Righteousness Not by Oral Traditions
“If your righteousness does not abound more than that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter into the kingdom of the heavens.”—MATTHEW 5:20.
1, 2. What happened just before Jesus gave his Sermon on the Mount?
JESUS had spent the night on a mountain. The starry heavens stretched overhead. Small nocturnal animals rustled in the bushes. To the east the waters of the Sea of Galilee lapped gently at the shore. But Jesus could have been only faintly aware of the peaceful, soothing beauty surrounding him. He had spent the night in prayer to his heavenly Father, Jehovah. He needed his Father’s guidance. The day ahead was crucial.
2 In the east the sky lightened. Birds began moving about, chirping softly. The wildflowers swayed gently in the breeze. As the sun’s first rays broke over the horizon, Jesus called his disciples to him and from their midst chose 12 to be his apostles. Then, along with all of them, he started down the mountainside. Already the crowds could be seen streaming in from Galilee, Tyre and Sidon, Judea and Jerusalem. They came to be healed of their sicknesses. Power from Jehovah was going out of Jesus as many touched him and were cured. They had also come to hear his words that were as a healing balm to their troubled souls.—Matthew 4:25; Luke 6:12-19.
3. Why were the disciples and the crowds in anticipation when Jesus began to speak?
3 In their more formal teaching sessions, the rabbis were accustomed to sit down, and on this particular spring morning of 31 C.E., that is what Jesus did, apparently at a level place higher on the hillside. When his disciples and the crowds saw this, they realized that something special was afoot, so they gathered expectantly around him. When he began to speak, they were in anticipation of his words; when he ended some time later, they were left astounded by what they had heard. Let us see why.—Matthew 7:28.
Two Kinds of Righteousness
4. (a) What two kinds of righteousness were at issue? (b) What was the purpose of the oral traditions, and was it realized?
4 In his Sermon on the Mount, reported both at Matthew 5:1–7:29 and at Luke 6:17-49, Jesus sharply contrasted two classes: the scribes and Pharisees and the common people they oppressed. He spoke of two kinds of righteousness, the hypocritical righteousness of the Pharisees and the true righteousness of God. (Matthew 5:6, 20) Pharisaic self-righteousness was rooted in oral traditions. These had been initiated in the second century B.C.E. as “a fence around the Law” to protect it from the inroads of Hellenism (Greek culture). They had come to be viewed as a part of the Law. In fact, the scribes even rated the oral traditions above the written Law. The Mishnah says: “Greater stringency applies to the observance of the words of the Scribes [their oral traditions] than to the observance of the words of the written Law.” Hence, instead of being “a fence around the Law” to protect it, their traditions weakened the Law and made it void, just as Jesus said: “Adroitly you set aside the commandment of God in order to retain your tradition.”—Mark 7:5-9; Matthew 15:1-9.
5. (a) What was the condition of the common people who came to hear Jesus, and how were they viewed by the scribes and Pharisees? (b) What made the oral traditions such a heavy load on the shoulders of workingmen?
5 The common people who flocked to hear Jesus were spiritually impoverished, having been “skinned and thrown about like sheep without a shepherd.” (Matthew 9:36) With arrogant haughtiness the scribes and Pharisees scorned them, called them ʽam ha·ʼaʹrets (people of the land), and despised them as ignorant, accursed sinners unworthy of a resurrection because they did not keep the oral traditions. By Jesus’ time those traditions had become so voluminous and such an oppressive morass of legalistic nit-picking—so laden with time-consuming ceremonial rituals—that no workingman could possibly keep them. No wonder Jesus denounced the traditions as ‘heavy loads on the shoulders of men.’—Matthew 23:4; John 7:45-49.
6. What was so startling about Jesus’ opening pronouncements, and what change did they indicate for his disciples and for the scribes and Pharisees?
6 So when Jesus sat down on the hillside, those who drew close to listen were his disciples and the spiritually starved crowds. These must have found his opening pronouncements startling. ‘Happy the poor, happy the hungry, happy those weeping, happy those hated.’ But who can be happy when they are poor, hungry, weeping, and hated? And woes were declared for those who were rich, well fed, laughing, and admired! (Luke 6:20-26) In just a few words, Jesus reversed all the customary evaluations and the accepted human standards. It was a dramatic reversal of positions, in line with Jesus’ later words: “Everyone that exalts himself will be humiliated, but he that humbles himself will be exalted.”—Luke 18:9-14.
7. What effect must Jesus’ opening words have had on the spiritually starved crowd listening to Jesus?
7 In contrast with the self-satisfied scribes and Pharisees, those coming to Jesus on this particular morning were aware of their sad spiritual state. His opening words must have filled them with hope: “Happy are those conscious of their spiritual need, since the kingdom of the heavens belongs to them.” And how their spirit must have soared when he added: “Happy are those hungering and thirsting for righteousness, since they will be filled”! (Matthew 5:3, 6; John 6:35; Revelation 7:16, 17) Filled with righteousness, yes, but not with the Pharisaic brand.
Not Enough to Be “Righteous Before Men”
8. Why would some wonder how their righteousness could abound more than that of the scribes and Pharisees, yet why must it do so?
8 “If your righteousness does not abound more than that of the scribes and Pharisees,” Jesus said, “you will by no means enter into the kingdom of the heavens.” (Matthew 5:17-20; see Mark 2:23-28; 3:1-6; 7:1-13.) Some must have thought: ‘More righteous than the Pharisees? They fast and pray and tithe and give alms and spend their lives studying the Law. How can our righteousness ever surpass theirs?’ But it had to abound more. The Pharisees may have been highly esteemed by men, but not by God. On another occasion Jesus said to these Pharisees: “You are those who declare yourselves righteous before men, but God knows your hearts; because what is lofty among men is a disgusting thing in God’s sight.”—Luke 16:15.
9-11. (a) What was one way the scribes and Pharisees thought they would receive a righteous standing before God? (b) By what second way did they expect to gain righteousness? (c) What was the third way they counted on, and what did the apostle Paul say that doomed this to failure?
9 The rabbis had invented their own rules for gaining righteousness. One was merit by descent from Abraham: “The disciples of Abraham our father enjoy this world and inherit the world to come.” (Mishnah) Possibly it was to counter this tradition that John the Baptizer warned the Pharisees who came to him: “Produce fruit that befits repentance; and do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘As a father we have Abraham [as if that were enough].’”—Matthew 3:7-9; see also John 8:33, 39.
10 A second way to gain righteousness, they said, was by the giving of alms. Two Apocryphal books written by devout Jews during the second century B.C.E. reflect the traditional view. One statement appears in Tobit: “Almsgiving saves one from death and expiates every sin.” (12:9, The New American Bible) The Book of Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) agrees: “Water quenches a flaming fire, and alms atone for sins.”—3:29, NAB.
11 The third way they sought righteousness was by works of the Law. Their oral traditions taught that if a man’s deeds were mostly good, he would be saved. Judgment “is according to the excess of works that be good or evil.” (Mishnah) To stand favorably in judgment, their concern was “to achieve merits which would outweigh sins.” If a man’s good works exceeded his bad works by one, he would be saved—as though God judged by keeping count of their petty activities! (Matthew 23:23, 24) Presenting a correct view, Paul wrote: “By works of law no flesh will be declared righteous before [God].” (Romans 3:20) Certainly, Christian righteousness must abound more than that of the scribes and Pharisees!
“You Heard That It Was Said”
12. (a) What change from his usual way of introducing references to the Hebrew Scriptures did Jesus make in his Sermon on the Mount, and why? (b) What do we learn from the sixth use of the expression “It was said”?
12 When Jesus previously quoted from the Hebrew Scriptures, he said: “It is written.” (Matthew 4:4, 7, 10) But six times in the Sermon on the Mount, he introduced what sounded like statements from the Hebrew Scriptures with the words: “It was said.” (Matthew 5:21, 27, 31, 33, 38, 43) Why? Because he was referring to the Scriptures as interpreted in the light of Pharisaic traditions that contradicted God’s commandments. (Deuteronomy 4:2; Matthew 15:3) This is made apparent in Jesus’ sixth and last reference in this series: “You heard that it was said, ‘You must love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’” But no Mosaic law said, “Hate your enemy.” The scribes and Pharisees said it. That was their interpretation of the Law to love your neighbor—your Jewish neighbor, no others.
13. How does Jesus warn against even the beginning of conduct that could lead to actual murder?
13 Consider now the first of this series of six statements. Jesus declared: “You heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You must not murder; but whoever commits a murder will be accountable to the court of justice.’ However, I say to you that everyone who continues wrathful with his brother will be accountable to the court of justice.” (Matthew 5:21, 22) Anger in the heart can lead to abusive speech and from there to condemnatory judgments, and it may ultimately lead to the act of murder itself. Prolonged anger nourished in the heart can be deadly: “Everyone who hates his brother is a manslayer.”—1 John 3:15.
14. How does Jesus counsel us not even to start down the road that leads to adultery?
14 Jesus next said: “You heard that it was said, ‘You must not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone that keeps on looking at a woman so as to have a passion for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matthew 5:27, 28) You are not going to commit adultery? Then do not even start down that road by entertaining thoughts about it. Guard your heart, where such things have their source. (Proverbs 4:23; Matthew 15:18, 19) James 1:14, 15 warns: “Each one is tried by being drawn out and enticed by his own desire. Then the desire, when it has become fertile, gives birth to sin; in turn, sin, when it has been accomplished, brings forth death.” People sometimes say: ‘Don’t start what you can’t finish.’ But in this case we should say: ‘Don’t start what you can’t stop.’ Some who have been faithful even when threatened with death before a firing squad have later fallen for the insidious lure of sexual immorality.
15. How did Jesus’ position on divorce differ completely from that related in the oral traditions of the Jews?
15 We come now to Jesus’ third statement. He said: “Moreover it was said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ However, I say to you that everyone divorcing his wife, except on account of fornication, makes her a subject for adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman [that is, one divorced on grounds other than sexual immorality] commits adultery.” (Matthew 5:31, 32) Some Jews dealt treacherously with their wives and divorced them on the flimsiest of grounds. (Malachi 2:13-16; Matthew 19:3-9) Oral traditions allowed a man to divorce his wife “even if she spoiled a dish for him” or “if he found another fairer than she.”—Mishnah.
16. What Jewish practice made the swearing of oaths meaningless, and what position did Jesus take?
16 In a similar vein, Jesus continued: “Again you heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You must not swear without performing’ . . . However, I say to you: Do not swear at all.” By this time the Jews were abusing oath-taking and were swearing many oaths about trivial things without performing. But Jesus said: “Do not swear at all . . . Just let your word Yes mean Yes, your No, No.” His rule was simple: Be truthful at all times, not having to guarantee your word by an oath. Reserve oaths for vital matters.—Matthew 5:33-37; compare 23:16-22.
17. What better way than “eye for eye and tooth for tooth” did Jesus teach?
17 Jesus next said: “You heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye and tooth for tooth.’ However, I say to you: Do not resist him that is wicked; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other also to him.” (Matthew 5:38-42) Jesus is not here referring to a blow intended to do injury but to an insulting slap with the back of the hand. Do not degrade yourself by swapping insults. Refuse to return evil for evil. Rather, return good and thereby “keep conquering the evil with the good.”—Romans 12:17-21.
18. (a) How did the Jews alter the law about loving your neighbor, but how did Jesus counteract this? (b) What was Jesus’ answer to a certain lawyer who wanted to limit the application of “neighbor”?
18 In the sixth and final example, Jesus clearly showed how the Mosaic Law was weakened by rabbinic tradition: “You heard that it was said, ‘You must love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ However, I say to you: Continue to love your enemies and to pray for those persecuting you.” (Matthew 5:43, 44) The written Mosaic Law put no limits on love: “You must love your fellow as yourself.” (Leviticus 19:18) It was the Pharisees who balked at this commandment, and to escape it they limited the term “neighbor” to those who kept the traditions. So it was that when Jesus later reminded a certain lawyer of the command to ‘love your neighbor as yourself,’ the man quibbled: “Who really is my neighbor?” Jesus answered with the illustration of the good Samaritan—make yourself a neighbor to the one that needs you.—Luke 10:25-37.
19. What action by Jehovah toward the wicked did Jesus recommend that we follow?
19 Continuing his sermon, Jesus proclaimed that ‘God showed love to the wicked. He caused the sun to shine and the rain to fall on them. There is nothing extraordinary in loving those who love you. The wicked do that. There is no reason for reward in that. Prove yourselves sons of God. Copy him. Make yourself a neighbor to all and love your neighbor. And thus “be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”’ (Matthew 5:45-48) What a challenging standard to live up to! And how far short it shows the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees to be!
20. Rather than setting aside the Mosaic Law, how did Jesus widen and deepen its impact and set it on an even higher plane?
20 So when Jesus referred to parts of the Law and added, “However, I say to you,” he was not setting aside the Mosaic Law and substituting something else in its place. No, but he was deepening and widening its force by showing the spirit behind it. A higher law of brotherhood judges continued ill will as murder. A higher law of purity condemns continued lustful thinking as adultery. A higher law of marriage rejects frivolous divorcing as a course leading to adulterous remarriages. A higher law of truth shows repetitious oaths to be unnecessary. A higher law of mildness sets aside retaliation. A higher law of love calls for a godly love that knows no bounds.
21. What did Jesus’ admonitions reveal as to rabbinic self-righteousness, and what else would the crowds learn?
21 What a profound impact such unheard-of admonitions must have had as they fell upon the ears of those hearing them for the first time! How utterly worthless they rendered the hypocritical self-righteousness that came from slaving for rabbinic traditions! But as Jesus continued his Sermon on the Mount, the crowds hungering and thirsting for the righteousness of God were to learn specifically how to attain it, as the following article shows.
◻ Why did the Jews create their oral traditions?
◻ What dramatic reversal did Jesus make relative to the scribes and Pharisees and the common people?
◻ How did the scribes and Pharisees expect to gain a righteous standing with God?
◻ What did Jesus show to be the way to avoid fornication and adultery?
◻ By showing the spirit behind the Mosaic Law, what higher standards did Jesus establish?