Matthew 5:20 – “For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”
This passage has always intimidated me and I felt for so long that the expectations it contained were unrealistic and impossible to live up to. How was I possibly to be more righteous than the Pharisees? Their observance and devotion to Torah was incredible and seemed hard to live up to. This teaching also seemed to contradict most of the rest of the teachings in the gospels and other books of the new testament.
It turns out that the key to understanding this teaching is a correct historical and cultural understanding of the phrase “kingdom of heaven” and the word “righteousness.”
As the scholars David Bivin, David Flusser, and many others have noted, the phrase “Kingdom of Heaven” is not a futuristic term. “Kingdom of Heaven” is Jesus’ name for his movement, the body of his disciples; and “to enter or come into the Kingdom of Heaven” means to become a disciple or follower of Jesus (it does not mean to “go to heaven” after you die).
By the first century, the word righteousness or t’sedakah (“righteousness” in the sense of “deliverance” or “salvation”) had come to have a second, more restricted meaning — “almsgiving.” Almsgiving is a word typically used to describe giving monetary help to the poor.
We know from rabbinic literature (Talmud, Mishnah, etc.) that in the eyes of the Pharisees, almsgiving, prayer, and fasting were the three most important components of righteous living. Almsgiving was considered the most important of the three; in fact, it was so synonymous with righteousness that by the first century almsgiving itself came to be called “righteousness.” It’s almost similar to how the brand name “Xerox” became so synonymous with copy machines that people in offices to this day still say, “I’m going to Xerox this document,” instead of “I’m going to copy it.”
In any case, in the first century many religous people believed they could work out their own righteousness instead of submitting to the righteousness of God (see also Romans 10:3). In Matthew 5:20 Jesus is warning the people that if their righteousness is the undersized righteousness of the Pharisees and not the mighty righteousness of God, you will not “Enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.”
We can now see in Matthew 5:20, Jesus is playing on the two meanings of righteousness commonly used in the first century. The older broader meaning (salvation), and the newer, narrower meaning (almsgiving).
As the great scholar David Bivin says, “If your righteousness is reduced to almsgiving, Jesus admonished, you will not be in my movement, the Kingdom of Heaven. If it is your tsedakah, and not God’s tsedakah, you will miss God’s tsedakah (salvation) altogether. You will not find it because you were looking in the wrong place.”