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.
—Matthew 5:20, NIV
We get a false impression about the Pharisees and the “teachers of the law” if we do not read the gospels attentively. We pay very close attention to Jesus’ denunciation of certain Pharisaic and clerical abuses, and fail to fully appreciate the background against which they took place.
Of all the Jewish sects in existence during the time of the gospels, the Pharisees had the support of the common people, and it was the only Jewish sect that extended beyond Palestine. (Consequently, it was the only Jewish sect that survived the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, and it has evolved into today’s normative Judaism.) Pharisees were widely regarded as the epitome of righteousness and proper religion. It was therefore very easy for the Pharisees to abuse this respect and lay huge burdens of guilt upon the population.
Rabbis (or “teachers of the law,” since “rabbi” is Hebrew for “teacher” ) are more than just the Jewish equivalent of religious ministers. The Pharisaic movement included both lay people and what we would call clergy (the rabbis), but Jesus singled out the rabbis because of the special authority they exercise. Rabbis are the authoritative interpreters of the Law as it applies to everyday life. They function to this day as advisers, healers, counselors, exorcists, and health inspectors. It was because of Jesus’ status as a rabbi, for example, that so many strangers just walked up to Him and asked Him for healing or exorcisms: it was a normal expectation that rabbis would do such things. (Moses Maimonides, the famous medieval rabbi, recorded that he even had regular office hours to see patients!) The novelty surrounding Jesus was not that He could cure diseases and exorcise demons, but that He could do it instantly, without herbs or medicine, and just by saying the word.
Because Pharisees and rabbis commanded such respect and carried so much authority, their word carried a lot of weight. If they applied God’s word without God’s compassion, they could cause quite a lot of human misery. I read about a recent incident in which a religious authority warned a man of the consequences of his sins, but inadvertently used terms that the man took to mean that there was no way to avoid his fate. Upon leaving the counseling session, the man took out a revolver and blew out his brains on the church steps. So whoever wields religious authority must never speak without thinking twice. Jesus rebuked the Pharisees and the rabbis for situations like this.
So when Jesus told the people that they had to be even more righteous than Pharisees and rabbis, how the words must have stung! How could they as common, uneducated people, even find the time to be as fastidiously religious as the Pharisees? How could mere peasants be wiser than the rabbis, who spent many years in erudite scholastic training to attain their academic credentials? Why, a common person could hardly be expected to master even the ins and outs of kosher dietary laws, let alone the wisdom of the Talmud!
So we can see how Jesus’ immediate audience must have been transported at this point to contemplate the infinite!
But what exactly constitutes “righteousness” ? Are we accounted righteous because we understand all the ins and outs of propriety in our church body? Are we considered righteous because of our mastery of the Bible? Are we considered righteous because we can take any headline from the newspaper and fit it in with some scheme for interpreting Revelation? Are we considered righteous because of the ways in which we reject the traditions of other Christian bodies? Are we considered righteous for our prayers and our attendance at religious functions? Who could imagine Jesus saying such things!
The righteousness that the Pharisees, the rabbis, and the minister in my anecdote all lacked consisted in this: they did not truly love God, or they would have shared His compassion and His love for His people. They did not truly have faith in God, or they would not have attempted to judge and condemn in His place. In this world, applying knowledge without compassion or religiosity without spirituality is like passing around an empty water jug to thirsty people in the desert. It is worse than doing nothing, because it abuses people and defames God.
You must be more righteous than the Pharisees and the rabbis. The Pharisees in your church always know the right thing to do at the right time of the year; they are sticklers for propriety, and as far as that goes, it is a good thing. But Jesus died for the worshippers, not for the order of worship, not for the absence or presence of liturgy, and certainly not to decide whether we come forward or remain seated for communion. The scholars and the teachers in your church always know the answers to any historical or doctrinal question; they edify the faithful by clearing up any intellectual problems, and as far as that goes, it is a good thing. But Jesus died for everyone, not just for people who can pass a sort of spiritual SAT test or can produce a Bible quote for any occasion.
So we read that we must be more righteous than the Pharisees and the rabbis, and with our grandiose overestimation of ourselves and our condescending appraisal of Jewish religious authorities of the first century, we smile in hypocritical self-satisfaction. But hear and heed the word of the Lord! You must be more righteous than the most fastidious nit-picker and the most authoritative teacher in your own church today! You must love the Lord, thus you must love the ones for whom He died. You must have faith in God, thus you must not preempt His judgment in your religious zeal.
You must be righteous people!