Summary: How can we be more righteous than the Pharisees and the Scribes were?
More Righteousness Needed Please
This verse has certainly raised its concerns in the church over the centuries. But understanding this verse is key to understanding the Sermon on the Mount as a whole. What is Jesus saying when He says that “your righteousness must exceed that of the Scribes and Pharisees if one is to enter the Kingdom of Heaven?” Even more important, to whom is He saying it to? Let us see.
The word “for” may be short, but it is important to the exegesis of the verse. The Greek word (gar) translated “for” is used to introduce development of what has just been said. These verses said that Jesus did not come to break even a jot or tittle of the Law and Prophets. We learned in the sermon last week (“Neither Jot or Tittle”) that the Law and prophets was a Jewish way of using the part for the whole. In other words, Jesus came to fulfill every jot and tittle of it. It is a statement of the strongest sort supporting the inspiration of the entire Old Testament as can be found in Scripture. We also discovered that Jesus’ use of “amen” put what He said on equal footing with Scripture.
A comparison was made in verses 17-19 between the unfaithful person who did not practice or teach the entire counsel of God with the blessing of greatness bestowed upon those who scrumptiously practiced and taught it.
Having seen that this verse points back to verses 17-19, then the claim Jesus is making is that the Pharisees and Scribes neither practiced the Word of God nor taught it. When we make this connection, we can also infer that they were excluded from the Kingdom as well because they failed in both counts. In the verses that follow this one, Jesus will show examples of how they failed to keep the Word of God in both practice and teaching.
We sometimes have the mistaken idea that the Pharisees were the religious conservatives and the Sadducees the religious liberals. In fact, as far as the truth of God is concerned, they were both liberals. The Sadducees could be considered conservative in outward form as far as the external aspects of the ceremonial Law was concerned. They knew where there bread was buttered from and did their religious duties anyway, even though they were true skeptics concerning the Scripture itself.
But how were the Pharisees liberals? Did they not profess the absolute inspiration of Scripture? Did they not meticulously try to keep the law even to the point of tithing sprigs of mint? But despite the outward show, they were just as liberal as the Sadducees. The Scribes here were probably those who accompanied the Pharisees, although the Sadducees also employed them. As they had to carefully and meticulously copy the Scriptures by hand, they knew every jot and tittle of them. Wasn't this devotion to careful copying proof of their being conservatives?
Jesus does not seem to have been too impressed with that idea. He clearly showed that they lacked in practice as well as wrongly taught the people. Jesus said that the standard of righteousness He was expecting was greater than what they had. This immediately throws us into crisis. If these meticulous Pharisees and Scribes who were zealous for the Law of Moses and prayed, fasted, and gave alms all the time were not good enough, who could be good enough? Should we aspire to out-Pharisee the Apostle Paul before his conversion on the Damascus Road? If Paul could not make the cut, can anyone else make it either. Is this the righteousness Jesus expects from us? If so, Heaven would be a very lonely place. We wouldn't know it of course because we wouldn't be there to see how empty it was. Rather we would all be crowded in Hell together.
The good news is that Jesus isn’t looking for that kind of righteousness. The same Jesus who speaks what seems to be the most lofty and unattainable sermon ever preached is the same Jesus who died on a cross for us. We will see that the problem the Pharisees and Scribes had is that they mixed human elements with the Scripture and treated the whole as divinely inspired. In other words they added to the Word of God. They were also good at manipulating verses out of their context in order to evade the clear teaching of other Scriptures concerning things such as murder and divorce. Jesus will go on and expose their righteousness as fraudulent.
The first of these examples of the failure of the Scribes and Pharisees, a failure which would exclude them from the Kingdom of God occurs in verse 21. Jesus reminds them that they rightly believed that the Ancients who wrote Scripture had said “Do not commit murder” True enough, this is in the Law of Moses and is the divinely inspired Word of God. The addition appears to be a sensible conclusion that the one who commits the actual act of murder is liable to the judgment. The fact the word “the” indicates the seriousness of the judgment. Whether the Pharisees considered this to be capital punishment or eternal, I don’t know.