Ancient Athens periodically held public votes to decide which citizens should be banished. If a person’s name was written on enough clay shards, he was “ostracized” and sent into exile for ten years. On one such occasion, a man handed a blank shard to Aristeides, not knowing who he was. He urged him to banish the person named Aristeides simply because, “I am tired of hearing him everywhere called ‘the righteous.’”
In our previous study we determined that for the Jews, “the righteous” were the people who kept God’s laws. While no one except God is completely righteous, they understood what it meant for a man to be righteous in a relative sense. Some, like the Pharisees, took great pride in achieving this kind of righteousness.
It was most upsetting, therefore, when Jesus said, “Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 5:20). What did “righteous” mean to Jesus?
Many people are called “righteous” in the Gospels: Joseph, Zechariah and Elizabeth, Simeon, Abel, Joseph of Arimathea, Jesus himself and God. Jesus spoke often of “the righteous,” using the term to refer to God’s people who kept God’s laws. God sends rain, for instance, on “the righteous and the unrighteous.” Jesus said that many prophets and “righteous men” had longed for the Messiah. But Jesus condemned the Pharisees, who on the outside appeared to be righteous and decorated the tombs of the righteous, but on the inside were full of hypocrisy and wickedness. So righteous people did exist, but they weren’t the Pharisees.
Jesus twice clearly indicated whom He considered to be “the righteous.” In Luke 14 Jesus taught His followers to befriend the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind. In doing so they could look forward to being “repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” Similarly, in Matthew 25 Jesus described the scene at Judgment Day. The righteous—those who reached out to the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the needy, the sick, and the imprisoned—will be welcomed into the eternal kingdom.
So, in partial answer to our original question, for Jesus the “righteousness that exceeds that of the Pharisees” is an actual goodness, not merely something superficial. For the rest of our answer, however, we must wait for Righteous: Part 3.