Exceeding the Righteousness of the Pharisees

Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I say unto you, that except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no wise enter into the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:19-20).

Yet another sacred cow slaughtered.

To “slaughter the sacred cow” is an American idiom, most likely a reference to Hindu culture in India in which cows are venerated and to slaughter a cow was therefore a desecrating action, a violation of propriety and custom. Therefore, “to slaughter a sacred cow” is to challenge a matter generally considered as sacred, especially those things normally held as self-evident or in some other way immune from questioning or challenging.

Everyone has their own versions of the “sacred cow”: everyone holds certain concepts to be true, and if anyone dare question or challenge those concepts, it is considered as improper, a desecration, a violation of social norms or customs. And so it was among the Israelites in the first century CE: many of their traditions and customs were held as sacred and were not up for being challenged. The Israelites are the people of YHWH, descendants of Abraham, and YHWH will protect them. YHWH will protect His Temple in Jerusalem. YHWH provides blessings to those who are righteous and punishes those who are unrighteous. The Pharisees and scribes are holy people, skilled in the Law, and righteous.

Throughout what is popularly called the “Sermon on the Mount”, Jesus teaches His disciples and the multitudes who have come out to hear Him, and many of those teachings challenge some of these propositions. In the “Beatitudes” Jesus pronounces blessings on those who are normally considered cursed (Matthew 5:3-12). Now Jesus not so subtly challenges the position of the Pharisees and scribes in the sight of the people (Matthew 5:17-20).

Jesus presents this challenge on the basis of adherence to the Law itself. He declares that He did not come to destroy the Law or the Prophets but to fulfill them; not one detail will be changed in them until all is fulfilled (Matthew 5:17-18). Since the Law stands, the Law is to be followed; therefore, Jesus’ statement in Matthew 5:19 follows: anyone who breaks the least of the commandments and teaches others to do so shall be called least in the Kingdom of Heaven, but the one who does and teaches them shall be called great in the Kingdom of Heaven. If we isolated this verse from its context, particularly what will follow, we might get the idea that one’s standing in God’s Kingdom is based upon how effectively one performs the Law of Moses and how they teach it to others. Exactitude seems to be greatly praised here.

We should resist drawing such conclusions. Paul will make it very clear that no one is justified before God by works of the Law, since all have transgressed and have fallen short (Romans 3:20, 23). Jesus will later associate “greatness” in the Kingdom with humility and service, and, in so doing, will show that worldly concepts of “greatness” themselves fall short in terms of His Kingdom (Matthew 20:25-28).

Instead, Jesus is continuing to lay the groundwork for His powerful statement in Matthew 5:20. He is speaking about present reality, and His audience will agree with Him to this point: if the Law is still in force, then yes, whoever does and teaches the commandments of God will be considered great in the rule of God. If one breaks the least of the commandments, and teaches others to do so as well, they are least in the reign of God, and if this is the fate of the one who breaks one of the least of the commandments and teaches others to do the same, what will be the fate of those who break more weighty commandments?

So what is Jesus talking about? His conclusion is found in Matthew 5:20: He says to them that unless their righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, they will not enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.

We can only imagine what the Israelites thought of this statement. If they were convinced that the Pharisees and scribes were the righteous people in their communities, then Jesus’ statement is quite shocking. If your righteousness does not exceed the righteousness of those whom you think are righteous, then what possible hope do you have of reaching the Kingdom of Heaven? Not much at all!

At this point some perhaps would write Jesus off as crazy, ridiculous, or excessively demanding. And perhaps Jesus us being excessively demanding in order to make His point: if one’s standard of righteousness is based on following the Law of Moses, seeking justification by works of the Law, as it seems many of the Pharisees and scribes imagined, then yes, it would require even greater righteousness than theirs in order to obtain the Kingdom, since the scribes and Pharisees do not fully measure up to the standard of the Law. Yet, then again, neither did anyone else but Jesus (Hebrews 4:15, 5:7-8); this is why it is only Jesus who can fulfill the Law and accomplish all things within it. No one will able to be saved by the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees; yet through Jesus’ righteousness the opportunity for salvation will be granted to all men (cf. Philippians 3:8-11).

Yet Jesus is concerned about not just one’s own deeds and standing before God, but one’s teaching as well. Matthew 5:19-20 does not stand on its own; it concludes and provides the rhetorical punch for Matthew 5:17-18 while introducing the theme which will carry through Matthew 5:21-48. Throughout Matthew 5:21-48 Jesus will highlight common understanding and practice of the Law and contrast it with God’s full expectations and intentions. Jesus will make it clear that God is interested in far more than just exterior conduct and nominal fidelity to the letter of the law; He is just as concerned about one’s thoughts and feelings and expects obedience to flow from faithfulness, love, and trust.

This is why the “righteousness” of the Pharisees and scribes is lacking: it proves to be superficial, obsessed with details to the neglect of the weightier provisions of the law, not properly discerning God’s focus and priorities, as will be made clear in Matthew 23:1-36. The “righteousness” of the Pharisees and scribes is shallow, hypocritical, and does not please God. If anyone maintains that form of “righteousness,” they will not enter the rule of God. In order to obtain the rule of God, one’s righteousness must exceed that of the Pharisees and scribes: it must be based in the mind and heart and flow through deeds, motivated by faith, love, and trust in God in Christ (Romans 5:6-11, 6:1-23).

Sometimes the sacred cow must be slaughtered in order to shake people out of their present habits and mentalities and force them to reconsider. So it is with Jesus in Matthew 5:19-20: whoever defines “righteousness” in terms of the conduct and teachings of the Pharisees and scribes is not going to make it. “Righteousness” is not about the obsession over a particular set of details to the neglect of the weightier concerns of the Law. “Righteousness” is not about saying one thing and doing another. “Righteousness” is not about finding ways of making yourself seem great and holy while looking down upon others and treating them presumptuously.

Instead, true righteousness is seen in Jesus. True righteousness is rooted not in oneself but in God and the pursuit of seeking His will and good pleasure. True righteousness involves proper priority, respecting the least as well as the great, both in terms of commandments and people. True righteousness cannot be hypocritical or two-faced; it flows from the mind and heart through the hands and feet. True righteousness seeks the best interest of others above oneself.

Salvation is not found in the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees; therefore, we should not follow their example. Salvation does come through Jesus, and we do well to follow after Him and pursue righteousness as He decreed through His example, seeking the will of God to do His good pleasure, concerned with the interest of others before our own, trusting not in ourselves but in God at all times. Let us exceed the righteousness of the Pharisees and scribes and so enter into the Kingdom of God!

Ethan R. Longhenry

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