better than the pharisees

I‘m slowly memorizing the Sermon on the Mount as I meditate my way through it.  I emphasize slowly — as in, it’s my goal to finish before 2011.  I probably should figure it up, but I bet that’s less than five words a day…  which makes it seem a lot easier than does the overwhelming feeling I have in my stomach every time I have to turn a page in my Bible.  Anyway, there’s this one verse that keeps calling me back over and over again.  I can’t get it off my mind — and I can’t really figure it out either.  I’d like to ask you guys for some of your ideas as to what it means. I’m placing it inside its immediate context below, but the verse I really want to get at the meaning of is Matthew 5:20.  I’ve bolded it below:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law of the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.  I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.  Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.

At that point, Jesus goes on to teach all the “You have heard it said…” lessons, starting with murder, anger, and calling your brother a fool.

So, any ideas?  What does it mean for my righteousness to surpass that of the Pharisees and teachers of the law? And are they the lower limit for entering into heaven… or the upper limit for not?  Feel free to comment, and then to check back for discussion.  Honestly, we don’t normally do that on my blog, but I’m hoping we can for this text.



Filed under musings on the Word

17 responses to “better than the pharisees

  1. randy morgan

    great question, brett.

    first off, let me say that i do not know the answer to your question. in fact, i’m not even in the position to speculate with any level of intellectual confidence. i would like to add a comment, though…is that okay?

    to me, your question points back to our recent discussion of the emotional moment at the end of a gospel meeting where we (leaders) ask people to raise their hands (and, in fact, it even touches on your question of “what should we count?”). the “righteousness of the pharisees” would seem to indicate a behavior-based attempt to conform to a written code. they were clean on the outside and filthy on the inside. jesus seems to be calling his followers to a righteousness that goes beyond mental capitulation all the way to a heart change. if he came to “fulfill” the law, then obedience to the law now requires submission to his authority and lordship–not a mere following of the rules.

    in my demented mind, this truth points to the hand-raising deal, because we (the american church) have perpetuated the myth that once one makes a “decision for christ,” then one can safely consider one’s ticket punched. consequently, most american preachers preach every sunday to pews full of people who “got saved” at one time or another, but have progressed in their faith not one inch. they are spiritually complacent, they are not striving to become christlike, and they are doing nothing to expand the kingdom.

    are these people going to heaven? does their righteousness exceed that of the pharisees?

    • randy, is it fair for me to summarize by saying Jesus is calling for us to:
      – go beyond behavior-based codes
      – have a change in heart
      – submit to the authority and Lordship of Christ
      – continue growing after a “salvation experience”

  2. Ike

    It is very important to see His point right here. The Pharasees had a high degree of righteousness according to the Law, but that was not acceptable. How can you and I surpass their righteousness? It is impossible in our own efforts. We need Christ to do it for us.

  3. “Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven”

    This throws the fundamentalist inside of me for a loop considering that Jesus apparently “broke” rules. In fact, the only way one could say that He didn’t is to assume that the rules were not to be followed literally but interpreted and applied to individual situations.

    And not only that, but Jesus said “least” of these commandments. Have you read some of those “least” commandments in Leviticus, Numbers, or Deuteronomy lately? Sheesh.

    As far as righteousness surpassing that of the pharisees goes, I think that Jesus is referring to the “heart” of the matter. That it’s not the obedience to rules that matters…but mercy and love (which is what He eventually gets to at the end of Mt. 5). And I think He bursts a lot of those obedient Pharisees’ bubble with the teaching that follows, which basically makes us all murderers and adulterers no matter how hard we try to follow the rules. It is interesting to note the progression He (or at least the author) makes in Mt. 5, though. It starts with a disqualification of sorts…we’re all horrible sinners…in fact, even the Pharisees who follow the law so well aren’t worthy of the kingdom of heaven. And it progresses to the gist of our faith: love. Finally He says for us to “be perfect” after He just showed how impossible it is for us to be a perfect law-abider. However, if I remember right, I think 1 John says that we are made perfect in love.

    So, to wrap up my hopelessly scattered thoughts: Jesus uses the part of Mt 5 that you quoted and the part where he calls us all murderers and adulterers (b/c who of us hasn’t hated or lusted?) to show that we can never be made “perfect” by following the law as the Pharisees believe. That we are only made perfect in love. Does that make any sense?

    • trey, good point. Jesus says they can’t break rules, yet he did. so his understanding of breaking rules is obviously different than what they would be thinking…

      i also like the “set-up” that we’re hopeless to be righteous enough on our own, but that we can be perfect in Christ. and your post does make sense. thanks.

  4. here’s a question i’ve got. those who break the rules and teach others to do the same will be called the least in the kingdom of heaven. does that still mean they’ll be in the kingdom of heaven? that’s what it sounds like…

    • David Robinson

      Here’s my shot…I too have been enamored lately with the sermon on the mount. Not sure that I’m going to memorize though buddy!

      This probably going to be riddled with error and bad theology, but perhaps that may be point entirely.

      I have read this passage back and forth numerous times and have been perplexed much the same as you. It is juxtaposed between points that seem contradictory.

      I think the whole sermon on the mount is jesus painting a picture (a term borrowed from Brother John Gardner). Jesus doesn’t try to teach us to color by number. That produces a boring, predictable, and bland blob on canvas. Jesus inspires us. He gives us a story and says finish it for me baby. Jesus, is painting a portrait of what Love looks like. It’s so beautiful we can’t really understand how to paint that picture when we concentrate on filling in the numbered dots. His version is so much more perfect because he goes so much further.

      I think jesus was speaking to some of his super dedicated but poor in spirit. ASIDE: I fear I miss so many sermon on the mount experiences. Not dedicated enough and too complacent to follow a radical messiah up the side of a mountain, I’d be reading a book about or just day-dreaming about the messiah.

      He’s already told his listeners they’re blessed (beatitudes). They have all of these worldly deficiencies, but since they are listening to his voice, they are truly BLESSED. They are blessed because they have shown by their willingness to follow him up a mountain, that they have excepted the grace and power of his love-revolution.

      He’s about to teach those awesome followers what his/and his daddy’s perfect vision is for their lives. It is a picture so controversial and radical that he felt he needed to add this part in there. To me it’s jesus saying, if you have a question (and only those of you who have defective love antennae will need this (probably from legalistic upbringing)) just go ahead and revert back to the old law. Otherwise, Love is the answer. Which one loves more? Do that one, kid.

      If you’re looking for your righteousness to get you to heaven, try out that pharisee way of getting there. Brett, I definitely think that pharisee way is closer to the upper limit of not making it, BUT it seems to me that jesus always hated that question. Who’s gonna be the greatest? who’s gonna be right hand? who’s blah blah blah?

      We do know that whoever humbles himself like a child will not only enter the kingdom of heaven but will in fact be greatest in the kingdom matt 18. That’s quite the opposite of the pharisees, right? Sounds a lot like jesus spinning things around as always. To be great, become a Servant. To be first, stepped to the back.

      I think in this questionable area he is simply saying, don’t get too carried away and just forget all of the prophets and the things we’ve learned. I didn’t come to make them obsolete, I have come to show you what that was all leading up to. I complete you Jerry McGuire or something.

      Doesn’t reading the sermon on the mount just make you love jesus. he is so cool. his thought process was just totally different, and the beauty is that he actually did the things he’s talking about. He really loved his enemies and turned the other cheek.

      • “if you have a question (and only those of you who have defective love antennae will need this (probably from legalistic upbringing)) just go ahead and revert back to the old law. Otherwise, Love is the answer.”

        david, i’m with you on everything but maybe this. and i might be on this. not sure. i just feel like too often we (not necessarily you and/or i) want to throw out the old law in favor of love. and i know the two greatest commands are about love. but i guess i’m seeing Jesus as saying, “let’s keep these laws, but read them through the lens of love… and mercy.” for sure, when in doubt, err on the side of love — but those laws were written to help us understand love. (i think)

        i guess i hear people suggesting that God has a higher standard to which he calls us today. like it used to be about rules and now it’s about relationship. or it used to be about what you did with your hands, and now it’s about the heart. and i’m pretty sure God wanted the heart and the mercy and the love the whole time — i don’t think he changed his standard as much as he demonstrated it more clearly in Christ. i think he wanted all along for the jews to know when to “break” a law in order to love. the prophets seem to address this kind of thing often. and there are psalms that seem to describe it.

        i think i’m less writing a reaction to your thoughts, and more writing about what they made me think of… your thoughts?

    • Since you’re asking (although I think you are interpreting this verse too literally), I think it can be read two ways (maybe more, but I only see two). 1) the rule-breakers are in heaven but will be the “least” of those there. 2) the rule-breakers aren’t in heaven and those in heaven will call the rule-breakers the “least”.

      If heaven is a place where people are spending time talking bad about sinners (calling them the “least” and whatnot) then it’s not the place I imagine it to be (or the place I think Scripture describes it to be). So, if one is to interpret the scripture literally as if Jesus really is trying to say who is going to heaven and who is not here (which I don’t think is the intention of the verse), then I’m going with #1. 🙂

      • good ideas, trey. including the one about me interpreting the verse too literally. i very well may be doing that. but it just seems to me that Jesus didn’t say things accidently. i mean it must have had some meaning to him. and whichever way i end up interpreting it, i promise i won’t hang my salvation on it — or anybody else’s. i just figure if it might give me even a tiny bit more understanding of the kingdom, i’ll grab hold of it.

        and if i had to choose, i also go with #1. it reminds me of the text where paul tells the church leaders they should be careful to build on the foundation he laid. because if they build on any other, they will (summarizing) just barely make it into heaven, as if by the skin of their neck. it’s something like that. and what they built will be burned up.

        but the real reason i wanted to look at that little section is because it seems to me like he’s saying someone can miss some rules and even teach others wrongly, but still be more righteous than the pharisees — and therefore, have part in the kingdom of heaven. which would fit my theology, i think. and might lessen the number of fights between denominations…

      • I think that’s a good way to look at it, Brett. You’ve got me interested in that teaching of Paul’s. I’ll have to look it up and reflect on it a bit.

  5. Jim Wade

    Ageeeing with what I think I read in the comments and I might add, what is I think the most primary, I will add this. Jesus had to know a life lived strictly by a set of rules- even the best ones, is not necessarily a life well lived. Life by the rules can lead to fear or arrogance. Fear one might do something wrong( often a part of our church heritage) can prevent one from acting most lovingly to the situation right in front of them. Arrogance preventing one from seeing the reality or stooping to lovingly address that same situation.
    Clearly He is expecting them to dig deeper than rules and to open the eyes of their hearts. This being risky and requiring great adaptability makes it very dificult to define real life by rules. God made such a rambuctious world requiring more wisdom and courage than we can ever muster perfectly, that despite the quality of the rules they alone cannot save, cannot provide real life,and cannot become an end in themselves. And they alone were never the path to God, much less the sole presence of God in the world.

    • good points, jim. i like the idea of a life, even one lived pretty well against the rules, not really being the abundant life Jesus wanted us to have. and the extremes of fear and arrogance — which, i should admit, i’ve been on both sides. and neither was nice.

  6. Christine

    This conversation was kind of frustrating for me because I take “kingdom of heaven” and “heaven” as being two very different things.

  7. C.

    I take it to mean that the law exists for the lawless, but against love, what law is there? I have a feeling that if people in the world were better known for their passion for empathy for its own sake rather than being passionate for empathy for (to make an example) political reasons or even about being passionate for things that perish (like addictions, their own personal vices, fear of gossip and maybe even money and wanting to be known as a workaholic for its own sake, etc.). It’s basically saying to me that if your own personal relationship with the Father is such drudgery and that your main motivation for it is to fulfill any other reason but love (and the conveyance of Christ-like character to others), then you shouldn’t be surprised that you end up (and that you may even currently reside) outside of the kingdom of heaven. But I don’t seriously think that this is meant to be a final judgment: it sounds more like a stern warning against reducing God to the hair-splitting nature of human legalism.

    If I’m way off, I would accept that, too, I didn’t mean to sound as if I had all the answers (because I definitely don’t). I’m just thinking out loud, wondering if something that had been floating in my mind for awhile was actually useful for anyone else.


    • i like this phrasing: “a stern warning against reducing God to the hair-splitting nature of human legalism.”

      i, like you, fear that even the “best” of us are too passionate about reaching the lost, raising our families, and feeding the poor — and not passionate enough about our God.

      thanks for coming by, c, and for commenting.

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