Matthew 5:19-20,  righteousness exceeding that of the Pharisees


1. Parallel passages

These verses are peculiar to Matthew’s gospel.

2. Provenance of the passage

Vermes (2004, 355) notes a widespread view amongst scholars that this statement is originated, not with Jesus, but with the Jewish church in Palestine who contrived it to support their struggle against Paul and his gentile church. However, Vermes argues  persuasively that this is highly unlikely and that these statements originated with Jesus (see notes on Matt 5:17-18).

3. Which commandments

Throughout Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus’ references to commandments always refer to the Hebrew Bible. Furthermore, within the gospels, Jesus tends to differentiate between the things Moses’ commanded (Matt 8:4, 19:7) and the ‘the commandments’ or ‘God’s commandments’ (Luke 18:20, Mark 7:9), by which he meant the Ten Commandments.

France, citing Jesus’ use of ‘commandments’ in Matthew, sees due cause to reject the idea that Jesus’ directed these words toward the commands he was about to give (France 1995, 116). However, as Jesus’ instructions concern correct application of the Law as found in the Ten Commandments, there must surely have been some element of this intended.

4. The least and the greatest

It is easy to jump to the conclusion that the least commandments were those of less importance. Especially given the distinction between weighty and trivial implied in Matt 23:23-24.

23 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have left undone the weightier matters of the law: justice, mercy, and faith. But you ought to have done these, and not to have left the other undone. 24 You blind guides, who strain out a gnat, and swallow a camel!”

(Matt 23:23-24 WEB)

It was commonplace for the Rabbi’s to emphasise the importance of keeping even the least of the commandments. They would later decide that honouring your father and mother (Ex 20:12) was the greatest commandment and respect for a mother bird (Deut 22:6-7) was the least (Keener 1993, Matt 5:19). The former of these, the honouring of your parents, may well have provided the inspiration for this teaching on the Law (see Matt 5:13-20, outline), addressed, as it was, to the sons of God. Indeed Lioy (2004, 71) notes that the Hebrew verb translated "honour" conveys the sense of heaviness, or weight.

In these verses Jesus speaks of ‘the least of these commandments’ and so, as the Sermon was his teaching on the Ten Commandments, an alternative interpretation is possible. Of these Ten, the latter five might be considered subordinate to honouring God and honouring your parents. Thus, Jesus could have been referring to the five commandments upon which he was about to speak (see Matt 5:21-7:12, outline).

There is, however, another nuance to this text that those not steeped in Jewish culture could easily miss. I.e. that Jesus was expecting his audience to apply the interpretive technique of light and heavy, whereby a Rabbi might argue that what applied in the lighter matter should surely apply in the heavier matter. By arguing that the least commandment must be kept, Jesus is indirectly stressing that the greatest, i.e. the honouring of your parents, must also be kept.

Jesus presents the teaching and practice of these ‘commandments’ as the way a person becomes great in the Kingdom (Matt 5:19). His comments are directed toward believers and France suggests the following as a reasonable paraphrase “a Christian who repudiates any part of the Old Testament is an inferior Christian; the consistent Christian will be guided by the Old Testament, and will teach others accordingly” (France 1995, 116).

5. More righteous than the Pharisees

The righteousness that the Pharisees and teachers assumed for themselves contrasts (by implication) with the greatness Jesus attributes to those who took account of the whole law (Matt 5:20). For the Pharisees, righteousness hinged on not transgressing the law and, if righteousness were purely a question of zeal, then theirs could not be faulted (cf Rom 10:1-2).  However, despite that zeal, the Pharisees were pragmatic in their approach. As Bonhoeffer observes, 

“the Pharisees never imagined that the law must be taught but not obeyed; they new their Bibles better than that! Their idea was a direct, literal and  practical fulfilment of the commandment, their ideal was to model their behaviour exactly on the demands of the law.”

(Bonhoeffer 2001, 77) Nor were they unrealistically optimistic in this, for

“they knew they could never realize that ideal, there was bound to be an excess which needed forgiveness of sins to cover it.”

(Bonhoeffer 2001, 77)

Commentators generally supply their own suggestions concerning the basis of this greater righteousness that Christ expected. For Lloyd-Jones, “It is the principle, not the action only, that matters; it is what you think and desire, it is the state of your heart that is important,” (Lloyd-Jones 1962, 207). For Stott, it is heart-righteousness, of the sort that Jeremiah saw characterising the Messianic age (Jer 31:33; Stott 2003, 75). For France it was “a relationship of love and obedience to God which is more than literal observance of regulations” (France 1995, 116). For Bonhoeffer the disciples’ “righteousness could only take the form of obedience to the law” (Bonhoeffer 2001, 77), but Christ’s perfect obedience was counted as theirs by virtue of their commitment to him.

Amongst the authors cited, it is quite generally assumed that it was due to the Pharisees legalistic attitude that Jesus singled them out. However, as Stott notes, the Essene Qumran community took such legalistic transgression avoidance far further than the Pharisees (Stott 2003, 75). If a legalistic approach were indeed the problem, then why single out the Pharisees in preference to the Essenes?  It is also something of an assumption that none of the Pharisees were motivated by a heartfelt desire to serve the Lord, when in fact many were zealous to do just that (cf. Rom 10:1-2), amongst them a certain Pharisee called Saul (Acts 22:3, Gal 1:14).

When Jesus commented on the Pharisees law keeping (Matt 23:23), it was not to condemn their practice but to highlight their hypocrisy. For whilst claiming to conform to the whole law, they were effectively ignoring some of its most significant, but arguably less rule-based, parts.

Whilst the ‘greater righteousness’ of this passage may be understood in terms of motivation. It is also possible to view it in other ways. From a corporate perspective, the Pharisee’s were part of an unrighteous Israel that was rejecting Jesus (cf. Rom 10:3), so those who chose to remain part of their establishment, rather than joining the way of righteousness under Jesus tutorage, were automatically unrighteous. This failure to accept Jesus (i.e. their lack of righteousness) automatically excluded them from the Kingdom of Heaven. The Essenes had at least realised that the way forward for Israel lay with establishing the way in the wilderness, whilst the Pharisees were staunchly committed to working within the existing establishment. They were advocates of the old wineskin rather than the new.

6. Reconciling approaches to the law

Scholars have struggled to reconcile Paul’s apparent desire to set aside the law, with this passage’s  inescapable advocacy of law-keeping. The approach they take to Jesus’ comments often boils down to one or more of the following:

For example, Vermes (2004, 355), sees in the passage’s triple reference to the Kingdom of Heaven an emphasis that Jesus’ advice, whilst it applied in the present, was only given in anticipation of the eschatological events that would usher in the Kingdom and then primarily to the ethical aspects of the law (Vermes 2004, 355).