20 "For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.
A Stark Contrast
Right before today's passage, Jesus had just started talking to His disciples about how to be a light to the world by making your good works evident. It is understandable, then, that the topic of what constitutes good works would come up.
It becomes a bit concerning, however, when He states that we must be more righteous than even the scribes and Pharisees - those who were (perceived as being) the most righteous men of Jesus's day - if we want a shot at heaven. But then Jesus breaks down why the scribes and Pharisees are not truly as righteous as they seem: righteousness is a heart issue.
With this in mind, it becomes clear that it is actually quite easy to surpass their fake righteousness. We'll examine each of Jesus' examples individually, then sum it all up. Sound good? :-)
21 You have heard that the ancients were told, 'YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT MURDER,' and 'Whoever commists murder shall be liable to the court.'
22 But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever says to his brother, 'You good for nothing,' shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever says, 'You fool,' shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell.
Sins of the Heart
Jesus starts out with a seemingly obvious anti-righteousness, namely, the act of murder (pulled directly from the the Ten Commandments [Exodus 20:13] of all places!). But then he flips it on its head.
He states that calling someone "good for nothing" (worthless) or "fool" (idiot) is just as bad - it's still sin.
Let's say there's a coworker who annoys you. Now, unless you're a complete psychopath, you're not going to kill them. But, you might wish they'd get fired...that's wishing ill will on another. Perhaps they make you so mad, it even crosses your mind that you wish they'd die. Aren't these both sin? Yes! You didn't kill anyone, but you still can't approach God with a blamelss heart.
The point here is that righteousness has far less to do with what we physically do than with what's in our hearts. If we are focused on loving others, we won't be filled with hatred and (undeserved) anger.
24 leave your offering there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering.
25 Make friends quickly with your opponent at law while you are with him on the way, so that your opponent may not hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the officer, and you be thrown into prison.
26 Truly I say to you, you will not come out of there until you have paid up the last cent."
There's no Extra Credit when it comes to Righteousness
Here's what I see this part of the passage as saying:
Let's say you know you have some sin in your life - in this case, you've deeply hurt the feelings of another believer, and you feel convicted by the Holy Spirit to go apologize to them. But, you've always hated apologizing - it's embarrassing. So, you figure you can ease you guilty conscience by doing "something else" for God (maybe volunteering to do something at your church or tithing some extra money this month). But do you really think that when that hurt believer is crying out to God in prayer (verse 25), that your "something else"s will negate that?
There is no extra credit when it comes to righteousness! It's not about total points, so it doesn't matter what "else" you do. Rather, it is about doing what God tells us to, when He tells us to. It's not some strategy game of figuring out how we can get our necessary level of righteousness with the least amount of work - it's about our relationship with God!
27 You have heard that it ws said, 'YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT ADULTERY';
28 but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
29 If your right eye makes you stumble, tear it out and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.
30 If your right hand makes you stumble, cut it off and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to go into hell.
31 It was said, 'WHOEVER SENDS HIS WIFE AWAY, LET HIM GIVE HER A CERTIFICATE OF DIVORCE';
32 but I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except for the cause of unchastity, makes her commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
Excuses and Ways Out
Adultery, like murder, serves as an example of a heart issue: if you don't have an affair with someone, but want to, it's still sin. (We'll dive deeper into the topic of divorce sometime later.)
Then comes the hard-to-digest part about hacking off body parts. I think it should be taken literally if you are actually convinced that not having whatever part part genuinely would stop whatever sin. But I also think that, given that this is rarely the case, reading the passage figuratively in this case is actually more convicting. For example, let's say your group of friends likes to hang out at the mall, but everytime you go there, you get greedy and obsessed with material possessions. It will be very difficult to give up your trips there, since that also means giving up time with your friends, but going to the mall is your eye or hand. So, the point is: stop making excuses, and act to prevent yourself from continually falling into the same sin.
There's one more point here with the mention of the certificate of divorce (pulled from Deuteronomy 24:1-3). As Jesus explains in Matthew 19:3-9 , God only allowed the divorce system because He knew they'd do it anyway, and wanted to establish some semblance of order. We should never confuse God allowing something to happen with God approving of something. Again, true righteousness is about pleasing God, not getting away with stuff.
33 Again, you have heard that the ancients were told, 'YOU SHALL NOT MAKE FALSE VOWS, BUT SHALL FULFILL YOUR VOWS TO THE LORD.'
34 But I say to you, make no oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God,
35 or by the earth, for it is the footstool of His feet, or by Jerusalem, for it is THE CITY OF THE GREAT KING.
36 Nor shall you make an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black.
37 But let your statement be, 'Yes, yes' or 'No, no'; anything beyond these is of evil.
Just DO It
There are two separate things I see going on here. For the first one, we must consider that the Jews of Jesus's day were known for their sneaky vows - vowing according to things like the temple, which would suffer no consequences if they failed. That way, they were perceived as righteous by others because they made these lofty vows, but thought that nothing bad would come of not following through. Simply put, it doesn't matter one bit how righteous others think we are - only what God thinks of us.
The second thing I see is this: rather than making these lofty, fancy commitments to God, isn't it better to simply do what you feel Him prompting Him to do throughout your day? True righteousness isn't about meeting your goals, like some sort of sales quota; it's all about that relationship.
This has been quite a multi-faceted exploration of true righteousness. Boiled down, it can be summarized by two key points: (1) it comes down to what's actually in your heart, and (2) it comes down to your relationship with God.
Fortunately, even when we fail (and we all do), God offers us His righteousness through His Son, Jesus Christ (see 2 Corinthians 5:21).
Let's Make it a Discussion
Do you have any more insights on these examples - something I missed? Can you think of more examples of ways people fall into or avoid these false-righteousness traps? Anything else you'd like to ask or comment on?