Matthew 5:20-22 - Beware of Self-Righteousness

Jesus said: “I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven. You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister, will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.”

The Pharisees were members of a religious group who lived during the time of Jesus. Their name means “separated one,” and they took this separation very seriously. They separated themselves from society to study and teach the law, but they also separated themselves from the common people because they considered them spiritually unclean. They would refer to these people as “sinners” while believing themselves holy.

Jesus used to get mad with the Pharisees, calling them a brood of vipers and such. Why? There were several reasons, but chief among these was their sense of self-righteousness. We can be guilty of this, too, so let us understand what self-righteousness is if we want to ensure that Jesus doesn’t say *we* belong to a family of snakes!

The Pharisees had rules, lots and lots of them! Not only did they have the Ten Commandments, but they also added another 618 rules to this list. And they followed them to the letter. They really did! They obeyed all the rules that were laid down. They went to the temple and prayed. They tithed and gave alms. They didn’t commit adultery or murder. They ticked off all the boxes! And because they did, they believed they were good people who had earned the right to go to heaven! This is self-righteousness. 

They didn’t understand that despite doing all this, they remained sinners in need of a savior! Jesus loved them and repeatedly tried to strip them of their self-righteousness so they would realize their sinfulness and repent for it. This is why we hear him say in today’s passage: “You think because you haven’t killed anybody, you are not a murderer?” “You call somebody a fool, and you have done the equivalent of committing murder.” 

But they didn’t get it. How can calling somebody a fool be the same thing as committing murder? Their massive rulebook didn’t say this. Do *we* get it? Or, like the Pharisees, do we believe we need to follow the rules to get to heaven? Or that we are good people because we tick the right boxes — you know: go to church, belong to a prayer group, say a devotion daily, give to charity: tick, tick, tick, tick — and believe we have got our ticket to heaven. What saves us is not following rules but getting into a relationship with Christ. This begins with acknowledging we are sinners and consequently repenting and being baptized in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins (see Acts 2:38). 

Then we obtain the righteousness we are required to have. “This righteousness,” Paul tells us, “is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:22-24). 

Please read, listen, or watch all the reflections for Matthew 5 to get a better understanding of self-righteousness.

May the Spirit be with you.