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

Iniquity of the Fathers and Children

“…visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, upon the third and upon the fourth generation of them that hate me, and showing lovingkindness unto thousands of them that love me and keep my commandments” (Exodus 20:5c-6).

As God is speaking with Israel, declaring His law to them, He teaches them some things about Himself. As part of the second commandment, in which God declares that Israel is not to make any graven image to bow down to it or serve it, having declared that He is a jealous God, He then establishes that He visits the iniquity upon the third and fourth generation of those who hate Him, but shows steadfast love to those who love Him and keep His commandments (Exodus 20:4-6).

This is one of the most controversial declarations that God makes about Himself. Many wonder about the fairness of all of this, presuming that God is punishing children for the sins of their fathers. But God declares at other opportunities that He does no such thing– each person must bear the guilt of their own sin (Deuteronomy 24:16, Ezekiel 18:1-32).

Some people suggest that there is a contradiction here, but such does not respect the precise wording of what God has said. God says that He visits the iniquity of the fathers upon the third and fourth generation “of those who hate [Him]” (Exodus 20:5). Therefore, those upon whom their iniquity is visited have their own iniquity. “Innocent” descendants will not suffer the penalty for guilty ancestors. If a child repents of the sins in which his fathers walked, God shows mercy upon him (e.g. 2 Kings 22:16-20).

Instead, God is declaring how, as we would say, “the apple does not fall far from the tree.” Children walk in the ways of their fathers. If the fathers disobey God and do not follow Him, the children likely walk in the same way. This is especially true in relation to the second commandment– if the father makes a graven image, bows down to it, and serves it, the children are likely to follow in the same footsteps. That tendency would prove to be the undoing of Israel (cf. 2 Kings 17:15-18)!

God is making it clear that He does not forget. Perhaps the iniquity of a given generation is not immediately visited upon it; such does not mean that God is not there or that God does not care, but that, as Peter will later say, God is patient, not wishing for any to perish but that all would repent (cf. 2 Peter 3:9). When judgment is established and punishment meted out, it is just, righteous, and holy. None can declare that God is unjust!

What is often lost in translation is the other half of this declaration: for those who love God and who keep His commandments, He bestows His steadfast love (Exodus 20:6). This cannot be found with any other; it is not as if any idol has ever loved its maker. God sustains and provides for those who seek after Him, as the Hebrew author demonstrates powerfully in Hebrews 11.

There is much to gain from this declaration of God’s response to people. It shows that we should not be surprised when people follow after their parents down the same path, for better or worse. We can have confidence in the ultimate day of Judgment and that all will receive due recompense for what they have done (Romans 2:5-11); nevertheless, we often like to see justice executed more speedily. If justice is not executed speedily, it is not as if God has neglected to take the sin into account. If such justice is eventually reckoned, it is not as if God can be charged with unfairness or prejudice if one generation gets punished for a sin that previous generations committed seemingly without punishment.

It is far better for us, however, to love God and do His commandments, and thus bask in His steadfast love (cf. 1 John 2:3-6). This opportunity is extended to anyone, no matter what their ancestors have done or believed. No one is forced to live in perpetual fear of God’s punishing hand; all today have access to God’s mercy through Jesus Christ (cf. Romans 5:6-11, 1 Timothy 2:4). Let us not stand in fear of punishment, but let us love God and do His commandments!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Burying the Dead

And [Jesus] said unto another, “Follow me.”
But he said, “Lord, suffer me first to go and bury my father.”
But He said unto him, “Leave the dead to bury their own dead; but go thou and publish abroad the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:59-60).

We can gain an understanding of the critical importance of the Kingdom and its proclamation to Jesus by seeing how He calls people for His purposes.

One of the commands Jesus gives frequently is to be willing to give up family relations for the sake of the Kingdom (cf. Matthew 10:34-39, Luke 14:25-26). Here this principle is on display.

Jesus calls a man to follow Him. According to the account in Matthew, he is already a disciple– not one of the Twelve, but someone else with an interest in Jesus (Matthew 8:21-22). Perhaps he has only recently begun to listen to Jesus; perhaps Jesus knows what is in his heart and is bringing the matter to the surface.

Regardless, the man has a challenge. He needs to bury his father. Perhaps his father has already actually died; it is as likely, if not more so, that he is still alive but near death.

This is not an unbecoming request. Children are to honor their parents (Exodus 20:12, Ephesians 6:1-3). To provide for fathers at the end of life was honorable: this was the comfort God gave Jacob, that Joseph would “put his hands on your eyes” (Genesis 46:3-4), and Joseph makes elaborate preparation to bury his father (Genesis 50:1-14).

Jesus understands this. We do not get the impression that He wishes to cause the elderly gentleman any disrespect or disservice. But the task of burial should be done by another– He says to “let the dead bury the dead” (Luke 9:60).

We understand that He is not speaking literally– no zombies here. Let the (spiritually) dead bury the (physically) dead is the import of the message. Yes, burial preparations must be made– but not by this man. He has been called to something greater and more urgent! There are plenty of other people around who are worldly-minded and able to handle that responsibility.

The proclamation of the message of the Gospel cannot wait. The twelve disciples watching this will learn this message well; as the Apostles, they would not allow the matter of serving tables get in the way of their devotion to God in prayer and His word (Acts 6:1-2). Someone can be found to take care of the burial process. The important thing for this disciple is to proclaim God’s message!

It is easy for us to see various commands of Jesus and initially find a way to blunt its force. This is especially true of the commands about renouncing family relations, ourselves, and our stuff for the Kingdom’s sake. We see what Jesus says about loving God more than family (e.g. Matthew 10:37), and we remind ourselves that we are to honor and respect family. It is true that we are to honor and respect family, as far as that goes. But we must be exceedingly careful lest we be guilty of forsaking God’s word to bury the dead when the dead should be left to bury the dead!

All good things are not created equal. There is not enough time, money, or resources in the world to fulfill every good thing. We must prioritize. There are the “greater goods” in life along with the “lesser goods”. We must do the best we can to keep these in perspective.

Jesus has made it abundantly clear what is the greatest good– the Kingdom of God (Matthew 6:33, 10:34-37, 13:44-46, 16:24-28). Therefore, every other “good” must be subordinated to this greater good. It will not matter how many good things you have done in life– if you have sacrificed the greater good, the Kingdom, in order to accomplish all of those lesser goods, it leads to condemnation (Matthew 7:21-23)!

This is the lesson that this disciple must learn in a stunning way. To go and bury his father is to sacrifice the greater good for the sake of the lesser good. Therefore, he must allow the dead to bury the dead, and to go himself to accomplish the greater good of proclaiming the message of God’s Kingdom.

So it is with us. If Jesus appeared to you and charged you to follow Him, what would you say? Would you ask Him to suffer you to “bury your father”– provide for parents, spouse, children, finish up some undone business, or the like? If so, what do you imagine He would say? “Let the dead bury the dead.” Let worldly concerns be handled by those whose only hope is in the world. Meanwhile, we must go and do the greater good, proclaiming the message of God’s Kingdom!

Let us be clear: taking care of one’s own is part of one’s responsibility to God (1 Timothy 5:8). But far too often we allow the “lesser goods” of this life (and, far too often, that which is not good at all!) to crowd out the greatest good. We will find time for everything but the advancement of God’s purposes. This should not be. Let the dead bury the dead– but let us proclaim God’s message before it is too late!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Do Not Fear; Only Believe

While he yet spake, they come from the ruler of the synagogue’s house saying, “Thy daughter is dead: why troublest thou the Teacher any further?”
But Jesus, not heeding the word spoken, saith unto the ruler of the synagogue, “Fear not, only believe” (Mark 5:35-36).

The dreaded news had arrived.

Jairus knew that the time was short; he hastened to Jesus and implored Him to heal his daughter, sick near death (cf. Mark 5:22-23). Jairus knew that if Jesus got to her before she died she could be delivered from the illness. But the crowd pressed firmly upon Jesus, and He took time out to hear the confession of faith of the woman healed from the issue of blood (cf. Mark 5:24-34).

Too much time had been taken. The girl was dead.

This news is brought to Jairus; according to those who came from his house, there was no more need to bother Jesus the Teacher. And yet, in the midst of this despair and distress, Jesus provides a compelling message for Jairus: do not fear– only believe.

What would Jairus do?

It would be entirely understandable if he went with conventional wisdom and no longer bothered the Teacher. His daughter was dead. One of the few guarantees in life is that once you are dead, you are dead and finished. Sure, Jesus had healed all kinds of sick people and cast out many demons– but He had not yet raised anyone from the dead. It was a great hope while it lasted– but now all hope was gone. The girl was no more.

Yet, on the other hand, why is Jesus so nonchalant about the matter? Did Jesus not know how close she was to death? Why did Jesus delay? Why does He not pay any attention to the terrible news? Jesus is being hailed as the Prophet, the Son of God, with great authority. And now He says to not fear but only believe.

How many times do we find ourselves in a position similar to that of Jairus? There are many times in our lives when our situation seems bleak and hopeless. According to all appearances and conventional wisdom, there is nothing left to do but lose hope and be afraid. Distress encompasses us. Trials beset us. We have all kinds of reasons to no longer trouble the Teacher and to go on our own way.

And yet the voice of Jesus may still call to us to not fear and only believe.

This message should not be distorted or improperly expanded to indicate that all we ever need to do is just believe. Trust and confidence in God and Christ demand that we do what they say to do– if we do not do the Lord’s commandments, we prove that we are not trusting in Him (cf. Romans 6:16-23, James 2:14-26, 1 Peter 1:22, 1 John 2:3-6).

But there are many times in life when, if we were walking by sight/appearance, we would lose hope. It is in those times that we must walk by faith– trusting that the Lord is there, that the Lord is good, and that God is willing to do far more than even what we desire (cf. 2 Corinthians 5:7, Ephesians 3:20-21). God can do the mighty actions; it is our place to trust in Him.

But there have always been and always will be reason to laugh at that trust. There are always reasons to lose all hope and to be afraid. There is never a lack of political uncertainty, economic uncertainty, medical uncertainty, and even environmental uncertainty. There are always various reasons to doubt God, to be afraid of what is happening to us or what we fear is about to happen to us, and to decide to no longer bother the Teacher.

We can read about Jairus’ choice: he believed and Jesus raised his daughter from the dead and restored her to full health (Mark 5:37-43). God was able to do more for him than he could have imagined. And so it is with us. Whenever we are assailed by doubt, fear, uncertainty, and hopelessness, let us remember the words of our Lord.

Do not fear. Only believe.

Ethan R. Longhenry