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The Transformational Gospel of Jesus #8: Why was Jesus so hard on the Pharisee’s righteousness? Part 2

For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.-Matthew 5:20

The teachers of Jesus’ time period parsed and defined the law to the nth degree. Thousands of nuances to the Torah came into circulation as earnest law specialists addressed the one thing that they wanted the most—that God would intervene in the lives of His people and save them from foreign military oppression. If people would just be holy enough, just tip the scale of God’s favor, the Messiah would come and the restoration of Israel would be front page news. They would be free at last!

Absurdly to the minds of the Pharisees, Jesus confidently taught that those who were failing at keeping the law, or even living indifferently to the law, would be taken back in. This teaching was accompanied by Jesus hanging out with the worst of sinners—prostitutes, tax collectors, fishermen—people who partied better than they sacrificed. Jesus held out the most hope for these guys. Unclean people were touched and healed. Sexually promiscuous people became virtuous. Restitution was handed out by those who had been the worst scoundrels.

All of this ran in contrast to the Pharisees’ belief in a righteousness known as ‘covenantal nomism.’ They did not teach, as often suggested by later scholars, that people were saved by works. This was not even a Jewish concept. Instead, they believed that all Jewish people were born into a relationship with God through the Abrahamic covenant. What mattered was that each person had to maintain their place in the covenant by righteous works (nomism). Failure to work at keeping the law led to God’s judgment and loss of standing in the covenant. What they would not see was that what was in their own hearts betrayed them to the dark side as well.

Jesus comes along and tells those who are on the Pharisees’ out list that they are not only salvageable, but that God loves them still because they are His very own. This is the main point of contention between Jesus and the Pharisees. Keeping people on course with the three main areas of the law—1) marriage; 2) Sabbath and religious festivals; and 3) the Temple and purity—was what Pharisees lived for. It brought them into religious and political power. It was powerful to be able to tell people who was good and who was out with God.

This is precisely where many church leaders often depart from Jesus’ good news. Like the Pharisees, the message is about maintaining your place in the covenant by doing righteous things. Do this to become holy. Do that to become holy. Tithe 10%. Read your Bible through in a year. Don’t miss this event and bring someone. Dress up or don’t dress up, as the case may be. Witness regularly. Take a purity pledge. Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch! All of these have the appearance-of-wisdom-seal-of-approval in many churches, but these activities are not the gospel. Often they have nothing to do with a righteousness that comes by faith.

The good news Jesus taught is that we belong. He sustains. We will be made righteous by His Spirit. No one has fallen so low that He cannot or will not rescue. We were chosen to be holy and blameless in His sight. No one can bring any charge to the Father against His elect. No one can condemn us. Nothing can separate us from His love. You do not have to imagine how deeply this kind of talk nettled Jesus’ rival teachers of the law. Their reaction is all there in the Gospels.

-Steve Smith