Righteousness That Falls Short
One of the most common opponents of Jesus were the Pharisees, and they were known for their outward show of ‘righteousness’ among the Jews, their strict adherence to the Law [which was not exactly the case], and for being the biggest hypocrites in the land. While they counted themselves as the most righteous of all their Jewish brethren and even other religious leaders, Jesus did not agree. In fact, He began the Sermon on the Mount by telling His audience, “For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:20). So, what was this ‘righteousness’ of the scribes and Pharisees that fell short of what God desires of us? How can we exceed such a righteousness? Consider, first, the so-called ‘righteousness’ of the scribes and Pharisees.
Self-Determined Righteousness. (Matt. 23:2) Jesus began His rebuke of the scribes and Pharisees by reminding His audience that they “sit in Moses’ seat”; that is, they have taken upon themselves a position of authority, for it was not given to them by God. We are all likely familiar with the term self-righteous, and if anyone fit the definition, it was the Pharisees and the scribes. After all, it was they whom Jesus condemned for setting aside the commandments of God so they could keep their traditions (Mark 7:8); who gave them such authority to determine what should or should not be obeyed? It wasn’t God! No, they had determined they could set aside God’s commandments, even as they considered themselves ‘righteous’!
On another occasion, when the religious leaders had sent soldiers to arrest Jesus, and those men came back without Jesus, the soldiers replied, “No man ever spoke like this Man!” It was then the Pharisees spoke up and asked, “Are you also deceived? Have any of the rulers or the Pharisees believed in Him? But this crowd that does not know the law is accursed” (John 7:45-49). Can’t you just hear the arrogance in their voices? It’s as if they were saying, “We are the standard by which everyone should be judged, and if we don’t believe in Him, neither should anyone else!” To them, evidence was irrelevant; they alone determined what should be believed!
Today, we still have arrogant religious leaders who set aside the commands of God and Christ to follow their traditions, their creeds, and their desires. What are these men and organizations other than self-righteous, for they likewise set aside the inconvenient commands of our Lord, and those that clearly contradict the teachings of their leaders and organizations, and then insult and malign those who defend the very words of Jesus!
Let us acknowledge that, as Jesus noted, “All authority has been given to [Him] in heaven and on earth” (Matt. 28:18), and “He is the head of the body, the church, who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in all things He may have the preeminence” (Col. 1:18). No man and no organization can elevate themselves to the position God gave Christ; no man is His equal or His superior. Any man who does so and then claims to be righteous is no better than the scribes and Pharisees.
They Were Hypocrites. (Matt. 23:3-7) Jesus pointed out the hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees at the beginning of this discourse because He would use that term several more times. So, how were they hypocrites? They would “bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers”; they would “make their phylacteries broad and enlarge the borders of their garments” so they would appear outwardly pious and righteous; and they would do all this by seeking the “best places at feasts, the best seats in the synagogues, greetings in the marketplaces, and to be called by men, ‘Rabbi, Rabbi.’” But these same men, Jesus would say later, “outwardly appear righteous to men, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness” (Matt. 23:28). These men were outwardly one thing, inwardly another.
And as we shake our collective heads at this hypocrisy, let’s make sure we are making a thorough and honest look at ourselves first to make sure we are not doing the same. I cringe when I hear parents tell their kids, “Do as I say, not as I do.” Kids are not dumb; they will soon see that their parents are hypocrites, and they will lose all potential influence on leading them to Christ, if this is their habit. I cringe even more when I see brothers and sisters in Christ speak of their love for the Lord but who go out into the world the other six days of the week and look and live no differently than the unbelieving masses. I cringe when I hear brethren who have vocally stated their love for their brothers and sisters but who have no hesitation about spending more time criticizing and gossiping about those same brothers and sisters.
They Lacked Compassion. (Matt. 23:14, 23) Compassion — a demonstration of our love for our fellow man — is underrated and simply not emphasized as much as it should be. When I consider the matter of our Judgment, as described by Jesus (Matt. 25:31-46), and the only difference [in that scene] being a demonstration of compassion or lack thereof, I should see how important it is to God! But do we?
The scribes and Pharisees were condemned for “devour[ing] widows’ houses” and then “for a pretense make long prayers” (Matt. 23:14). Again, an outward show of piety, but a cold, loveless heart within. These are the ones whom Jesus would later rebuke, saying, “you pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone” (Matt. 23:23). The fact was, the scribes and Pharisees were sticklers for law-keeping, but somehow managed to overlook some of the more important commands like “justice and mercy and faith”! Sadly, it was not an accidental oversight; it was purposeful! They were cold-hearted, loveless men who didn’t really care for their fellow man at all.
From the beginning, God has wanted His people to love their fellow man, to show compassion, and to be merciful. Through Micah, God asked, “And what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Mic. 6:8). Things have not changed on this! So important was mercy that God actually once had to tell His people — whom He had commanded to make sacrifices — “I desire mercy and not sacrifice” (Hos. 6:6). It wasn’t that He no longer wanted sacrifices, but that they were neglecting something very important! Let us not forget to show mercy, and to demonstrate genuine compassion on those who are in need, lest we be denied mercy when we need it most (Jas. 2:13).
So, looking back at the declaration of Jesus that our righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees, we now have a better picture of what that is: (1) It must be a righteousness not of our own determination, but a righteousness of God (2 Cor. 5:21); (2) it must be a righteousness that is genuine, rather than merely an outward show; and (3) it must be one that emphasizes compassion and mercy towards out fellow man, regardless of whether we think him ‘worthy’ or not. Friends and brethren, how does our righteousness compare?
Take the time to examine self, acknowledge Christ as the standard. Be more like Him. — Steven Harper