HOLIER THAN THOU?
In His amazing mountain sermon, Jesus says this, “…unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” (Matthew 5:20) Does that statement grab you like it does me? Is Jesus urging us to a “holier than thou” attitude? Are we supposed to get in to some sort of religious contest in which we attempt to outdo others?
The Bible is on record as to God’s view of those who feel they are better than others. In Isaiah, chapter sixty-five, God says He is provoked by people “who say, ‘Keep away; don’t come near me, for I am too sacred for you!’” (verse 5) God regards such people as smoke in His nostrils, i.e., He finds them irritating. I’m certainly not God, but I also find it irritating when we humans display such an attitude. And doesn’t Paul, the evangelist, warn us against comparing ourselves to others and drawing conclusions about our spiritual status from the comparisons? (2 Corinthians 10:12) It’s always easy to find someone who hasn’t had the advantages or opportunities we have had, and to come off looking pretty good by contrast. The problem with that approach is that it’s not honest, fair or balanced. There are so many other people with whom we would not favorably compare. We would just as soon not go there. Seeking to justify ourselves through human comparisons is just flat wrong. It’s fine to compare ourselves with others in order to learn and to improve ourselves.
So Jesus isn’t saying that we should be holier than the Pharisees. Is He saying that we should outwork the Pharisees? If we go that route, we need to consider that the Pharisees were very scrupulous about their religion. They had all kinds of rituals and traditions that they taught. There were sincere Pharisees, like Saul of Tarsus (Philippians 3:4-6), who strictly followed these traditions. If our entrance into the Kingdom of Heaven is based on the number of properly performed rituals we put up, we will be laboring under a very heavy and impossible yoke all through our lives.
So…what did Jesus mean when He said our righteousness must exceed that of the Pharisees? Jesus’ main slam against the bulk of the Pharisees (there were some sincere among them) was that they were hypocrites (Matthew 23:13,15,23,25,27,29). It’s not just that they sometimes did hypocritical things, as we all do. They were dyed-in-the-wool hypocrites. They were religious from the teeth outward. It never touched their hearts. They argued a great case. And when all was said and done, much more had been said than had been done. Imagine this scenario, somehow in the great stream of religious duties the Pharisees had produced, they had completely lost touch with God. Isn’t that so sad? The religion of the Pharisees did not include a relationship with their God! I am so glad that could never happen to us, aren’t you? The fact is we must take care that we do not lose our God in the trappings we invent within our religion.
When Jesus said that the righteousness of a citizen of the Kingdom must exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, He wasn’t discussing quantity. He was speaking of quality. The Pharisees’ righteousness was outward, ours must involve our hearts also. It must be inward, outward and upward. Theirs was showy, ours must be real. Theirs sacrificed the most important upon the altar of details, ours must reveal Christ’s priorities of love, justice and mercy while being honest all the way down to the details. Theirs was often verbal and theoretical, ours must be vital and practical. Theirs was based on the number of correctly practiced rituals, ours is based on faith by the grace of God. Theirs is actually powerless. Ours connects us with the One Who does all things well. How can anyone who loves Jesus and keeps their eyes on Him imagine themselves to be holier than anyone else? Seek His exceeding righteousness!