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.
The Scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ time were revered for their strict obedience to the commands of God. When Jesus says that our righteousness should exceed theirs it was intended to leave his audience wondering how.
Sadly, there were several grave failures in their lives. First, Jesus elsewhere says that their obedience was a show but in their inner depths they defied God. Second, even in the outward show of their obedience they used many deceptive arguments to claim their flagrant disobedience was obedience. Despite this we would be tempted to think that they still did better in obedience than we do.
For us to exceed them we need to start by relying on Jesus’ saving work for us to provide us with the necessary righteousness before God. His righteousness for us exceeds the Scribes and Pharisees. In addition, because Jesus has so lovingly and graciously saved us, we are moved by gratitude toward love for our God. The Pharisees and Scribes had little if any love for God. Their attitude was closer to resentment at all the obligations he gave them. Also, knowing the compassion and mercy God has shown us, we are moved toward compassion and mercy to those around us. The Pharisees and Scribes had a contemptuous attitude toward others because they didn’t reach their “high standards.”
We can exceed them in righteousness. We just need to remember it is all about Jesus.