I say to you that unless your righteousness is greater than the righteousness of the legal experts and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. – Matthew 5:20
My Wednesday evening men’s covenant group is at the front end of what is already proving to be a fascinating study, focused on Matthew’s telling of The Sermon on the Mount.
The Saturday morning group is looking at this too, so I am learning from the faith, insights, and experiences of around 20 men.
This week we talked about the point Jesus made regarding Old Testament law. “Unless your righteousness is greater than the righteousness of the legal experts and the Pharisees,” Jesus said, “you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
Jesus the legalist?
This sounds a lot like Jesus is aligning himself with the legalists and the rule-keepers, doesn’t it? Just one more version of “Earn you way to heaven,” or “God is keeping a scoresheet and if you don’t behave you’re toast…”
What is going on here?
In my understanding, Jesus is doing several things. First, he is reminding his followers that the system they currently participate in is setting them up to fail. The law – intended to bring people into a proper relationship with God – is inadequate for the task. Not even the Pharisees can pull off the necessary behavioral perfection. The law, then, is merely aspirational and is not bringing people into the relationship God desires.
At the same time, Jesus is reclaiming the word “righteousness.” If we limit our understanding of righteousness to rule-keeping and some kind of a scorecard, then we misunderstand the original purpose of the law. Righteousness is about being in relationship with God, and it is expressed behaviorally to the extent that we join in with God as participants in God’s ongoing salvific work.
Jesus is inviting us to join him in God’s invitation to live kingdom lives. We – Jesus already said in the preceding paragraph – are called to be salt and light.
So we are not going to enter the kingdom of heaven via keeping rules. We are – instead – invited to become co-workers with Christ in establishing the kingdom. We accept the righteousness (the right relationship with God) that comes when we love Jesus, follow Jesus, walk with Jesus, and begin to participate in God’s initiatives of love, light, mercy, grace, healing, peace, encouragement and more.
This is our invitation; this is our opportunity; this is our mandate – DEREK