For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven. ~ Jesus
Is Jesus being meaner than Moses? No, he is saying that the kind of life-change that matters is when God is birthed deep down inside of you—down where the knobs are— and begins to control the operating-center of your life.
Virginia Stem Owens wrote an article called God and Man at Texas A&M. Owens wrote about how she had assigned her freshman English class “The Sermon on the Mount,” a selection in their rhetoric textbook. Having grown up in church, and being in Texas, a very religious state, she expected them to have some familiarity with it, but as she read the papers, she was shocked at how none of her students were familiar with it. In her words:
The first paper I picked up began, “In my opinion religion is one big hoax. There is an old saying that ‘you shouldn’t believe everything you read’ and it applies in this case.”
“The stuff the churches preach is extremely strict and allows for almost no fun without thinking if it is a sin or not.”
“I did not like the essay ‘Sermon on the Mount.’ It was hard to read and made me feel like I had to be perfect and no one is.”
“The things asked in this sermon are absurd. To look at a woman lustfully is adultery? That is the most extreme, stupid, un-human statement that I have ever heard.”
Owens writes, “At this point I began to be encouraged. There is something exquisitely innocent about not realizing you shouldn’t call Jesus stupid. This was not exactly intellectual agnosticism talking here, usually the perceived foe of the faith. It was just down-home hedonism. This was the real thing, a pristine response to the gospel, unfiltered through a two-millennia cultural haze.”
The common myth in our culture about Christianity is that it is all about rule-keeping.
But the fact is religion is rule-keeping, but the Gospel of Jesus is not rule-keeping. Religion is an outside in strategy. Religion tends to work on behavior modification, but the good news of Jesus is an inside out transformation.
So, when Jesus says that unless your righteousness exceeds the scribes and Pharisees He’s not saying that he wants them to have better rule-keeping skills. He’s saying that a follower of Jesus will have a kind of righteousness, a wholeness, an integrity about their lives that is more profound than the religious professionals of that day because they are being transformed in the depths of their lives.
There is a soul-change, not just a behavioral change. The Jesus Life re-calibrates us at the deepest levels of who we are. And Jesus can do this because he personified the beatitudes. Jesus, the living God among us, becomes poor. Jesus, the living God among us, morns buckets of tears for a broken world. Finally, he is crucified and God shines the light of His forgiveness and truth into the inky darkness of a broken world; into dark lives like yours and mine.
When we taste of God’s grace, life, and love that we have in Jesus—it transforms us, not just at the level of our hands, but at the deeper level of our hearts. Jesus transforms us in our depths.
His promise is that if you are a follower of His he will so profoundly rearrange your life not just so that you can avoid adultery, but that adultery doesn’t have any attraction to your heart in the first place.
His promise is not that He will give you sufficient will power to not kill the irritating coworker, but that your heart will be filled with so much mercy from God that it will be a natural grace for you to extend that mercy to the most irritating person in your world.
He will change your soul to the point that sin no longer looks good to you.
My favorite story of grace outside of the Bible is Victor Hugo’s Les Miserable.
Jean Valjean, the main character of the story, is an ex-convict, released from prison after serving nineteen years: five for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his family, and fourteen more for attempting four escapes. Once he’s finally free he receives no welcome anywhere.
Innkeepers turn him away; even a dog drives him out of a kennel where he tries to sleep. Finally, Valjean knocks on the door of the local bishop, who welcomes him as if he were Christ himself. The bishop prepares a meal for Valjean, sets the table with silver, dines with him, and then provides him with his first real bed in nineteen years.
Despite the bishop’s kindness, Valjean awakes in the wee hours, steals all the silver he can carry, and flees into the night. He remains a fugitive for but a few hours. The long arm of the law reaches out and brings him back to the bishop, just as the household staff is discovering the theft. Upon seeing Valjean hauled into his house with the police, the old bishop instantly sizes up the situation and declares, “So here you are! I’m delighted to see you. Had you forgotten that I gave you the candlesticks as well? They’re silver like the rest, and worth as good as two-hundred francs. Did you forget to take them?”
For Jean Valjean, the bishop’s unexpected and extraordinary grace is almost more than he can comprehend. It changes the course of his life. That act of mercy so changes him that he spends the rest of his life saving and serving those who crossed his life. At the very end of the novel, the two candlesticks provide the last light that Jean Valjean sees before he dies.
That is what grace does to people; it changes them from the inside out.