For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:20).
I’ve always struggled with this statement of Jesus. Schooled in the evangelical view of salvation by faith (which is actually quite unbiblical — the Bible tells us we are saved by grace through faith, not by faith which can so easily lead to us thinking we are saved by right doctrine), I found this verse smacked too much of what some would call ‘works righteousness’. Becoming an Anabaptist (or rather realizing that I had been one all along) helped me here, since I realized that in James’ words, ‘faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead’ (James 2:17). But the idea that disciples of Jesus should be more righteous than the Pharisees was still problematic.
We are used to thinking of the Pharisees as hypocrites who did not practise what they preached. But that is to read our own prejudices into the text. In Jesus’ context, the Pharisees were, and saw themselves as, the most faithful believers. They took care to obey every single one of the 613 commandments of the Old Testament. There was even reportedly a sect known as ‘The Bleeding Pharisees’, who walked about with eyes lowered lest they accidentally look at a woman and fall into lust, and who therefore frequently bumped into things, hence the bleeding. And Jesus makes this statement immediately after saying that ‘until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven.’ Is Jesus, then, advocating an even stricter adherence to the Jewish law, in all its detail, than that of the Pharisees? Surely such a thing isn’t humanly possible?
A quick glance, both at what Jesus actually did, and at the verses that follow this statement, would disabuse us of this notion. Jesus’ repeated breaking of the Sabbath for the purpose of healing (or even of feeding his followers, see Mark 2:23-8), and his ignoring of the purity laws to touch a haemorrhaging woman or a dead girl (Mark 5:22ff), demonstrates that his attitude to the Jewish law was, to say the least, flexible, if not cavalier. And his statement is embedded in the context of saying that he has come not to abolish the law but to fulfil it (Matthew 5:17) and followed immediately by the series of sayings beginning ‘You have heard that it was said… but I say to you…’, in which he moves from the letter of the law — the prohibitions on murder, adultery, unlimited vengeance — to its spirit in our inner attitudes towards others. This is what it means to fulfil the law: to take its intention and bring it to its logical conclusion, to write the law in our hearts and not just on our stone tablets or in our churches (many of which still have the Ten Commandments posted prominently on a wooden board by the altar).
This leads us to a conclusion that I have only recently come to explicitly, though I think I have probably held it unconsciously for a long time. The righteousness of his disciples, the righteousness which is to exceed that of the Pharisees, does not differ from that of the Pharisees in degree, but in kind. The Pharisees and scribes sought a righteousness of purity, a holiness defined in terms of avoiding contamination. What Jesus seeks, by contrast, is a righteousness of compassion, which is greater than the righteousness of purity, and indeed at times will appear to contradict it, as it did in Jesus’ actions. And this is confirmed in the same Gospel, in Matthew 23:23, where Jesus exclaims ‘Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others’. It is a matter of priority: we are to prioritize the welfare of others over our own fear of taint. God, to my knowledge, has never condemned anyone for showing too much compassion.
I fear this message has not yet reached a vast number of Christians and churches. If I were to choose one verse of Scripture that is most ignored in modern conservative Christianity, it would be this: ‘The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life’ (2 Corinthians 3:6). Too often we are the modern Galatians, who having started with the Spirit, are ending with the flesh (Galatians 3:3). We believe we are saved by grace, but we understand sanctification as learning to obey a set of rules, seeking ‘the Christian answer’ on every complex issue of our time, as though the only way we can make sure we stay saved is to find an algorithm for every moral question and stick to it like glue.
Our righteousness can indeed exceed that of the Pharisees, but only if we have a different focus from theirs. Their hypocrisy consisted not in failing to practise what they preached, but in failing to grasp the inner meaning of what they practised. Love covers a multitude of sins (1 Peter 4:8); let’s be less afraid of sinning, and more motivated to love.