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July 14, 2011 / Daniel

Matthew 5:20, A Better Righteousness

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

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Matthew 5:20 is one of the more difficult statements in the Sermon on the Mount.  Jesus says,

“For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

The difficulty of this statement is compounded by the observation that Matthew uses to the word “righteousness” to refer to “righteous living”   (Matthew 6:1).    Even though Paul might use the term to refer to our legal status before God, Matthew doesn’t use the word in the same way.

In the Sermon on Mount, “righteousness” is doing what is right for the right reasons.   It’s a comprehensive term.  It refers to both our thoughts and our actions.

So here’s my question.  How is the righteousness of Jesus’ disciples better than the righteousness of the Jewish religious leaders?     I have three answers.

1)  It’s better because it focuses on the spirit and not the letter of the Law.

This is evident in six antitheses that Jesus gives in Matt 5:17:21-48.   “You’re heard it said…, but I say to you.”    Let’s pretend that I tell my daughter, “Don’t eat any cookies while I go outside.”   My motivation for this command is that I don’t want her to spoil her dinner by eating junk food.   She hears the command and thinks, “Dad doesn’t want me to eat cookies.  I can eat anything in the house, except for cookies.”

This was the problem with the Pharisees’ approach to the Law.    Instead of focusing on the intent of the Law, they focused on doing the bare minimum to just get by (cf. Matt 15:3-6).   Jesus’ interpretation of the Law always focuses on the spirit of the Law.  His approach to the Torah is to deal with the heart problem which leads to the direct violation of the command.  The problem is not murder (5:21-26).  That’s a symptom of a bigger problem–anger.   The problem is not adultery (5:27-30).  That’s a symptom.  The disease is lust.

2)  It’s better because it focuses on God’s glory and not my glory.

Jesus warns his disciples, ““Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them” (Matt 6:1).   Compare this statement with Matthew 5:16.  ” Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”  At first glance, these statements seem to be contradictory.   On the one hand, Jesus says that people will notice your good works.  On the other hand, he says that you shouldn’t do good works to be noticed by other people.

What’s the deal?   The difference between 5:16 and 6:1 is who receives the glory.   If I do good works to impress other people, then my righteousness is about my glory.   However, if I do what’s right to glorify my Heavenly Father, then it’s about God’s glory.  It’s all about our motivation for doing what’s right.

3)  It’s better because it comes from a heart of faith and not a heart of unbelief.

Jesus says that good trees produce good fruit.  Bad trees produce bad fruit (7:15-20).

The main difference between the disciples and the Pharisees is that the Pharisees reject Jesus, but the disciples follow Jesus.    Ultimately, the only way to please God is to trust in Jesus (John 14:6).    Jesus is a treasure that must be purchased at all costs (Matt. 13:44).  If I refuse to follow Jesus, then all my righteous deeds are nothing but dirty rags (Isa. 64:6).

Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes,

This is the law of the Old Covenant, not a new law, but the one old law, to which the rich young man and the tempting scribe were referred as the revealed will of God. It becomes a new commandment only because Christ binds his disciples to the law. His concern is not for a “better law” than that of the Pharisees. It is one and the same, it is the law which must remain and be carried out in every letter until the end of the world, which must be fulfilled to the letter. His concern really is for a “better righteousness.” Those who do not have this better righteousness will not enter the kingdom of heaven. This will be because they have dispensed themselves from following Jesus, who referred them back to the law. But no one is able to achieve this better righteousness except those addressed here, those called by Christ. Christ’s call, Christ himself, is required for that better righteousness.  HT: Joel Willitts.


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