it was something that they sought to impose on everyone, whether or not the people wished to be religious. Religion became something to control everyone.
In Ireland, in both traditions, Christianity became more like the religion of the scribes and the Pharisees than like anything that reflected the life and teaching of the man from Nazareth.
Both Protestant and Catholic church leaders were happy with such a religion, it gave them influence, it gave them power, it created people who were subservient and accepting of the authority of the church.
In the space of a generation, churches that depended on status and influence and power have found that people are no longer listening. Bishops may huff and puff, but no-one is taking any notice. Preachers may threaten hellfire and damnation, but who now listens to the language of medieval times?
Jesus does not ask for religiosity, he does not ask for people focused upon their own righteousness, instead he asks for people who take seriously the example that he set, he asks for people who care about others.
‘Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven’, says Jesus to those prepared to listen to him.
Churches that survive the present times will be those that live the life that Jesus asks for them. The churches that survive will be those where people matter more than religion. The churches that survive will be those which live by the spirit rather than the law.
The religion of the past will no longer do, attempts to revert to former times will be doomed to failure. The disappearance of churches will not mean the disappearance of Christianity, it will mean the opportunity to be the people that Jesus wants.