“I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses
that of the scribes and Pharisees,
you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.”
This saying of Jesus flips expectations. To get a sense of this, think of other areas of exceptionalism: unless your power surpasses that of the President of the United States; unless your knowledge surpasses that of the MIT researchers; unless your talent surpasses that of the Renaissance painters; or unless your skill surpasses that of the NBA All-Stars. The scribes and the Pharisees dedicated their lives to righteousness. They were at the pinnacle of holiness. The average Jew, the hearers of Jesus’s words, had no hope of achieving greater righteousness. The conditions of their lives simply did not allow the opportunity, time, or study to fulfill all the requirements of righteousness. It was not possible. How can we do that? It is harder for a camel to get through the eye of a needle, so the saying goes.
Jesus isn’t just speaking, however, of comparative righteousness. It is not about more or less of the same old thing. The righteousness of which Jesus speaks is not a matter of degree, but of kind. In general, righteousness is being in right relationship to others and to God. It has the sense of being morally correct, upright, or just. It has its foundation in a quality of God, God’s own righteousness because God is just. God, in a sense, is the standard, which we see revealed in the person of Jesus. This origin within God means that righteousness is a gift, a work of grace in our lives. God is the source of all righteousness. It is God’s work in us. To understand the difference between degree and kind, however, it is helpful to look at specific differences in kinds of righteousness.
Righteousness can be thought of in three broad categories: legal, behavioral, and actual. Legal righteousness is the state of being declared right or just before a judge, ultimately before God. Behavioral righteousness is the progressive growth in right action or holiness. Actual righteousness is a quality of our soul which has both a dimension of purity (an absolute quality) and a dimension of quantity (a progressive quality). God infuses, or “pours in,” actual righteousness in our souls through baptism and makes us pure and holy, but by his grace we also grow in our quantity of righteous acts. We grow in righteousness. The purity of our God infused actual righteousness leads to a true declaration by God of our legal righteousness. The growth in actual righteousness leads to a real change in our behavior. We truly become holy in who we are and all we do. You can see that these three broad categories, all with their source in God, are interrelated. Jesus is redefining, however, the realm of righteousness.
Righteousness, in all its categories, is not limited to the external requirements of the law, but dwells within the condition of the human heart. Legal, behavioral, and actual righteousness have essential external elements, but that flows from within. The righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees dotted every “i” and crossed every “t,” but it didn’t reflect the condition of their hearts (like whitewashed tombs). Jesus’s form of righteousness is more radical. It wants to really change us on the inside. God’s goal is to make us righteous, not just make us look righteous. Adherence to external requirements can sometimes lead to an internal change (fake it ‘til you make it), but Jesus is inviting us to a life of integrity. Righteousness, to be real, must be within and without. There is a congruence between our heart and our actions. Without a change of heart, righteousness is a sham. Don’t be satisfied with the external. Let God work within. “A clean heart create for me, God” (Psalm 51).