In my imagination, when Jesus tells his disciples, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (v. 20), I see them looking at each other with expressions that say, “He’s got to be kidding!”
After all, you couldn’t get any more righteous than a scribe or a Pharisee. They not only knew the law—they were committed to following it. They didn’t just speak in general terms about believing the Bible; they actually knew what Scripture (and the traditions and regulations that had grown out of it) said, and they tried to live by it.
Had you asked anybody around to identify the most righteous people in town, they’d have almost certainly said the scribes and Pharisees. You just couldn’t know the Bible any better than they did. It wasn’t possible to follow it any better than they did.
That doesn’t mean that everybody liked the Pharisees and scribes, though, since they also thought everybody else should be as righteous as they were, and folks who think that way about themselves and others are seldom, if ever, likable.
(We should remember that the Gospel writers, for their own purposes, stereotyped the scribes and Pharisees. The negative characterization of them doesn’t apply to all of them. Some Pharisees and scribes were no doubt genuinely righteous. Self-righteousness evidently characterized enough of them, though, that the stereotype wasn’t dismissed as invalid. We should also remember that the self-righteousness that Jesus was most concerned about was that to which his disciples might fall prey, and that which Matthew was most concerned about was that of which his readers might be guilty. The text doesn’t call us to criticize the scribes and Pharisees; it calls us rather to look to our own condition.)
Still, Mark Twain could have had a scribe or Pharisee in mind when he described someone as “a good man in the worst sense of the word.”
So when Jesus told his followers that their righteousness had to exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees, he couldn’t have meant that his disciples had to follow the teachings of the Bible more strictly than they did. That wasn’t possible. And he couldn’t have meant that they had to tend toward religious superiority and moral self-righteousness. That wasn’t desirable.
What did Jesus mean, then?
Well, we’ll have to study more of the Sermon on the Mount, which we’ll do over the next few weeks, to answer that question, but here’s a preview: the kind of excessive righteousness Jesus requires of his followers goes beyond and beneath actions to the motives behind them. One can know and do all the right things, but still not have a right heart that’s been tenderized by the Spirit, love, and grace of God.
Don’t think that Jesus’ way lets us off easy.
As a recovering legalist, I can tell you that it’s possible to come pretty close to knowing and keeping all the rules.
But I can also tell you that having a heart that’s always growing toward being so overwhelmed by grace that all you want is to love God for who God is and to treat people like fellow human beings to be valued and respected rather than objectified and manipulated—now that’s hard.
1. What images besides salt and light might we use to make the same points Jesus makes in vv. 13-16?
2. How does Jesus “fulfill” the law and prophets? What does his fulfillment of them mean for our reading, understanding, and applying the Bible’s teachings?
3. How do we who are followers of Jesus do and teach the commandments?
4. What’s the connection between practicing the greater righteousness Jesus requires of us and having our light shine before others?
5. How do the other lectionary readings (Isa 58:1-12 and 1 Cor 2:1-16) help us understand the greater righteousness to which Jesus calls us?
Before any example of Jesus’ interpretation of the law is given, the auditors are warned that they are not to conclude that he annuls or contradicts it. Given the prevailing belief in the sanctity of the law, it was obviously important for Matthew to fend off any allegation that Jesus was a false prophet who led Israel astray (Deut 13) or that his followers are a “godless and lawless sect” (Justin, Dialogue 108:2). In 5:18-19, Jesus affirms that the law and the prophets faithfully express God’s will and that what he does and teaches complies with them. The phrase “I have come,” however, accords Jesus a special status as one who comes with a particular mission. The reader is already aware that the Scriptures bear witness to him (1:22-23; 2:6, 15, 17- 18; 23; 4:14-15), and now Jesus openly declares that he has come to fulfill them. Moses prophesied that God would speak anew through a prophet like himself (Deut 18:15-20), and Matthew presents Jesus as that promised prophet who fulfills the long-awaited promise of the Scriptures. But fulfillment also implies transcendence. When Jesus appears as God with us (1:23), the center of gravity shifts to him. The law and the prophets remain valid, but Jesus is the canon by which to gauge obedience to the Scripture and is its sole interpretive guide. The so-called antitheses that follow in 5:21-48 make it clear that Jesus is the key for unlocking meaning of the law and the prophets.
David E. Garland, Reading Matthew: A Literary and Theological Commentary, Reading the New Testament (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2001), 62.
Michael Ruffin is husband to Debra and father to Joshua (Michelle) and Sara (Benjamin). A graduate of Mercer University and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, he has previously served as a pastor and as a university professor. He lives on the Ruffin Family Farm in Yatesville, Georgia. You can visit and communicate with him at MichaelRuffin.com. He is the Connections Series Curriculum Editor.
Additionally, the Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary series is a scholarly but accessible means for enhancing your study of each lesson.