The Righteousness of the Pharisees

In Matthew 5:20, Jesus makes the statement that “unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven”.

It’s difficult sometimes for us 2000 years in the future to grasp how shocking this was.

The Pharisees were the strictest division of the Jewish faith, famous for their piety. This was the group that produced those who, walking down the street, would close their eyes when a woman walked past, lest they be tempted to lust. The resultant bodily injuries as they crashed into walls and things earned them the nickname “bleeding Pharisees”. These were the people who tithed not only their flocks, herds and fields, but their kitchen herbs and spices. These were the people who were known by the unwieldy length of the tassels required by the Mosaic Law to be on their garments. These were the people who were known for long, showy prayers in public, of the sort that made everyone take notice and think “wow, this person can really pray”.

And Jesus says that we have to be more righteous than that? Impossible! It’s like being more conservative than Glenn Beck.

With 2000 years of historic Christianity and Jesus’ teaching about praying and fasting in secret, not announcing your giving, focusing on the inward and not the outward, it’s sometimes hard for us to identify the Pharisees’ outward expressions as righteous, but by the standards of the day, this was what righteousness was considered to be. Doing what the Law required. Even going beyond, just to make sure you had it covered. This is rounding up the amount of tax you owe, and paying it. This is down-to-the-letter adherence to the Law God gave His people.

And Jesus says we have to do more even than that.

Or does he?

The immediate context of the passage is “Do not think I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them”. But then He goes on to start with the Law – “You have heard it said…” – and then say “But I say to you…”

The Law says one thing. And Jesus overturns it or modifies it so radically as to result in a new commandment.

Was the Law somehow imperfect? Were the commandments God gave His people not, then, what He actually meant? If what God always intended was what Jesus said, why not say that in the first place?

God isn’t a liar, nor does He change His mind. Nor does He change His standards.

Something else must be going on here.

What Jesus is doing in this block of teaching, of course, is relocating the issue of sin and righteousness from the actions to the heart. The Pharisees saw sin and righteousness purely in terms of what you do: obey the whole Law and you’re righteous and God will accept you; fail to keep the whole Law and you’re a sinner.

Jesus is basically saying “no; your actions show what’s in your heart”. If you’re a sinner, you will commit sins. If you’re righteous, you won’t. Adultery is not merely the physical act; it begins with the choice of the heart to lust. Murder begins with the choice of the heart to entertain hatred. “If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off…” But is it your right hand that causes you to sin, or does sin reside somewhere else? If all it took to be rid of sin was maiming yourself, those who have lost limbs would be completely righteous from that point on.

No; sin resides in the heart. God’s remedy is not an amputation but a transplant: “I will take away your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh”. This is accomplished when we agree with God about the problem and its solution, trust Him, and follow His Son.

Or, as we like to say, when we repent, confess our sins, have faith in Him and become His people.

Jesus, then, isn’t calling us to do more in order to be righteous, but to appropriate the remedy He died to provide! To be rid of sin, we must get our hearts changed. The work of Christ on the Cross was once for all. Doing more has never equalled righteousness.


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