In the Gospel of Matthew, we find a statement by Jesus that may have initially seemed like an insurmountable challenge to the people of his time: “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20 ESV).
During that era, the Pharisees stood out as the epitome of righteousness. It’s akin to Jesus entering a gym and scouting basketball players for his team, but with this requirement: to secure a spot, players must successfully make 10,000 consecutive free throws. The notion that your righteousness must surpass that of the Pharisees would have felt overwhelming, even disheartening Jesus’ listeners.
How could Jesus have asked that of his people?
But Jesus didn’t stop there; He raised the bar even higher. As He declared in Matthew 5:21-28 (ESV), “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to a hell of fire.”
Christ’s commands and others like them cut us to the heart. How can anyone perfectly obey Him? The answer is that Christ makes a crucial distinction. Not all standards are the same.
What is the difference between the righteousness of the Pharisees and the righteousness Christ calls us to?
Understanding the Essence of Righteousness
Jesus shifted the focus from mere outward compliance with religious regulations to the condition of your heart. He used vivid examples, such as murder and adultery, to emphasize that our mere outward actions alone were enough. The thoughts and attitudes of our hearts matter even more. This redirection from external religiosity to internal transformation marked a significant departure from the prevailing religious practices of his time.
Jesus calls us to a righteousness comprehending not mere outward conformity to laws but a righteousness of the heart.
Righteous to the Core
As we continue our sermon series, “Hair,” we turn to the Gospel of Luke, chapter 7, where a Pharisee named Simon invited Jesus to his home for a meal, possibly intending to engage in theological discussions. However, before any dialogue began, an unexpected visitor arrived: Mary, a woman known in the city as a prostitute. She approached Jesus, washing his feet with her tears, drying them with her hair, and anointing them with precious perfume.
Simon, the Pharisee, was quick to judge both the woman and Jesus, believing that Jesus would not have allowed such a woman to touch him if he were truly a prophet. Reading Simon’s thoughts, Jesus responded with a parable about forgiveness, asking Simon which debtor would love their creditor more: the one who forgave a small debt or a substantial debt. Simon correctly answered that the one forgiven the larger debt would love him more.
The Essence of True Righteousness
Jesus then drew a profound lesson from this narrative. He pointed out that Simon had not extended customary acts of hospitality, such as washing Jesus’ feet or greeting him with a kiss. In contrast, the woman had lavished Jesus’ feet with kisses and tears. Jesus highlighted that it was the woman’s deep act of love, rooted in her awareness of her need for forgiveness and her trust in God’s grace, that exemplified genuine righteousness.
The story we’ve discussed paints a vivid portrait of what real righteousness looks like. Righteousness is not rooted in legalistic debates over Sabbath day observances or nitpicking the finer points of the law, as the Pharisees did. Instead, true righteousness is discovered in wholehearted devotion to Jesus.
Mary poured out her whole heart and soul at the feet of Christ. Do you recognize your need for forgiveness? Do you embrace God’s grace and allow your heart to be transformed by love and devotion to Him?
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The above is an abbreviated version of the message that Pastor Luke originally preached on August 27th, 2023. We invite you to join us for Sunday Service at Dream City Church each week to hear Pastor Luke and other speakers in person. You can also stream our services online here. If you enjoyed this article, don’t forget to share it with someone who might need to hear this powerful message!