Better Than the Pharisees

Carl Bloch's painting depicting Jesus sitting before a crowd and delivering the Sermon on the Mount
The Sermon on the Mount
Carl Bloch, 1890

Matthew 5:20 – 30:

For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 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 the hell of fire.

“So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison. Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.”

How could anyone’s righteousness exceed that of the Scribes and Pharisees? In many ways, these individuals were seen as the protectors of the law. They knew the law inside and out. Their conduct was seen an spotless. But they had a problem, and we see Jesus address this issue in many places, none more so than Matthew 23. Their problem was this: their righteous conduct was superficial. They enforced and upheld the outer signs of the law, but they missed the deeper meanings that should have affected their hearts.

Going Beyond Compliance 

Romans 10:1 – 3 records Paul commending many of his former colleagues for having a zeal to God but missing the deeper knowledge of the scripture, for God’s word goes beyond our conduct. It goes to our motives and our attitudes. It touches upon and changes our hearts. Nothing exemplifies this distinction more than the very first examples Jesus touches upon in Matthew 5 — murder and adultery.

Jesus says that it’s not enough to simply avoid doing these things. He’s not looking for simple compliance. He wants our hearts, and He says that contemptuous and hateful attitudes are just as wrong and sinful. James 1:19 – 20 says that worldly anger undermines God’s righteousness, so we should never let it control us. Animosity is a poison that spreads, so Jesus tells us to take care of it quickly in Matthew 5:24 – 25. Paul will later tell us to not let the sun go down on our anger. The idea is the same: take care of these things quickly.

Jesus goes to the same extreme with the sin of adultery. He warns us against sinning in our hearts, even if we do nothing outward that would reveal that inner sin. He goes so far to say that it is better to lose an eye or a hand rather than allow them to lead you into judgment. This may not look like physical dismemberment, but it may mean we cut other things out of our lives that lead us away from God and into temptation.

Keep Your Heart

Proverbs 4:23 – 27:

For they are life to those who find them, and healing to all their flesh.

Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life.

Put away from you crooked speech, and put devious talk far from you.

Let your eyes look directly forward, and your gaze be straight before you.

Ponder the path of your feet; then all your ways will be sure.

Do not swerve to the right or to the left; turn your foot away from evil.

Most of us can say that we’ve never committed murder or adultery. That’s easy. What’s harder is being the living sacrifice Paul describes in Romans 12. This requires more than outward compliance. It’s about who we are in our hearts. We should be diligent and vigilant in guarding our hearts and living the way Jesus would have us. Put away crooked and hateful words. Keep you eyes forward. With your step, and keep on that path laid out for all of us.

lesson by Don Larsen

The Parable the Two Sons

columns inside the Church of St. James the Less

Matthew 21 records Jesus entering Jerusalem, and in so doing, fulfilling Old Testament prophecies regarding the Messiah. He enters to praise by the crowd, and He begins healing the sick and the blind. However, the chief priests and the scribes grow indignant at the crowds following Jesus around, and they rebuke Him for their praise. Jesus dismisses their criticisms, and He then continues on to Bethany.

The next day, Jesus returns to Jerusalem, and, after more signs and teachings, the priests pressure Him on the authority by which He speaks. Jesus turns the question back on them, asking them about the baptism of John — was it from God or man? The priests fear the consequences involved with answering either way, so they do not respond. Jesus then tells them this parable beginning in verse 28:

“What do you think? A man had two sons. And he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ And he answered, ‘I will not,’ but afterward he changed his mind and went. And he went to the other son and said the same. And he answered, ‘I go, sir,’ but did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?”

They said, “The first.”

Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him. And even when you saw it, you did not afterward change your minds and believe him.”

Back in Matthew 3, we see exactly this. Many of the poor and disenfranchised responded to John’s teachings, but the spiritual leaders reject him as they would later reject Jesus. John and Jesus taught many immoral and dishonest individuals to mend their ways, but most of the priests, scribes, and Pharisees refused to let His message touch their hearts.

Repentance Versus Self-Righteousness

The application of the parable then is clear. In general, the types of individuals who would become tax collectors in this culture or prostitutes are people who have already rejected God’s law in their lives. They have already turned their backs on God and have responded, “I will not go.” But their repentance then demonstrates greater faithfulness than those who profess righteousness but keep their hearts far from God.

In Romans 11:13, Paul writes that he hopes the faithfulness of Gentiles will provoke some of his former brothers to learn more about Christ. He compares this to grafting branches from a wild olive tree to one that’s already part of an orchard. Don’t both share the same root? And, if the root is holy, should all the branches not also be holy? Paul warns that branches that fail to produce will be cut off — even if they are part of the original tree. In other words, we cannot trust in past faithfulness for future righteousness.

In this process, we can see both God’s grace and His judgment. He is willing to forgive the past, but He will also not allow the past to cover current unfaithfulness. As in the parable, no matter our disobedience before, we can come to God in humble repentance for forgiveness. However, if we turn from our confession of faith, God will separate us from Him.

Doers Versus Hearers

In James 1, the apostle there warns us to be doers of the word, not just hearers. The older son in this parable was a hearer of the word. He gave lip service to the father, but he did not follow through with those words. The second son, though he initially rejected the father’s word, became a doer of the word. He put his love of the father in action, and his example is for all of us. Are you a hearer of the word, or are you a doer also?

What is your answer to the Father’s invitation to serve in His vineyard? Will you accept the invitation and immediately get to work? Will you resist? If you have ben resisting, are you ready to relent and work for the Father? He is always ready to invite you with open arms into His family of believers.

lesson by Ron Phillips

Picture Scripture: Isaiah 64:8


Today’s scripture is Isaiah 64:8, “But now, O LORD, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.”

Time with God and His word should be a life-changing experience. The skilled potter has complete control over the final shape of their creation. Likewise, our time with God and His word should be always shaping us and transforming us.

Some changes can come quickly and forcefully. Other changes are gentler and take more time, but we should always be striving to grow as Christians, no longer conforming to the mold of this world but rather being transformed by our God’s guiding hands.