One of the first commands of Jesus (Matthew 5 v 20) appears so impossible to fulfil, that some bible scholars have suggested that Jesus could not have meant what he said.
“But I warn you—unless your righteousness exceeds (is better than) the righteousness of the scribes (teachers of religious law) and the Pharisees, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven!”
There were many teachers in Israel who had groups of followers and there was often little variance in the core beliefs between them; the difference was in the detail of the application. Generally, a teacher was either a scribe or a Pharisee. The scribes usually concentrated on studying the Law (that is the Old Testament as we know it) and the Pharisees concentrated on applying it to life.
The foundational truths that Jesus taught were often very close to those taught by other good teachers in Israel. When one of the experts in the law, tested Jesus with the question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” (Matt. 22 v 36) Jesus’ answer was probably much as the questioner would have expected from any teacher. What astonished, attracted or upset people about Jesus’ teaching was that he emphasised a right attitude of heart as well as right action.
Jesus taught that true righteousness is expressed as love to God and our neighbour arising out of the love which God has shed abroad in our hearts; not in keeping a list of do’s and don’ts. The Hebrew word tzedakah embodies the concept of righteousness as love in action.
Many Jews before and after Jesus have wrestled with what this means in practice, and Maimonides, a much respected 12th Century Jewish philosopher set out eight levels of attitude and action:
The highest level is to give time or money to a fellow Jew so that he will not need to be dependent upon others.
The next is to give to the poor without knowing to whom one gives, and without the recipient knowing from whom he has received.
The third is when one knows to whom one gives, but the recipient does not know from whom the gift comes.
Then it is to give, when one does know to whom, and the recipient knows his benefactor also.
Next is when one gives to the person directly, but before being asked.
After this is when one gives after being asked.
And then, a lesser level still is to give inadequately, but with a smile.
Finally, it is to give unwillingly.
(It is interesting that there is no provision for not giving at all.)
Although Maimonides lived centuries after the time of Jesus, what he taught reflected the best of Jewish tradition, and the concepts he held may well have been acceptable to many of the scribes and Pharisees. Superficially, the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees seemed to be exceptional. They often gave very generously and were meticulous in tithing, even paying tithes on the produce of their herb gardens. It is probable, that in comparison to modern levels of giving by Christians, the Pharisees were very generous. So what was the problem? Why did Jesus often castigate the Pharisees, and why did he tell His disciples that their righteousness was to exceed the Pharisees righteousness?
It seems that there were two key issues:
The first, as Jesus pointed out to his disciples, was that the Pharisees knew that they were achieving high standards and they liked to let others know it (Matt 6 v1 – 4). The Pharisees thought that righteousness was not only in the doing, but in being seen to do as well. They wanted the praise of men and Jesus said that in getting that, they would have had their reward.
The second, was that they sought to be righteous in order to be acceptable to God, rather than expressing righteousness because they were already accepted. This is so important, but a factor which is overlooked again and again.
Jesus told his disciples (Matt 23 v 3) to do what the Pharisees taught because they did teach love toward God and man. However, the way in which they carried this out often demeaned their relationship with both. Jesus was the most righteous person who has ever lived, yet he would eat with prostitutes and collaborators. The Pharisees would give to a beggar, perhaps generously, but it is unlikely that they would ever sit down and have a meal with them on equal terms in the way that Jesus did.
If our righteousness is to go beyond the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, it must start with a generosity at least as lavish as theirs, but it must go beyond that to include respect for and possible relationships with those to whom we are being generous.
It is of course, impossible to fulfil the teaching of Jesus without the enabling of the Holy Spirit; one of the failures of the Pharisees was they tried to be righteous by their own efforts. We can only be righteous by acknowledging our ongoing dependence on God, and receiving from Him for ourselves and for others.
As we receive from a generous God who loves and cares for us, He enables us to love and care for others. We are not generous in order to gain favour with God or with men, but because we have received freely, we can give freely. We have learned that it really is better to give than to receive and as we practice that, we become increasingly skilful at doing it in such a way that our left hand does not even know what our right hand is doing.