Righteousness that exceeds Scribes and Pharisees

May 8, 2020

by Barry Fike

          How do you define righteousness?  We normally compute righteousness with holiness.  In this context, righteousness doesn’t have anything to do with holiness as we think of holiness.  In Hebrew, a thing, a person, or a place cannot be holy.  Only God is holy.  Holy is an attribute that belongs uniquely to God.  The only reason why a person or a place or a thing could ever be deemed to be holy, would be because God would be there.   So we’re not holy.  Only as He is in us and we become as He is will we be holy.  When Jesus talks about tsedakah he’s talking about rightness in action or in performance.  He says unless you’re doing the law, and it exceeds the actions of the scribes and Pharisees, that you’re not going to be a part of my movement, a part of the kingdom. 

          The scribes and Pharisees were extremely scrupulous in their religious observances.  Are we to be more righteous than they if we want to “get to heaven”?

          By the time of Jesus, the rich Old Testament word tsedakah (”righteousness” in the sense of “deliverance” or “salvation”) had come to have a second, more restricted meaning - “almsgiving” (monetary help to the poor). In the eyes of the Pharisees, almsgiving, prayer, and fasting were the three most important components of righteous living.  Almsgiving was the most important of the three, and so synonymous with righteousness that in time it came itself to be called “righteousness”.  In Matthew 5:20 Jesus is playing on these two meanings of the word tsedakah - the older, broader meaning (“salvation”), and the new, narrower meaning (“almsgiving”).   

          In Jesus’ day almsgiving had become a meritorious deed in some circles. Many Jews, like many Christians today, believed they could work out their own righteousness instead of submitting to the righteousness of God (Rom. 10:3).  But Jesus said, “If your tsedakah is not bigger than the tsedakah of the scribes and Pharisees - in other words, if it is the undersized tsedakah of the scribes and Pharisees, and not that mighty tsedakah of which the prophets spoke - then you will not get into the Kingdom of Heaven.” Remember, Jesus always refers to his movement as the "Kingdom of Heaven", and that the Kingdom of Heaven of Jesus is not futuristic.  “Kingdom of Heaven” is Jesus’ name for his movement, the body of his disciples; and “to enter to come into the Kingdom of Heaven” means to become a disciple or believer.  (It does not mean “to go to heaven”). 

          If your righteousness or salvation is reduced solely to almsgiving, Jesus admonished, you will not be in my movement, the Kingdom of Heaven.  If it is your tsedakah, and not God's tsedakah, you will miss God’s tsedakah (salvation) altogether.  You will not find it because you will be looking for it in the wrong place.[1] 

          Following his statement about the Torah in Matthew 5:17-20, Jesus gives five illustrations of this approach to the Torah (Matt. 5:21-30, 33-48), in each juxtaposing two commandments, one heavy and one light.  For example, Jesus mentioned the command, “Do not murder,” and then added, “But I say unto you, ‘Do not hate your brother in your heart.’”  In other words, according to Jesus’ approach, to hate or be angry with someone was no less serious than to murder someone!  Using similar logic, he made the sin of looking at a woman lustfully equivalent to committing adultery with her (Matt. 5: 27, 28).[2]

          For the rest of chapter five (vs. 21-47) Jesus will promote a very common idea in rabbinic ideas known as “building a fence around the law”.  This is the practice of taking precautionary steps to avoid the temptations to violate the laws of the Torah.  It was a way of making extra-certain to follow God’s will.[3]  The rabbis would make these precautionary steps part of the corpus of Jewish law in the Talmud.  One example would be avoiding the mixing of milk and meat in one’s dining in order to avoid the remote possibility of “boiling a kid in its mothers milk” (Deut. 14:21).  We might be consuming cheese from a calf whose mother was the cow whose meat we are eating.  Jesus builds a fence around the Torah in the Sermon on The Mount (vs. 21-47) by saying, “You have hard it say, ‘You shall not murder.”  Jesus says, ‘If you are angry with a brother or sister, you shall be liable to judgment.’  To those who heard it said, ‘You shall not commit adultery’, Jesus says, ‘Everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.’”  Jesus notes the Torah law, and then makes it stricter.[4]    Today we emphasize the same “rule of law” in our own lives when we need to arrive at a meeting on time but have the propensity of being late constantly. We will write the time of the meeting on our calendar 15 minutes ahead of time to make sure that we are more likely to arrive on time. We build tricks into our practices so that we are sure to keep our commitment.  Jesus knows the propensity of humans to become somewhat slack in our observation of guidelines, or laws, given to us.   Building a fence around the law is a way of recognizing our human fallibility and building in ways to make sure we follow Gods word. 

          The larger context of Jesus’ saying includes Matthew 5:21-48…Six times in these twenty-seven verses Jesus used the phrase, “But I say to you, “and each time he was offering his own distinctive interpretation on a specific verse from the Torah.  One could suggest that Jesus’ words represent a response not to a proverb, but to an exegetical tradition linked to a verse from the Torah.  If so, one may find clues helpful for illuminating the exegetical background of Jesus’ saying embedded in Second Temple-period Jewish literature.[5]

              [1] Blizzard, Understanding the Difficult words of Jesus, 150-152.

              [2] Bivin, 97. 

              [3] Rabbi Evan Moffic.  What Every Christian Needs to Know About the Jewishness of Jesus.  Abingdon Press: Nashville, TN, 2015. 140. 

              [4] Moffic, 140. 

              [5] Bivin, 89-90.