Matthew 5:20 “For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”
No doubt the people in front of Jesus were surprised when he spoke these words. If someone calls you a Pharisee today, it is an insult. We tend to associate the Pharisees with hypocrisy, religious meanness, loveless legalism. But most people in Jesus’ day did not look at the Pharisees that way.
The Pharisees had a reputation for working harder than anyone at living a godly life. They took morality seriously. They were good citizens. They had family values. No moralists we might know ever worked harder at living a pure and holy life than these men. For Jesus to say to the people: “No. Their level of righteousness still is not good enough. You need to be better than them”– that was hard to accept.
The problem wasn’t so much with the way the Pharisees and teachers of the law lived their lives on the outside (although that also had some problems). The issue had more to do with what was going on inside. True righteousness is always a matter of the heart. The biblical term “righteousness” refers to more than human actions or standards. It always refers us to God’s judgment and standards. It refers to behavior or people that God could look at and say, “Innocent. Not guilty. Perfect.” For this, the Lord is always more concerned with the heart than he is with the hands. Attitudes matter as much as actions. And Jesus’ ministry revealed that the Pharisees had a bad attitude. Their good outward actions were not a reflection of their hearts.
Is that a problem with our own lives sometimes? We can make our lives look good on the outside. We make ourselves look happy and holy, especially when we are with other Christians. But our hearts are a problem. I am sure that you would be no more anxious to show me what your heart looks like than I would be to let you see mine. Jeremiah once described the human heart this way, “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” God sees this all the time, that our good actions are not always the reflection of good hearts. That’s a problem, because genuine righteousness is a matter of the heart.
If we are honest with ourselves, we are going to have to look outside ourselves for our righteousness. That is exactly what our Savior wants us to do. Trying harder isn’t going to save us. His words are driving us to look to him for help.
And the help we find is not Jesus showing us some nifty secrets for getting this all under control. His words offer nothing in the way of self-help. Instead, he says, “I will give you a real righteousness, because I will give you the credit for my perfect control of my anger, my mouth, and my hands. When you stand before the judgement seat of God, I will give you a perfect record of love and self-control, because it won’t be yours he sees, but mine. I will wipe away your angry thoughts, your loveless words, even violence and murder, with my blood shed at the cross. I forgave the anger of Joseph’s brothers, the insults of the thief crucified next to me, and the murders committed by Moses, David, and Paul. I will forgive your thoughts and actions, too.”
That is how our righteousness can surpass that of the Pharisees, or that of the moralists we know today. That is how Jesus’ righteousness will cleanse our guilty hearts.