There’s a saying that was common many years ago among the original residents of Ybor City: “All sizzle, no steak.” The saying is a pejorative comment about those who brag about their own abilities and talents, but have no real accomplishments to justify their bragging. Personally, I have no objection to braggarts and egotists, as long as they can point to real successes that they’ve attained. Braggarts with no real successes or accomplishments, however, are “all sizzle, no steak.”
The Gospels are filled with conflicts that Jesus had with the Pharisees in Jerusalem. Jesus did not dislike all Pharisees; nor did he disagree with their teachings. In fact, Jesus embraced many of the teachings of the Pharisees. Jesus’ conflicts were with a small group of the Pharisees. These urban religious leaders had taken Pharisaic teaching, and made it impractical and inaccessible for most people. In addition to making Pharisaic religious practice inaccessible to most people, it seems that many of the Jerusalem Pharisees did not practice what they preached. In Ybor City, the Jerusalem Pharisees would have been judged to be “all sizzle, no steak.”
In the Gospel reading this Sunday Jesus said to his disciples, “Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter into the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:20) He continued, and listed a very demanding set of moral requirements. He said that it’s not enough to avoid the mortal sins of murder, adultery and blasphemy; rather, one must avoid anything that might lead to committing serious sin.
This perspective of avoiding the things that might lead to serious sin was central to Pharisaic religious practice. The Pharisees viewed the many rules and regulations of their Faith as being like a fence around God’s Law. The fence was there in order to help people to avoid getting close enough to things that could be serious infractions against the Law.
Jesus agreed with this teaching of the Pharisees, but he disagreed with their practice. The Jerusalem Pharisees made the “fence around the Law” into a barrier that excluded people from religious practice. The overly rigorous practices of the Pharisees excluded many goodhearted people, and the fact that the Pharisees did not practice what they preached caused widespread scandal.
We are familiar with a similar situation. For many years the Church has preached an extremely rigorous morality that intentionally excluded everyone who did not live an exemplary life. At the same time, many leaders of the Church did not exercise even a little scrap of common sense in dealing with the serious moral failings of priests who were guilty of misconduct.
It’s easy enough for any faithful Catholic today to understand Jesus’ teaching on righteousness. He said, “Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter into the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:20) A real faith in God will always express itself as a morality of real personal integrity. I think it’s fair to say that the equation also works in reverse: the absence of personal integrity signals an absence of faith.
This Sunday’s first reading echoes Jesus’ perspective on religious practice. The Hebrew author wrote, “If you choose you can keep the commandments, and they will save you.” (Sirach 15:15) By Baptism, God makes it possible for us to live faithful lives, but it remains the responsibility of each of us to put that possibility into practice. As Jesus reminded his disciples, the failings of others, even religious leaders, is not a valid excuse to ignore the call to righteousness. He wanted his disciples to avoid even those things that might lead to sin; by honoring the fence that protected the Law, they would have lives of surpassing righteousness.
For the most part, we end up in life where we aim. Aside from the occasional tragedy or unforeseen circumstance, we get the life we intend. The Scripture says, ‘what we choose we shall receive.’ This is true, in general, in life. It is also true with regard to one’s spiritual life. Some of the Pharisees in Jerusalem chose a life of outward appearances that masked an inner life devoid of faith. Jesus instructed his disciples to put reality ahead of appearance, to live a life of surpassing righteousness.
By God’s Grace, we are given a choice about the kind of lives we will lead, and even unforeseen tragedy cannot alter the results of our choice. What will it be for you? The steak, or just the sizzle?
At All Saints this weekend pledge envelopes for the Annual Pastoral Appeal will be distributed. Everyone at the Sunday liturgies will be asked to make a pledge toward the parish’s 2014 goal of $91,759. The Annual Pastoral Appeal funds the many ministries and activities of the Diocese of St. Petersburg. You can also pledge online; please remember to assign your pledge to All Saints.