I say to you: Unless your righteousness surpasses the scribes and Pharisees, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven. - Jesus (Matthew 5:20)That must have been something to hear if you were a Pharisee, or a scribe. Those groups prided themselves on their righteousness. They were strict observers of the law. And there they were held up as examples -- of people who weren't good enough.
Jesus puts together an interesting teaching. First, he starts by lining up points in favor of the Law:
- He hasn't come to abolish the Law or the Prophets
- He has come to fulfill the Law and the Prophets
- Not a pen stroke will disappear from the Law, not until heaven and earth disappear, until everything is accomplished
- Those who break the law or teach others to do the same will be least in the kingdom of heaven
- Those who keep the law and teach others to do the same will be great in the kingdom of heaven
So why is the very next thing out of his mouth that the scribes and Pharisees -- those who teach and keep the law most zealously -- need to be surpassed?
Here again I'll mention that "inerrancy" can distract us from understanding Scripture. Because if the ancient Law of Moses is "inerrant" and what Jesus says is also "inerrant" then aren't they on the same level? And nothing can surpass anything, if "inerrancy" is the highest you can go, and everything in Scripture is at that level. Again we see "inerrancy" fall short of describing what we see in Scripture.
Jesus follows his statements on the greatness of the law with statements on how the law can be surpassed -- or truly fulfilled. His words, repeated time and again throughout his teaching, make a recognizable refrain: "You have heard that it was said (or, it has been said) ... but I say" (Matthew 5:21-22, 5:27-28, 5:31-32, 5:33-34, 5:38-39, 5:43-44). It's easy to see why he started by saying -- several different ways -- that he had not come to abolish the law; otherwise, his statements could easily have been taken as an attack on it. He calls for a pure heart, for surpassing goodness in the face of evil, for surpassing service in the face of our obligations. In the grand finale of those teachings, we see just how far Jesus' teachings of righteousness surpass the Law of Moses, and the Scribes, and the Pharisees:
I tell you: Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He makes the sun rise on the evil and the good, and brings the rain on the just and the unjust. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Don't even tax collectors [traitors and thieves] do that? If you greet only your brothers, what is the excellence of that? Don't even pagans [idol worshipers] do that? Be perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect. (Matthew 5:43-48)
The goodness that Jesus calls for is something he says we already do some people. What we lack is to do the same for our enemies. What we lack is mercy; we would rather judge. Ultimately, we lack love.
Now it's natural for us to try to turn everything into a set of rules -- a system where we win. But that's not how love works. It's not possible to love someone so that they can be a step on the ladder to getting something else -- whatever that is, it doesn't deserve to be called "love".
That's one way the righteousness of the law is good, but can be surpassed. How many times in the gospel do we see people use the law to tattle on someone, or as an excuse to put them down and look good in comparison? Remember the times Jesus healed someone on the Sabbath, and one person or another got all indignant about working on a day of rest? As if God would allow a miracle if he objected to it. Someone who looks at a miracle and calls it a sin, that has to set a new record in missing the point. And the same kind of mistake happened when Jesus reached out to obvious sinners. The lost is found, the wayward son comes home, there is rejoicing in heaven, God's love overflows in generosity and mercy -- and someone is there to use the law as a scorecard to try to put an obstacle in the way of love. Jesus calls for a righteousness that surpasses that.
Keeping the law is not necessarily petty. It takes determination and dedication. The Pharisees had the dedication, the determination, and the zeal. In their determination to be faultless, they risked becoming heartless. But even if they succeeded in keeping the laws faultlessly, Jesus would still have called them to a righteousness that surpasses that: The kind that turns the other cheek, and goes the extra mile, and loves even the enemy.