Following the Teacher Part 2: The Righteousness of the Pharisees

Welcome to our Lenten journey through the Sermon on the Mount. You are invited to join us on a weathered hillside in Galilee to experience the core of Jesus’ teaching about how the world is meant to be. If you’re joining the story for the first time, I invite you to read the Prologue and Part 1 for the context and the backstory that leads us here today.

[Read: Matthew 5:17-20]

We’d only been up on this hillside with him for a few moments but already it felt like a lifetime of learning was being unraveled. I was still processing it all….

Repent. Reorient.

Blessed to be a blessing. Salt and light.

The beloved community of the heavens…was ours.

My mind had wandered for a moment as I struggled to piece together what the Teacher had said so far. But his words now about Torah–the Law of Moses—recaptured my attention.

“Have I come to abolish Torah? Certainly not. My only aim is to fulfill Torah. The Law cannot be done away with…not even the slightest mark.”

Again, the phrase was loaded with meaning. If a rabbi’s disciples interpreted his teachings correctly, they were said to be fulfilling Torah. Interpret incorrectly, and you were abolishing Torah.

But the Law was very clear.

You were either clean or unclean. Acceptable or unacceptable.

In or out.

And if you had any questions, the Pharisees were the ones in these parts who would keep you straight.

The gatekeepers of the law. Judges of what is clean and unclean. Regulators of thoughts and actions. Arbiters of what fulfills and what abolishes Torah.

He could only mean one thing…if what he had come to say was to fulfill the Law—to interpret it correctly—it had to mean he thought our leaders and teachers were interpreting it incorrectly.

The Pharisees were not going to like that. I looked around to see if I recognized any of them in the crowd. With the attention he was getting, it would be hard to imagine they weren’t paying close attention to his movements.

And then, as if he was reading my mind, I heard him say it:

“For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the teachers of the Law and the Pharisees, you will never enter the beloved community.”

Wait…how could anyone ever exceed the righteousness of the Pharisees? Just when I thought I was getting a glimmer of understanding, just as I was beginning to see where he was going….

“Righteous” was never a word anyone used to describe any of us. Sure, we did our best to follow Torah. But it was never enough for the Pharisees. They were always there to tell us where we were falling short. They were righteous through and through.

But us—the unclean, the unlawful, the unrighteous—the Teacher had just called us blessed. Happy. Fortunate.

How could he say on one hand that the beloved community of heaven could be for us, but on the other say it was only if we exceeded the righteousness of the most righteous people we knew?


Did I sense a tone of sarcasm?

Did he mean that the righteousness of the Pharisees was no righteousness at all?

Once again I felt my mind spinning.

But what if?

What if our teachings and traditions have missed the mark?

What if the Law was about something more than clean and unclean, legal and illegal, in and out?

What if fulfilling Torah is not about being right, but about being light?

“Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the beloved community of the heavens; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in that realm.”

That was it. He was redefining what it meant to be righteous.

Where there is harm, there is no righteousness.

Where there is discrimination, there is no righteousness.

Where there is exclusion, there is no righteousness.

Where there is marginalization, there is no righteousness.

The righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees is nothing but self-righteousness.

What if the Teacher wasn’t turning everything upside-down as I had thought before?

What if he was turning everything rightside-up?

Next week: You have heard it said…

< [Prologue] [Part 1] | [Part 3] >

6 thoughts on “Following the Teacher Part 2: The Righteousness of the Pharisees

  1. Pingback: Following the Teacher Part 1: Gathering on the Mountainside |

  2. Pingback: Following the Teacher Part 2: The Righteousness of the Pharisees – Accidental Tomatoes

  3. Pingback: Following the Teacher Part 3: You have heard it said… |

  4. Pingback: Following the Teacher Part 4…In secret |

  5. Pingback: Following the Teacher Part 5: Treasure |

  6. Pingback: Following the Teacher Part 6: Authority |

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