Righteousness that Surpasses the Pharisees

December 17th, 2012

I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:20 NRSV)

The Sermon on the Mount seems, at so many points, impossible to live. It must have seemed the same to Jesus’ first hearers. The Pharisees were focused on purity before God. The name Pharisee means “set apart” or “separated,” and they sought to distinguish themselves by the lengths to which they would go in being pious. How could anyone’s righteousness exceed that of the Pharisees?

Some have felt that the point of the Sermon on the Mount was to offer an impossible picture of righteousness, so we would be led naturally to recognize our need for a Savior. Perhaps. I’m more inclined to see it as capturing an ideal that is always beyond where we are and yet offers a vision of piety for which we are meant to strive.

The piety described by Jesus involves more than just obeying the letter of the Law; he asked that our hearts and motives and words be holy. Consider what Jesus taught in Matthew 5: The Law says not to murder; I say don’t speak with anger or hatred toward another. The Law says not to commit adultery; I say don’t look at another with adultery in your heart. The Law allows divorce; I say that vows were meant to be kept. The Law says not to break an oath; I say you shouldn’t need to swear an oath, and your word should always be your bond. The Law says you can seek retributive justice—an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth; I say you should turn the other cheek when wronged. Common wisdom says to love your neighbor and hate your enemy; I say to love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you.

I don’t claim to live up to these words of Jesus. I sometimes speak in anger. I occasionally find lust knocking at the door of my heart. I’ve stretched the truth, and I’ve found it hard to turn the other cheek. At times I haven’t wanted to pray for, much less love, my enemies. But while I don’t perfectly live up to these teachings of Jesus, his words represent an ideal to which I strive. They define the person I want to be, and they often form the words of my prayer: “Lord, forgive me for falling short of your will, and help me become the person you described in the Sermon on the Mount.”

Perhaps you could pick a section from the Sermon on the Mount that describes something you struggle with, and begin to pray that God will help you become the person God desires you to be.

The Pharisees excelled at following rules and displaying outward purity. Jesus called us to have hearts that are pure—inward purity—and to practice acts of love, mercy, and faithfulness. This is what it means to have a righteousness that exceeds the scribes and the Pharisees.

Lord, I fall short of the ideals you set out in the Sermon on the Mount, but they do reflect the person I wish to be. Help me, by your Spirit, to become the person you long for me to be. Amen.

excerpt from: The Way: 40 Days of Reflections by Adam Hamilton Copyright©2013 by Abingdon Press. Used with permission.

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