If read in isolation, Matthew 5:20 could be seen as an invitation to out-Pharisee the Pharisees; that is, do what they do, only do it more.
But is this what Jesus is saying? Fortunately, the answer to that question is within our reach. Yesterday’s lesson pointed out that it was not unusual for the scribes and Pharisees to elevate traditional laws over the law of God. Jesus had to tell them that their actions in effect invalidated the plain Word of God. Monday’s lesson also mentioned that, although the scribes and Pharisees probably had good content in their teaching, many of them lived hypocritical lives.
Given this background, it is not hard to see the true sentiment behind Jesus’ statement. He very well could have been referring to that which He had elsewhere warned about:
Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven
The kind of righteousness that Jesus promotes is one that starts in the heart. In the hand-washing incident, Jesus pointed to the Pharisees’ error by quoting from Isaiah 29:13:
These people . . . honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me
Jesus calls for a righteousness that exceeds what the Pharisees themselves thought that they possessed. The righteousness that counts is not obtained by checking off every item on a task list; it can be gained only by faith in Jesus Christ and by claiming His righteousness for ourselves. It is a righteousness that comes from a complete surrender of self and a passionate realization that we need Jesus as our Substitute and Example.
Read Romans 10:3. How does this text help us to see what true righteousness is all about?