The Master said that unless the righteousness of His disciples exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, they will not enter the Messianic Era( Matthew 5:20). The conventional stereotype assumes that the Pharisees and teachers of the Torah were merely hypocrites pretending to be pious. Under that assumption, the righteousness of the Pharisees and scribes was only a false piety which any sincere-hearted person might easily exceed. Is the stereotype correct?
Yeshua frequently collided with the Pharisees regarding matters of interpretation, and He soundly denounced ostentatious shows of religious snobbery. In this case, Yeshua was not denigrating the Pharisees; He held them up as a high model which He asked His disciples to transcend.
The Pharisees and the teachers of the Torah observed the Torah scrupulously. How could the Master have asked His disciples to reach a level of righteousness higher than theirs? When the disciples heard this, their hearts must have sunk. The “righteousness” of the scribes and Pharisees to which the Master referred is not exoneration and justification in the final judgment, rather it refers to the sum of one’s good deeds, from giving charity to visiting the sick to self-sacrifice to Torah observance.
The Master went on to explain exactly what He meant with the rest of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). He takes a well known commandment such as “do not murder” or “do not commit adultery” and He reveals the deepest moral and ethical core behind the commandment. He gives specific examples by internalizing the prohibition against murder with a prohibition against anger, slander, and insult. He internalizes the prohibition against adultery with a prohibition against lust. He internalizes the sanctity of marriage with a prohibition on divorce for the sake of remarriage. He internalizes the prohibition on taking God’s name in vain by prohibiting oaths. Each fence around the original commandment raises the standard of righteousness higher than even normal Pharisaic practice.
Yeshua’s teachings reveal the moral, ethical intention behind the commandments and expose the internal deviancy of the heart of man. He cuts past external appearances and plants the inner meaning of the Torah deep in the heart.
It does not mean that a disciple never becomes angry with his brother or on occasion speaks words of insult like, “you fool.” Unfortunately, we do, and the Master knows that we do, but He calls us to live out a higher standard of righteousness.