Jesus said: “I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council” (5:20-22 – NRSV).
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart’” (5:27-28 – NRSV).
(This is the shorter version. The longer version may be proclaimed – Matthew 5:17-37.)
Luke contains a similar passage about anger – see Luke 12:57-59.
The contrast of Jesus’ way with that of the religious authorities of his day, is a theme in Matthew’s Gospel. Thus we have six contrasts in this part of the Gospel – two are present in our text.
This contrast between the Way of Jesus and the way of the religious authorities, is also strongly present in the writings of St Paul – see for example Romans 10:3. This text of St Paul to the Romans – written about twenty years before Matthew’s Gospel, though obviously sharing in the same oral tradition – is one to which we must return.
unless your righteousness etc: The Pharisees were renowned for their focus on fidelity to the Torah. Jesus is not asking for that kind of righteousness but something much deeper. Jesus’ words should not be taken as a demand that his disciples should try harder than the pharisees and keep the precepts of the law more meticulously. These words must be taken in the context of the Sermon on the Mount – Matthew 5:1-7:29 – and especially The Beatitudes – Matthew 5:1-12. The “kingdom of heaven” is not about keeping laws and observing precepts – though, as a matter of fact, it will include that. It is about love. One commentator writes: “Jesus calls for his followers to have a righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees. He is surely using the term righteousness in a sense different from that which the scribes and Pharisees attached to it. They looked for strict legal correctness, whereas Jesus looked for love. They stressed the keeping of the law, and from the standpoint of the lawkeeper it is not easy to see how anyone could exceed their righteousness. Along the lines of lawkeeping who could possibly exceed the righteousness of those who tithed mint, dill, and cummin (23:23)? But Jesus has already spoken of a different kind of righteousness (3:15), and it is central to the Christian gospel that Jesus would fulfil all that Scripture means in making a new way, a way in which he would bring those who believe in him to salvation. This does not mean cheap grace, for the words of this verse bring out the truth that those who have been touched by Jesus live on a new plane, a plane in which the keeping of God’s commandments is important. Their righteousness is a given righteousness. Nowhere do we get the idea that the servant of God achieves in his own strength the kind of living that gives him standing before God. But when he is given that standing, Jesus looks to him to live in accordance with that standing. Later in this sermon Jesus will emphasize the spirit rather than the letter of the law. The Pharisees put a tremendous emphasis on the letter of the law, but Jesus was looking for something very different from the Pharisaic standard. For them it was a matter of observing regulations (and softening them where possible), but for him it was keeping the commandments in depth; he taught a radical obedience” (Leon Morris, The Gospel according to Matthew, Grand Rapids, MI; Leicester, England: W.B. Eerdmans; Inter-Varsity Press, 1992, 111).
Another commentator takes up the same theme, including the writings of St Paul – such as the reference to Romans 10:3 cited above. It is worth quoting in full: “It is hardly news that there was a very profound clash between Jesus and the Pharisees and that Paul’s conversion instigated a dialectic no less violent. But later Christian animosity has badly distorted the true nature of this confrontation. Pharisees are described as hypocrites or as uncaring legalists and inhuman externalises who imposed on others burdens they themselves would not bear. Most of which is inaccurate, unhistorical, and purely polemical. ….
“Apart from the damage such caricatures have done to Judaism and the relationship of Christianity to it, there is another very serious result within Christianity itself. When Christianity is no longer aware of what Jesus and Paul were fighting against in Pharisaic Judaism, it can hardly be conscious of a similar presence within itself. The debate did not concern good law as over against bad law or even internal and sincere law as over against external and hypocritical law. The challenge of Jesus and Paul was this: obedience does not lead to God, but God leads one to obedience. The question is not God or law, covenant or commandment, faith or works, but, granting both, in which direction does the arrow fly from one to the other? It must be emphasized that this is not a debate between Judaism and Christianity but a conflict within them both, and a conflict ever ancient and ever new. So, according to Jesus and Paul, it was the gift of God’s presence that made a good life possible, not a good life that made the reward of God’s presence inevitable. …. as Ernst Käsemann has said so succinctly: ‘The righteousness of God does not presuppose our obedience; it creates it. The problem was not so much that one might not be able to obey the law’s excellence but that one might actually do so to perfection and thereby be unable to tell one’s own perfection from God. What exactly were Jesus and Paul fighting? In a final quotation from Käsemann: ‘the community of “good” people which turns God’s commandments into the instruments of self-sanctification’. The enemy was neither stupidity nor hypocrisy but sincerity all too sincere and perfection all too perfect” (John Dominic Crossan, In Parables – The Challenge of the Historical Jesus, Harper and Row, 1973, 80-1).
Central to the Gospels is the promise of a new way of being human. In John it is spoken of, for example, as a new birth (see John 1:51) and a mutual abiding (see John 15:1-17). In the Synoptic Gospels it is referred to variously as “the kingdom of God” or “the kingdom of heaven” or, simply, “the kingdom”. This new way of being human is not achieved through mastery, it is received as gift – unmerited gift! It is not a moral conquest but a free gift. Today’s Gospel – Matthew 5:20-22 & 27-28 – opens with the challenging declaration: “I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven”. What are we to make of this?
On the face of it, it seems like Jesus is summoning us, much as Lady Macbeth summoned her vacillating husband. Although the wanted outcome was clearly nefarious in their case. However, the attitude was not that dissimilar to that which is sometimes passed off as Christian commitment. In the face of Macbeth’s timid question, “If we should fail?”, Lady Macbeth says: “We fail? But screw your courage to the sticking place, and we’ll not fail” (Macbeth Act 1, Scene 7).
The triumph of the human will! Where is grace and graciousness? Where is gratitude and joy? What happens to our humanity? It is not insignificant that Lady Macbeth has death in mind when she evokes this wilful attitude. It is an attitude calculated to kill – even when it is said to be about goodness and truth and holiness.
St Paul, in his Letter to the Romans – written about 20 years before Matthew’s Gospel –writes: “Brothers and sisters, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for (the Jews) is that they may be saved. I can testify that they have a zeal for God, but it is not enlightened. For, being ignorant of the righteousness that comes from God, and seeking to establish their own, they have not submitted to God’s righteousness. For Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes” (Romans 10:1-4).
The fact that this Letter was written a generation before Matthew’s Gospel, and that Matthew’s Gospel is acknowledged to be the result of a longstanding oral tradition, imply that there was in the early Christian community an understanding of righteousness, virtue, moral goodness – call it what you will – that was very different from that generally taught by the religious authorities of the time.
So how might we interpret Jesus’ declaration? I think it is reasonable to say that Jesus has the best interests of his listeners at heart, that he wants more than anything to share with them this new way of being – a being in love. He is therefore pointing out here and elsewhere how they might open themselves up to receive the gift of being in love, the kingdom of God. Meister Eckhart would say: Get out of the way and let God be God in you!