Disciples Are Righteous (And Not Like a Pharisee)
Pharisees get a bad rap in the New Testament and in contemporary preaching. And for good reason. What is surprising is that Jesus and the Pharisees held several points of theology in common.
For example, they both believed in the resurrection of the dead (though the Sadducees didn’t). The Pharisees didn’t exactly like the Sadducees, who had political dealings with Rome, who were priests and led temple worship, and who perhaps only thought that the Torah was normative for life. Pharisees, by contrast, were anti-Rome, operated out of the synagogues, and tried to update, apply, and contextualize the Torah in their day.
None of us today would shudder at the thought of trying to contextualize Scripture for our congregations and communities. The word of God is active and alive. It was the way that Pharisees attempted to do this that caught Jesus’ woes and wrath. By emphasizing things like purity, food laws, who one ate with, activity on the Sabbath, and circumcision, the Pharisees sought to determine who among their Jewish brethren was faithful to the covenant. The Pharisees’ concern was not with getting in but with staying in covenant relationship. They were a sort of “puritan movement” with Judaism.
I have always been struck with one of Jesus’ statements in the Sermon on the Mount: Your righteousness must surpass that of the scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 5:20). Righteousness was a very relational term that spoke not just of the state of one’s heart and the actions proceeding from it (though Jesus goes there in Matthew 7…a tree will be known by its fruit). Righteousness was about a person’s faithfulness to the relationship they were in. Did a husband act like a faithful husband? Then he was righteous (see Joseph in the birth narratives of Matthew 1).
Jesus called His disciples to have righteousness–faithfulness to their part of their relationship with God–that went beyond that of the Pharisees.
This means that they obey the Law not because they must, but because God has changed their hearts and enabled them to do so. It also means that they obey the Law not in order to be separate from outsiders or to look holy next to insiders, but because Christ commands obedience to the royal law of love. Obedience to Christ becomes a natural byproduct of their faith in Him and the grace He gives (which is the opposite of what Jesus tells scribes and Pharisees in Matt. 23:25-26 and Lk. 6:43-45).