Jesus teaches His disciples that we have to exhibit a righteousness that surpassed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees (Matthew ), a demand that is one of the central themes of the Sermon on the Mount. What does it mean? How should a disciple’s righteousness go beyond the righteousness of Jewish leaders?
Perhaps the Torah was God’s will for the Old Testament, but now Jesus brings a new law that is not only different from but contrary to the law of Moses. That explanation doesn’t work, since Jesus Himself says that He has not come to abolish but to fulfill the Torah or prophets. Whatever He means by “fulfill,” we can be sure it doesn’t mean “abolish.”
Perhaps, then, Jesus is emphasizing the internal demands of the law. Instead of focusing on externals, like the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus focuses on the internal attitudes and desires. This doesn’t work either. Jesus does address attitudes, but so did the Mosaic law. More importantly, Jesus commands actions, not just attitudes. When He warns against practicing righteousness before men, He goes on to require a different set of practices concerning alms, prayer and fasting. He doesn’t say, Do these things with a different attitude. He says, Do them differently.
Perhaps, then, the Sermon outlines an impossible ethical ideal that Jesus never really expected us to fulfill. The sermon is the law part of a law-gospel dialectic: It drives us to holy despair about our own sinfulness, so that we throw ourselves on the imputed righteousness of Christ. Much as we might like this to be the case, this reading is not correct. Jesus’ sermon is about right living.
So what does he mean? Let’s start with the term “righteousness.” Though the word often means something close to “law-abiding,” it doesn’t always mean that. When Paul talks about the righteousness of God revealed in the gospel (Romans -17), he refers to the righteous, powerful action of God in Christ that restores sinners to God and mends the world. For God, righteousness is not merely conformity to rules, but redemptive action.
For us too. That’s what Jesus is demanding of His disciples: He has come as the embodied righteousness of God to bring in the restoration of all things, what he announces as the kingdom of heaven. And His instructions show us how we participate in that restoration. The life that Jesus requires surpasses the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees because the practices, habits, and actions of disciples break through the perverse customs and habits of sinful humanity and bring the
To see how this works, we need to notice a structural feature of the sermon. Matthew 5:21-48 is often read as a series of “antinomies.” On this interpretation, Jesus is saying something like this: “The elders teach only an external and visible obedience, but I teach something deeper. The ancients say, Don’t murder, but they imply that we need not worry overmuch about hatred. Don’t commit adultery, but don’t worry overmuch about lust. Jesus deepens the commandment, so that it applies to desires, attitudes of the heart.”
As Glen Stassen has convincingly argued, this section of the sermon is not a series of antinomies but a series of triads. On murder, Jesus doesn’t say, “1) You have heard, do not murder, 2) but I say don’t hate.” Rather, He says: 1) You have heard, do not murder, and those who murder are liable to court; 2) but I say that anger and insults leave you in danger of the court and even of hell; therefore 3) leave your offering and go be reconciled to your brother. Only section 3 is an imperative. Jesus commandment is not: “Don’t be angry.” Jesus’ commandment is: “Go be reconciled.” That is the greater righteousness. Jesus never commands us to avoid anger. He teaches how to defuse anger so that it doesn’t escalate to murder. In that way, we share in the establishment of God’s kingdom of peace.
On lust, we have the same thing. He doesn’t merely contrast the command “Do not commit adultery” with the command “Do not lust.” He does deepen the commandment against adultery by teaching that lust is already adultery, not merely a prelude to it. But the statement about lust is not an imperative. The imperative follows in -30: Cut it off. Remove the offending organ. That is the greater righteousness, the righteousness that shares in God’s redemptive righteousness.
To be righteous as Jesus is righteous, it’s not enough to avoid anger or lust. Jesus is not giving us a transformed set of purity regulations – “Avoid this, avoid that, don’t touch that!” He gives us a set of positive commands. To practice the righteousness greater than that of the scribes we have to obey Jesus’ commands in order to break through the chains of lust so that we can cultivate chaste relations with the opposite sex. It’s not enough to avoid hating enemies; you need to do good to them, to break through the habits of hatred, counter-hatred, escalating hatred, that destroys life.
Similarly, it’s not enough passively to avoid retaliation (-42); we must actively give to those who abuse us. Indifference to enemies is not enough (-48); Jesus demands that we love our enemies, in ways that reflect the righteous generosity of our Father. It’s not enough for us to avoid pride when we give alms, pray, or fast (6:1-18); we should do all these things in secret.
Our instinct is, Get real, Jesus! His demands may all be great for a perfect world, but we don’t live in a perfect world. We live in a hard world, and you’ve got to cut some corners, break some eggs, defend yourself, take a little bit of vengeance, if you’re going to survive. Jesus says, No. The whole issue comes down to trust. Do we trust our Father to give us what you need? Do we trust that we’ll still have clothes if we keep giving them away, that we’ll still have bread if we are generous, that we’ll still have a face if we keep letting our cheeks be used as a punching bag, that we’ll still have dignity if we give things away to our enemies?
Jesus says: Trust your Father, and obey my commandments. Trust your Father, and live out the righteousness of that faith. Trust your Father, and live the redemptive, transforming righteousness that surpasses the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees.