Lane Sanders, senior pastor
Macedonia Baptist Church, Jackson
I have known some great and godly people over the years. They weren’t just involved in church. The message of the Bible was clearly lived out in their lives. They prayed. They studied and taught Scripture. They had great attitudes, even when things did not go their way.
They had a heart to reach and disciple others; I mean great people. If you told me I had to be better than they were in order to be right with God, I would simply have to give up!
But that’s exactly what Jesus said!
While Jesus said a lot of comforting, encouraging things to His followers, Matthew 5:20 was not one of them. In fact, it was startling … discouraging even.
Our post-New Testament perspective allows us to see the Scribes and Pharisees for the hypocrites they really were. But not so with the disciples. They saw near-perfection. Consider the times in which Jesus spoke these radical words.
The Old Testament gave the world God’s laws. Though human nature inevitably violates these laws, the laws themselves are not overly burdensome, either in number or in their nature. They are quite reasonable, in fact. Is it too much to ask that we value God, that we value our parents, that we value honestly, etc.? Of course not.
Not quite so simple
However, years after the Law was delivered, certain Jews insisted that the Law be reduced to rules and regulations for every possible situation in life. Take the law of keeping the Sabbath, for example.
The Sabbath was to be kept holy, without work. That’s it. Simple. But not for these Jews.
They began to pinpoint what it meant to not work. Here is a tiny portion of some of the activities that would constitute work: To “carry a burden” would be considered work. Well, that required defining what “a burden” was. They decided that a burden would include enough milk for one to swallow, food that equaled the weight of a dried fig, enough ink to write two letters of the alphabet, and on and on. Real life-altering stuff! But their decision to carry those things would violate the commandment of God and bring His condemnation.
That’s not all. To write something on the Sabbath would also be considered work. “But how much writing would be sin?” they asked. They decided writing two letters of the alphabet would constitute violations. Two exceptions: If they wrote with fruit juice or in the dust of the ground or in any way that was not permanent, they would not be guilty. They also escaped guilt if they wrote one letter of the alphabet on two different pages so as to not read those letters together.
One more example: They decided a man must not wear heavy sandals when walking through a corn field on the Sabbath, because if he stepped on a corn stalk and separated any kernels from the husk, it would be considered threshing, which would be work, which would be sinful. (For more examples of such outlandish but true interpretations of the law, see William Barclay’s commentary on Matthew.)
Rules for righteousness
These kinds of things defined righteousness for Jews of Jesus’s day. In the middle of the third century after Jesus, a summary of all these laws was written and codified in a work called the Mishnah. In English, it makes a book of almost 800 pages! Soon after the Mishnah was written, certain Jews wrote commentaries to further explain the Mishnah. Those commentaries are called the Talmuds and take up 72 volumes! It’s hard to fathom the amount of material that outlines the tedious rules for men to follow in order to be “righteous,” rules that govern every possible activity in life.
So what’s all this got to do with Jesus’s words in Matthew 5:20? Everything. Hang with me.
The Scribes were the men who worked out all these details and wrote them down. The Pharisees, whose name means “separated ones,” were the men who set themselves apart from the rest of the world in order to keep all these minute rules and regulations.
They truly were the religious elite. They knew more and did more in the name of God than anyone else. Repeat: the disciples looked at the Scribes and Pharisees, and they saw near-perfection.
Then Jesus confounds by insisting that we have to go beyond the best the Jews had to offer in order to see God. Impossible! Hopeless!
To make matters worse, Jesus piles it on heavier. Matthew 5:20 serves as an introduction to the rest of chapter 5. He proceeds to demonstrate how rules and regulations cannot control the inner man, and the inner man condemns us, too. He finally concludes chapter 5 with the point He had been making all along. So what does it take for someone to enter the kingdom of heaven?
“Therefore, you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (v.48).
Uh, oh! The standard isn’t Scribes or Pharisees. The standard isn’t a list of do’s and don’t’s, not even the Law. The standard is the Giver of that Law: God Himself! As G. Campbell Morgan said, “The Bible idea of righteousness may thus be expressed: God is the absolute and eternal standard of right.”
Here, Jesus isn’t interested in stroking the egos, felt needs, or insecurities of His hearers and readers. He blatantly uncovers our extreme inadequacy to satisfy God on our own. We, like newborns, are utterly helpless in our vain attempts to reach Yahweh.
Preaching on Matthew 5:20, Martin Luther said, “For here all works that man do are overthrown and disposed of, and the most holy of the sanctimonious are cast to the ground. Hence you cannot do any deed by means of which one may be saved and rescued from sin. If a man now says that, he surely is a heretic.”
The Apostle Paul, himself formerly a devout Pharisee, well understood this when he penned Ephesians 2:8-9: “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.”