By Pastor David M. Choi
For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. -Matthew 5:20
If you’ve been around the church for some time, you’ll have noticed, whether from the pastor’s preaching or from your small group bible studies, that the scribes and Pharisees are often portrayed in a negative light. And if that so happens to be you, then you know that one of the main reasons for such an unfavorable depiction is because they are the prototypical examples of religious hypocrisy. It is beyond dispute that the scribes and Pharisees were some of the most theologically well-educated and biblically well-trained people in the ancient world. They knew the ins and outs of God’s law, as they had devoted their entire lives to its correct teaching, interpretation, as well as implementation. Yet, despite their grand credentials, Jesus still calls them hypocrites.
Today when we call someone a ‘hypocrite’ what we usually mean by that is someone who says one thing at one moment but then goes on to do something completely different at another moment, something that contradicts what that person said before. And in the gospels, we see instances of the Pharisees doing just that. For example, the Pharisees instruct others to take care of the widow, the poor, the sick, and the orphaned, but they themselves are unwilling to heed their own instructions. For when it came to matters of social justice, they couldn’t be bothered – even though God had explicitly commanded it – because these social practices didn’t attract the attention of a wider audience. They wanted their righteousness to be seen.
So, instead of tending to the destitute as God had commanded them, the Pharisees geared their focus towards flashy religious performances. In this, we notice that it was not only important for them to be seen, but specifically to be seen as those who were righteous before God. But you and I both know that that’s not what they really cared about. To draw a current analogy, it’s kind of like going on a bunch of missions trips so that other people would see us as good Christians, even though we’re really okay with not spending time with God behind closed doors, or taking care of the least of these within our own communities back home when we’re out in public. For this reason, Jesus rebukes them. Not because of their strict observance of religious rituals per se, but because their ritual observances were not aimed at their proper end, namely, bringing glory to God, evinced by their neglect of God’s commands to take care of the poor. And so, by exposing their outward hypocrisy, Jesus exposes an inward kind as well.
When Jesus says that our righteousness ought to surpass that of the Pharisees our initial reaction may be one of perplexity, since some of us equate doing religious things with hypocrisy itself. But if you read the preceding verses, Jesus says, “[W]hoever relaxes 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 does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” In other words, Jesus is saying you actually should obey God’s commands according to the strict manner of the Pharisees, but unlike the Pharisees you are to obey all of His commands [you don’t get to pick and choose!], and you do so for the sake of God’s glory. If all of this sounds daunting, that’s because it is. Thank God, however, that we don’t have to do this alone! So, how do I live according to His righteousness?
You start by having your heart changed and transformed by the gospel, by realizing that you can’t live in true righteousness apart from Christ. Only when the gospel begins to possess you in this way will you then be on your way towards becoming slightly less of a hypocrite and a person with a bit more integrity. You see, contrary to popular belief, God’s primary concern is not with your outward behavior. For if that were the case, then you’d remain a miserable hypocrite. Rather, His primary concern is with your heart, because what generates your hypocritical behavior is from what’s within. So, what you really need is invasive surgery, not the application of bandaids. Like a good surgeon, God doesn’t merely treat your outward symptoms, but rather goes to the very source of your illness. Which is why He says He has to remedy your sick heart by first pouring His grace into you, for only then will your righteousness surpass that of the Pharisees’.
Going back to where we started, we saw that the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees consisted of two main things: (1) not living what they preach [hypocrisy in the outer life], and (2) deceiving others about their relationship with God [hypocrisy in the inner life]. So, when Christ says your righteousness ought to surpass theirs, what He’s saying is that you need to do better than hypocritical righteousness. You might fool others, but you’re certainly not fooling God! As we’ve seen, though, this can only happen with the help of God’s grace, which comes from serving others and from participating in the life of the church. As a result, what ends up happening is divine grace begins to consume you, upon which something miraculous happens: you start to obey what God has commanded, and all that God has commanded, with a righteous heart, so that who you are on Sundays now becomes who you are on weekdays. The possibility of genuine integrity opens up. Hence, only by developing this sort of grace-induced integrity can you root out hypocrisy in your life, and only by rooting out hypocrisy in your life will you then actually be a righteous person, able to enter the kingdom of heaven.
So, does your righteousness exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees? Assess your heart by reflecting on these questions: How do I see myself being a hypocrite? Does my character at church match my character at school and at home? When I’m at church am I merely putting on a religious show for my pastor, my leaders, and my parents? Is my life genuinely consistent in obeying all of God’s commands both in public and in private? When I worship does my heart truly seek to glorify God, or am I just mouthing the words, pretending to be better than I actually am? When I serve others, do I intentionally go out of my way to make sure other people can see me, or am I willing to serve without any recognition? Do I find myself serving others by my own free initiative, or does it always take someone else having to ask me?
As you think about the quality of your righteousness, alongside the level of your spiritual maturity, be honest. Besides, God already knows what’s in your heart. Afterwards, spend some time in prayer, and ask Christ to change you from the inside out.