This verse has certainly raised its concerns in the church over the centuries. But understanding this verse is key to understanding the Sermon on the Mount as a whole. What is Jesus saying when He says that “your righteousness must exceed that of the Scribes and Pharisees if one is to enter the Kingdom of Heaven?” Even more important, to whom is He saying it to? Let us see.
The word “for” may be short, but it is important to the exegesis of the verse. The Greek word (gar) translated “for” is used to introduce development of what has just been said. These verses said that Jesus did not come to break even a jot or tittle of the Law and Prophets. We learned in the sermon last week (“Neither Jot or Tittle”) that the Law and prophets was a Jewish way of using the part for the whole. In other words, Jesus came to fulfill every jot and tittle of it. It is a statement of the strongest sort supporting the inspiration of the entire Old Testament as can be found in Scripture. We also discovered that Jesus’ use of “amen” put what He said on equal footing with Scripture.
A comparison was made in verses 17-19 between the unfaithful person who did not practice or teach the entire counsel of God with the blessing of greatness bestowed upon those who scrumptiously practiced and taught it.
Having seen that this verse points back to verses 17-19, then the claim Jesus is making is that the Pharisees and Scribes neither practiced the Word of God nor taught it. When we make this connection, we can also infer that they were excluded from the Kingdom as well because they failed in both counts. In the verses that follow this one, Jesus will show examples of how they failed to keep the Word of God in both practice and teaching.
We sometimes have the mistaken idea that the Pharisees were the religious conservatives and the Sadducees the religious liberals. In fact, as far as the truth of God is concerned, they were both liberals. The Sadducees could be considered conservative in outward form as far as the external aspects of the ceremonial Law was concerned. They knew where there bread was buttered from and did their religious duties anyway, even though they were true skeptics concerning the Scripture itself.
But how were the Pharisees liberals? Did they not profess the absolute inspiration of Scripture? Did they not meticulously try to keep the law even to the point of tithing sprigs of mint? But despite the outward show, they were just as liberal as the Sadducees. The Scribes here were probably those who accompanied the Pharisees, although the Sadducees also employed them. As they had to carefully and meticulously copy the Scriptures by hand, they knew every jot and tittle of them. Wasn’t this devotion to careful copying proof of their being conservatives?
Jesus does not seem to have been too impressed with that idea. He clearly showed that they lacked in practice as well as wrongly taught the people. Jesus said that the standard of righteousness He was expecting was greater than what they had. This immediately throws us into crisis. If these meticulous Pharisees and Scribes who were zealous for the Law of Moses and prayed, fasted, and gave alms all the time were not good enough, who could be good enough? Should we aspire to out-Pharisee the Apostle Paul before his conversion on the Damascus Road? If Paul could not make the cut, can anyone else make it either. Is this the righteousness Jesus expects from us? If so, Heaven would be a very lonely place. We wouldn’t know it of course because we wouldn’t be there to see how empty it was. Rather we would all be crowded in Hell together.
The good news is that Jesus isn’t looking for that kind of righteousness. The same Jesus who speaks what seems to be the most lofty and unattainable sermon ever preached is the same Jesus who died on a cross for us. We will see that the problem the Pharisees and Scribes had is that they mixed human elements with the Scripture and treated the whole as divinely inspired. In other words they added to the Word of God. They were also good at manipulating verses out of their context in order to evade the clear teaching of other Scriptures concerning things such as murder and divorce. Jesus will go on and expose their righteousness as fraudulent.
The first of these examples of the failure of the Scribes and Pharisees, a failure which would exclude them from the Kingdom of God occurs in verse 21. Jesus reminds them that they rightly believed that the Ancients who wrote Scripture had said “Do not commit murder” True enough, this is in the Law of Moses and is the divinely inspired Word of God. The addition appears to be a sensible conclusion that the one who commits the actual act of murder is liable to the judgment. The fact the word “the” indicates the seriousness of the judgment. Whether the Pharisees considered this to be capital punishment or eternal, I don’t know.
On the surface of things, what Jesus says that the Pharisees and Scribes held to was perfectly sensible. But Jesus goes on to show their defect. The problem was not on the surface but rather in their hearts. Jesus shows this by saying that the one who is angry with his brother is subject to the same judgment as the one who actually commits murder. This is truly shocking, especially when we consider that we have not exceeded the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees in this matter. In fact, we probably fare worse. This clearly demonstrates that we need a different righteousness and not just more of the human brand of righteousness.
Verse 22 has its difficulties in interpretation. Calling one’s brother “raca” makes one liable to the judgment of the Sanhedrin whereas calling the brother by the Greek word ”moron” will land you in Hellfire. There is really very little difference between the Aramaic “raca” and the Greek “moron” in meaning. I have not found the explanations at all satisfactory in the commentaries. If I were guessing at this, I would make the first reading as being what the Pharisees and Scribes believed, In other words, one who insulted a brother in such a way (fellow Jew) could be brought up on charges in an earthly court, presumably with a lesser punishment than “the judgment” if convicted. The second statement is the correction of the first. It is not just a minor human judgment that one is liable to, but rather THE judgment of Hellfire.
The Scribes and Pharisees had a very narrow definition of “brother”. Their definition of brother excluded Samaritans and Gentiles. They also dismissed Jews who were not religiously scrupulous like themselves as being “people of the land” whom they called “cursed”. It is precisely the attitude of their heart which Jesus here so sharply warns and condemns.
When we in the church think honestly about what Jesus, the weight of the verse is crushing. If this be the case, it would be better to leave the offering at the Temple and make a long trek back home to be reconciled to an offended brother than to offer God what is essentially a bribe. Verse 23 shows how important reconciliation if to God. This is true in both the human and divine dimensions of existence.
When we look at reconciliation in Scripture, especially in the Gospel of Matthew, we realize that it is a command. In the parable of the steward who was forgiven a large debt, we see this as our debt against God which could never be paid. The steward faced life without hope of release in debtor’s prison where he would have to work off his debt. As the debtor could be charged room and board while paying off his debt which was near or equal to his pay, even a small debt was extremely difficult to pay off. This man asked for more time and unexpectedly received mercy over and above what he asked. His debt was forgiven. Just like the prodigal who would have been happy to return as a servant, he instead experienced the overwhelming experience of God’s grace. The second half of the parable was disturbing in that he refused to offer like mercy to his brother. The generous man took back his offer to oversee the steward’s debt and had him thrown into prison until the last dime was paid.
This parable also explains what follows here in verse 25 that one should make peace with one’s adversary before coming to court. It would have to be assumed that this man was certain to be found guilty and sentenced to a severe penalty which would have him sent to debtor’s prison. But is Jesus just giving advice of how to handle legal matters and how to plea bargain? Just who is this adversary?
It seems to me that Jesus is the adversary or the Godhead as a whole. The judgment which Jesus had just referred to seems to be the final judgment at the end of time. This is something the Pharisees believed. However, they felt sure they would be acquitted as God’s elect based upon what they considered to be good works and law keeping. It is those cursed “people of the land”, Gentiles, and Samaritans who needed to worry about Hell. Jesus is directly addressing the Pharisaical attitude here. Everyone needs to examine himself/herself in the light of God’s truth. This includes us. An honest reading of the Sermon on the Mount will reveal the desperately wicked condition of our own heart despite all external appearances of health, morality, and vigor.
Luther in his commentary on Galatians and commenting on St. Paul tells us that God used the Law as the means to bring us to the end of ourselves that we might flee to Christ. This is certainly a true statement, but if the Law which condemns the external manifestation of sin, then how much more does the Sermon on the Mount which also condemns the motivation of the heart bring us to the end of ourselves that we might flee to Christ?
If we see Jesus as the one who will justify us based upon our merits, then we will end up locked up in the eternal prison of hell just like the Pharisees. Note the “amen” in verse 26. Jesus is placing His words on par with Scripture, something He could only do because He is God. Jesus is the true conservative, not the Pharisees. Notice that He upheld every jot and tittle of Scripture. Nothing He could say could contravene it. Jesus does not add to the Scripture. Doing the act is still culpable under the words of Jesus. What Jesus brings out is that sin is really an internal problem. It is a rebellious heart against God.
However, if we see Jesus as the one who justifies the ungodly who come to Him in faith, then the result is eternal life through Him. Many of those whom the Pharisees and Scribes cursed will be there. The righteousness we need cannot come from within. Rather it must come from above. The same Jesus who preached this sermon is the same one who would die on a cross for our sin. We must believe that the righteousness we need comes as a gift from Christ in spite of what we truly deserved. Because it is entirely a gift, we have no reason to boast about our accomplishments. The only one we can boast about is the grace of the Triune God based upon the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ. We need to sing the tune of Augustus Toplady.
“Rock of Ages, cleft for me;
Let me hide myself in thee.
Let the water and the blood,
From thy riven side which flowed;
Be of sin the double cure,
Save from wrath and make me pure.”