March 06, 2020 (Friday) - A Higher Bar - A Reflection on Matthew 5:20-26

(Jesus said) For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.

“For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” This is a statement that has caused a lot of confusion over the years, because it seems like our Lord Jesus is saying that unless we are more righteous than the Pharisees, we are not going to enter heaven. And we all know the Pharisees lived to exacting standards. Despite our impression of them, they actually lived what we would consider very holy lives.

And, then, when this is associated with other things that our Lord said, especially with those “You have heard it said .... but I say” statements that he made, then we believe we are required to live according to extremely high standards. After all, if Jesus says calling somebody a fool makes us as liable to judgement as somebody who commits murder, or looking at somebody with lust is equal to committing adultery” then we need to lead impossibly holy lives. Who can possibly do that? So?

Ok, let us understand this properly, because there are many who misinterpret this passage and load people with unnecessary burdens. First of all, this statement that Jesus made was intended as a rebuke to the scribes and Pharisees. He WASN’T holding these guys as a positive role model because their righteousness was not genuine. And he was basically telling them that their righteousness was not going to get them into heaven because they could never get righteous enough for heaven!

Secondly, and more importantly, Jesus was not using this passage to define a means of salvation. We don’t become citizens of heaven by washing our hands more often than the Pharisees did, or following more laws than they did. We become citizens by faith in Christ Jesus and what he accomplished through his death and resurrection. As Paul said, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith —and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8). 

However, this doesn’t discount certain values we need to have and certain standards we need to live by. Salvation might be a free gift, but it is a gift that cost its giver every drop of his blood. Consequently, we have to live in the NEW LIFE that it has brought us. We can’t earn it, but repentance is needed to claim it. Repentance is a turning away from sinful ways. If we willfully continue to lead debauched lives after being “saved”, then how does that reflect our salvation? Or our savior?

Something to think about today.