The scribes and Pharisees devoted their entire lives to the pursuit of righteousness. To follow the law was their vocation. So, how could our righteousness ever exceed that of the scribes and the Pharisees?
Jesus was scathing in His critique of the Pharisees because their “righteousness” was arrogant. The Pharisees liked to pray where they could be seen, but Jesus told His disciples to do their praying in private: “When you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matt. 6:6). The Pharisees also liked people to know what they were giving, but Jesus said to His disciples, “When you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.” (Matt. 6:3-4).
Jesus also criticised the Pharisees because their righteousness was external: “You clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence” (Matt. 23:25). People look at the outward appearance, but God looks on the heart.
Jesus was saying, in effect, “If you are going to enter heaven, you need a better righteousness than the Pharisees.” At this point, someone might say, “This is why we need to trust Jesus as Saviour so that we will have His perfect righteousness, which is better by far than that of the Pharisees.” That is true. But it is not what Jesus is saying here.
Jesus is calling His disciples to the pursuit of a righteous life: “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:20). Jesus calls us to pursue a better righteousness, one that is humble and comes from the heart.
Where do you see glimpses of arrogant or external righteousness in your own life?
Written by Colin Smith
Read by Sue McLeish www.openthebible.org.uk