“For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.”
More questions arise with this text, this new layer added on to Jesus’ teaching from last meditation. Last meditation, Jesus laid down the teaching that those who don’t do and teach even the least commandment will be called least, while those who do and teach the commandments will be called great.
Then He continues with the “For” of the above passage, connecting it to what precedes. Let’s look at it in full: “Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.”
What exactly is the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees? Exactly what Jesus describes in the previous passage. It’s to break one of the least of these commandments, and teach men so. That is, as we said in the previous meditation, what the Pharisees did. They updated God’s commandments to make them applicable for the time with Jesus’ age, so that people could follow them.
Jesus taught (a) the fuller meaning of the commandments, and (b) the profound, penetrating demand for His sacrifice due to the commandments’ reflection of God’s will and heart.
Just not killing someone didn’t do the commandments justice on either front. (a) It granted obedience of this commandment to any old slug who didn’t thrust a knife into someone else; (b) it gave people the illusion that they were right with God by doing so and therefore didn’t need a Savior.
In our passage for today’s meditation, Jesus says unless our righteousness exceeds what the Pharisees taught, we will not enter the kingdom of heaven. That takes things a bit further than merely being called “least” in the kingdom of God. Being “least” at least gets you in the door. Not entering means not entering! So which is it?
We probably have to adjust our thinking from the previous passage and get quite literal. Just because you’re “called” least in the kingdom of heaven doesn’t mean you’re actually in the kingdom of heaven. You might just have a reputation of being “least” among those who exist in the kingdom of heaven. As in, “You remember that Pharisee who taught X, Y, and Z? Yup, he didn’t make it, and he prevented others from getting in. His name is dirt.”
Some names are forgotten, like the rich man in the account of Lazarus and the rich man. Other names are just deemed dirt, like those who minimize the Lord’s commandments and don’t live by them. Which is worse? Good question.
In any event, what does right look like? Right looks like a righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees. And again, that “For” connects it to the previous verse, so we know what that looks like. It’s to do and teach the Lord’s commandments.
OK, but that seems paradoxical, not only when we pair it with St. Paul’s teaching that we’re not saved by keeping the commandments, but especially when we parse it out in the greater picture of the Gospel of Matthew. What have we learned of righteousness so far in his Gospel? What has Jesus taught?
The first instance of an example of righteousness is Joseph’s overlooking of Mary’s supposed “sin” when she was pregnant with Jesus prior to their marriage, and instead of handing her over to judgment, Joseph “being a righteous man,” decided to divorce her privately. That’s actually quite a huge detail. Righteousness, as we learned the last several weeks, is about mercy, forgiveness, and not condemning someone according to their sins.
The next instance of “righteousness” is when Jesus was going to get baptized, but John the Baptist tried to prevent Him, and Jesus said to him, “Permit it to be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” So, whatever righteousness is – and we’ve had a slight taste of it with Joseph’s action of mercy – “all of it” is fulfilled by Jesus getting baptized. What do we learn from this? First, we learn that “all righteousness” is fulfilled; it’s accomplished; it’s completed. Second, we learn this happened in baptism. Here, Jesus met sinners in the Jordan and first took their sins upon Himself. Here is where the “great exchange” first began. Here is where the prophecy from Isaiah 53 is fulfilled, “Surely He has borne our grieves and carried our sorrows.” That, of course, continues the thread begun by Joseph in his mercy for Mary.
The next instance of righteousness is in the beatitude, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, For they shall be filled.” Here we learn whatever righteousness is, it’s something we are filled with, or fed with.
Then we get to the instance of righteousness in today’s meditation. “For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.”
Up to this point, we’ve learned righteousness pertains to mercy and forgiveness, is only fulfilled in Christ, and is something we are filled with when we hunger and thirst for it. We’ve also seen that Joseph so far has provided the best example of what it looks like.
By contrast, what was the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees again? It was to update and contemporize God’s Law and make it applicable for the people, giving them the illusion that they were following it even though they weren’t following it at all.
How do we square this with “doing and teaching” the Lord’s commandments? Jesus essentially is teaching that all the Law, every dot and tittle, is about the Lord’s love, mercy, and forgiveness. He’s teaching that this is the proper way to understand the Law. In fact, He repeats this teaching over and over, in His statement that the Lord wants mercy and not sacrifice, in His parable about the Good Samaritan, and in His summary of the Law as all about love.
The scribes and Pharisees allowed people a way out of God’s love, and this Jesus could not allow. Joseph showed a new way of righteousness by overlooking Mary’s “adultery” and not subjecting her to punishment. Jesus fulfilled righteousness by going where sinners were and being baptized in their baptism, a baptism that would culminate with the cross. Then He taught those who hunger and thirst for God’s righteousness will be filled or fed with it.
Later in the Sermon on the Mount He taught about seeking “ first the kingdom of God and His righteousness.” “His” righteousness, not ours. And later again, Jesus said He didn’t come for the righteous, but for sinners. Clearly the “righteous” here are those who were righteous according to the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, the sort that was a perfunctory keeping of the Ten Commandments. But sinners, like Matthew, are those who are filled with God’s righteousness – and that righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees!
Jesus teaches a new righteousness, a righteousness that’s a cycle of forgiveness leading not just to fulfillment of righteousness in Him (in baptism), but also to a higher keeping of the Ten Commandments. It’s the sort He exemplified when He said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” This was His behavior at the altar which was the cross, receiving His brethren, even a criminal next to Him. Of course He exemplified this righteousness when He gave out the testament to His sacrifice, love, and forgiveness in the Last Supper. This is the righteousness He feeds us with, by which He fills us.
Yes, at the altar He receives His brethren, not angry at them, not calling them “moron,” not calling out “Raca!” His blood speaks better things than the blood of Abel, calling out for vengeance. His blood speaks forgiveness.
And the Lord would have His Church, His Body, strictly adhere to this new understanding of righteousness. All commandments are about Christ, His love for us, His fulfillment of their implicit righteousness. Again, the task of a teacher is to unpack those commandments from the beginning of their every jot and tittle, through to their fulfillment in Jesus Christ. And not just to teach them, but to “do and teach” them.
And how do you “do” a commandment fulfilled in Christ? How do you “do” something that you’re fed with or filled with? How do you “do” something that belongs to God and which you are to seek, namely, His righteousness? All the teachings about righteousness to this point seem to manifestly be about righteousness done to us! And Jesus now speaks of righteousness as something we “do and teach.” How do we “do” what is done in Christ?
Well, how about “this do, as often as you eat of it”? But of course, it doesn’t end there, but the “do” is carried over into our daily lives as we forgive others, withhold judgment and condemnation, have mercy, and give. This is the righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees. It exceeds not because it surpasses it on some measuring rod but because it’s wholly other, because it’s source is not from us, but from the Lord.