Summary: God demands perfection which is only found in Jesus Christ.
"For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.
The Jews had a saying, "If only two people go to heaven, one will be a scribe and the other a Pharisee."
Those who were there to hear Jesus’ statement must have wondered, "If the scribes and Pharisees can’t enter into the kingdom of heaven, who can?"
Notice the purpose behind this parable: "He spake this parable unto certain which trusted in themselves that they were righteous" (v. 9). This parable was isntended to confront the self-righteous.
The parable had two characters: a Pharisee and a publican (tax collector).
The Pharisee was the most respected man in Jewish society. We could compare the scribes and Pharisees of that day to the preachers and professors of our day.
The tax collector was the most hated man in Jewish society.
Ralph Gower writes,
In New Testament times, tribute by taxation had to be paid to the Roman Empire. Roman officials would sell the right to collect taxes in an area to the highest bidder. The tax commissioner (chief publican) would then have to supply a certain amount of money. He would employ local people as the collectors (publicans), and both commissioner and collectors would tax excessively so that they made a good living as well as passing on what was required by the government. . . . The Jews hated the publicans, not only because the publicans took the Jews’ money, but because the publicans were regarded as traitors to the occupying power [The New Manners and Customs of Bible Times, p. 178].
Tax collectors were considered liars and cheaters and traitors, yet who did Jesus say left the temple justified—the Pharisee or the tax collector? The tax collector.
Why? He saw himself as a sinner while the Pharisee saw himself as righteous. The tax collector pleaded for God’s mercy while the Pharisee presented to God his list of accomplishments.
The first recorded sermon of Jesus is the Sermon on the Mount, and the first statement He makes in this sermon is "Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 5:3).
What does it mean to be poor in spirit? It means to recognize one’s total wretchedness and inadequacy before God.
Jesus once proclaimed, "I am not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance" (Matthew 9:13).
The scribes and Pharisees prided themselves in their observance of God’s law, but they misunderstood the purpose of that law.
John MacArthur writes,
The purpose of God’s law was to show that, to please God and to be worthy of citizenship in His kingdom, more righteousness is required than anyone can possibly have or accomplish in himself. The purpose of the law was not to show what to do in order to make oneself acceptable, much less to show how good one already is, but to show how utterly sinful and helpless all men are in themselves [The MacArthur New Testament Commentary, Matthew 1-7, p. 276].
The standard of righteousness that the scribes and Pharisees taught and practiced differed from God’s righteousness in several important ways.