Does your righteousness exceed the righteousness of the Pharisees? It is supposed to if you claim to be a disciple of Jesus. It must if it is your desire to be part of the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 5:20). Yet, many do not know exactly what this means or requires.
There have been various misunderstandings about the Pharisees of Jesus' day and what it was that He had against them. Some have thought that it was their strict interpretation and application of the Law of Moses. Others have thought that their scrupulous emphasis upon obedience reflected a belief in justification by works and not by grace.
An examination of Jesus' teaching reveals specifically what He had against the scribes and Pharisees. He was against their traditionalism. The problem was not traditions per se, but traditions which interfered with keeping the commandments of God (Matt. 15:1-20). While the Pharisees had quite the reputation for piety and for being scrupulous in their obedience, the truth was that because of their traditions they were not as obedient to God as they should have been.
It was not with the Pharisees' strict interpretation of the Law of Moses that Jesus had a problem but with their failure to practice what they preached (Matt. 23:1-4). This He labeled as hypocrisy. Their efforts to exalt themselves were arrogant (vs. 5). In their scrupulous pride, they conveniently overlooked foundational spiritual principles (vss. 23,24). They were guilty of gross inconsistency. Thus Jesus describes them as full of hypocrisy and lawlessness (vss. 25-28).
At first glance, the righteousness of the Pharisees looked good, but at its core it was selfish. Upon closer examination, it is clear that instead of being scrupulously obedient, they were very inconsistent and lawless. They stressed things that made them appear righteous to others, while neglecting the central values of God: justice, mercy and faith. They approached the law strictly in order to find imaginary loopholes to justify themselves, ignoring the clear intent of the law.
Our righteousness must exceed that. We must look good on the surface because we are good at the core. We must be scrupulously obedient to God's will and not to the traditions of men. We must stress the weightier matters knowing that the consistent application of justice, faith, and mercy from the heart will reflect a light that cannot be hidden. We need to have ears to hear not merely the words of God in one context, but to understand God's intent through the greater context of the sum of God's word (Ps. 119:160).
Jesus does not leave us to wonder what He is talking about when He says that our righteousness must exceed that of the Pharisees. He establishes a pattern for great preaching by then making practical application of what He means. He illustrates so that we can understand how people can move from surface-righteousness, self-righteousness, or hypocritical righteousness to the excellent righteousness necessary to enter the kingdom.
Throughout the remainder of the chapter Jesus begins a series of contrasts marked by, “You have heard that it was said...but I say unto you.” Some have suggested that Jesus is contrasting the Law of Moses with the Law of Christ. Yet, there are a couple of problems with such a simplistic answer. First, the immediate context (vs. 18) has Jesus declaring that the Law would not pass away until all was fulfilled. It is therefore unreasonable to say that Jesus is teaching anything that contradicts the Law. Secondly, the consistent phrase, “You have heard that it was said…” would be an indefinite and unauthoritative way of referring to Scripture that was not typical of Jesus. When quoting Scripture, Jesus boldly said things like, “It is written” (Matt. 4:5,7,10; 11:10; 21:13).
It is more contextually reasonable to conclude that Jesus is contrasting the “righteousness” of the Pharisees (which was actually a corruption of the Law) with a more excellent righteousness. So when Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said…” He meant “it was said” by the scribes and Pharisees as a self-justifying proof-text. Thus Jesus was not pitting His teaching against the Law of Moses, but against the scribal and Pharisaical perversions of the Law.
On the other extreme, others have taught that all Jesus is doing is correctly teaching the Law of Moses. However, Jesus is not behaving as just another scribe or rabbi but is speaking authoritatively (Matt. 7:28,29) when He says, “but I say unto you.” Certainly what Jesus teaches is in harmony with the Law, but we are mistaken if we think that Jesus' “but I say unto you” statements are direct interpretations of the misused “you have heard that it was said” proof-texts. For example, Jesus was not saying that “You shall not murder” actually meant “whoever is angry with his brother...shall be in danger of the judgment.” Jesus responded to the Pharisees' misuse of scripture in much the same way that He responded to Satan's misuse of scripture. He used scripture (Matt. 4:7). Jesus' “but I say unto you” responses used the foundation of the Law--love of God and love of neighbor (Matt. 22:33-40; 7:12)--to influence and direct the correct interpretation and application of God's will. The scribes and Pharisees failed to do this. Kingdom citizens must not.
Simply put, Jesus' sermon on the mount is a call for men to lead lives of true righteousness that actually fulfill the intent of God's word. Let's not approach God's word with the intent of justifying ourselves and our traditions through proof-texts which bolster some kind of technical righteousness. Let's use the sum of God's word to understand the intent of God's commands. Let's lead lives that are outwardly righteous because we have crucified ourselves and Christ lives in us as we live by faith (Gal. 2:20).