The scribes and Pharisees were the image of righteous religion in much of the Jewish mind in Jesus’ time. They were known for keeping the law, and then keeping the law again, and then keeping the law yet again. That is, they not only kept the Law but they kept many other rules that would keep them from breaking the law. Let’s say that the Law of Moses said, “You shall not drive more than 55 miles per hour.” The Pharisees would decree something like, “You shall not drive more than 40 miles per hour.” Because they took the 40-miles-per-hour decree as seriously as Moses’ original decree not to drive more than 55 miles per hour they were pretty certain they had Moses’ decreed covered, that they wouldn’t ever break it.
While not every Jew wanted to be a Pharisee, while not every Jew agreed with the doctrine of the Pharisees, in the general Jewish mind the Pharisees were the dominant image of religion much like Coke is the dominant image of soft drinks worldwide (sorry Pepsi).
With the above in mind, the Pharisees in the crowd must have been pleased to hear Jesus say (Matthew 5:17-19): Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Whoever annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
Imagine the Pharisees thinking, “He is one of us. This is great. We can bring him into our fold, teach him the finer points, get him on board, and use him to expand our influence. He may be a bit confused on some issues but we can work with him. Jesus is affirming our position, he is affirming us.”
That feeling that we get when we are acknowledged in a crowd was coming over the Pharisees, they were feeling goose bumps, all eyes must have been on them, they were basking in the recognition – had they known about Oscars they would have thought that this was Oscar night and they were on the podium receiving the Best Picture award. They were framing their acceptance speech. Their sense of righteousness must have hit its pinnacle right before they heard Jesus’ next words:
For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:20). Then Jesus begins a series of juxtapositions with the pattern: You have heard it said…but I say to you…. Jesus assumes the position of Lawgiver on the Mountain as He transposes the Law of Moses upward and inward and beyond the externalities of the scribes and Pharisees.
This is a type of recognition that the Pharisees did not see coming, one that challenges their self-righteousness and which can lead to only one of two things; either repentance or hardness of heart. Jesus’ words also challenge the everyday man and woman in the crowd, for no longer can they excuse themselves by saying, “I can’t monetarily afford to become a Pharisee. I don’t have the education to be a Pharisee. I can’t become a Pharisee because of this or that.” Everyone has a heart, everyone has a mind, everyone has a will; and Jesus’ words hone in on the heart, the mind, the will – there is no hiding, no escape from the Word of Jesus on the Mountain. No doubt many tried to explain away His Word, just as we do today. After all Jesus didn’t really mean for us to turn the other cheek and not to resist evil and to give not expecting repayment; He didn’t really mean that we are to be peacemakers and gentle and to mourn for the people and world around us.
We all have, and have had, images of righteousness, images of what it means to be holy, measuring up to God’s standards, and measuring up to man’s standards of righteousness. These images are usually chameleon, changing as our environments change, as our moods change, as our perceived successes change. We want to associate ourselves with the leading religious team, the one in first place, the one receiving recognition.
God only has one standard, His Son Jesus Christ – Jesus never changes. And Jesus…what is He focused on in us? Read His Word in the Sermon on the Mount – He is focused on the heart, on the inner person; and then from actions born of an inner relationship with God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit; such a relationship with God informs and animates our relationships with others.
Jesus’ message was not seeker-sensitive; He did not lower the bar in order to get others to step over it; He raised the bar, He challenged religious contemporary thinking and living, He did it in public and He did it at the beginning of His ministry – there was no “bait and switch"...but there was a setup.