Introducing the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) #5

A Critique of Self-Righteousness
At the end of the Sermon on the Mount Jesus presents us with two choices, two roads, two foundations for life (7:13-27). We might suppose the choice is between a good life and a bad life. But when you look back over the Sermon that is not what you see. The alternative life that Jesus rejects is a good life lived for the wrong reasons. He rejects the ‘righteousness of the Pharisees’ (5:20). They think they are being righteous for God, but really they are doing it for themselves (7:21-23) – ‘to be honoured by men’ or to manipulate God (6:1-8). Their righteousness does not come from the heart (5:21-48). The options Jesus presents are between self-righteousness on one hand and gospel faith which begins with poverty of spirit on the other hand (5:3).People sometimes say that to proclaim liberation ignores the fact that the poor are sinners too. But Jesus suggests an opposite problem. Broken people know they are broken. What they struggle to grasp is that God welcomes people like them. The bigger problem is with the ‘sorted out’ people – they are the ones who struggle to recognize the depth of their sin and the poverty of their spirit.

Listen to Tom Hovestol’s description of the Pharisees:

The Pharisees led this righteous lifestyle in five other areas. The prayer life of the Pharisees was exemplary. They prayed publicly (Matthew 6:5-6), regularly, ritually, and respect­fully. They not only prayed but often fasted as they prayed (Matthew 6:16; Luke 18:12). Second, they lived consecrated, sep­arated lives. The very name Pharisee, according to the most common derivation, means ‘separated one.’ They d sin and actively pursued holiness. Third, they valued fellowship. Josephus records, ‘Pharisees are affectionate to each other and cultivate harmonious relations with the community.’ They organized into small groups for the purpose of mutual edifica­tion and accountability, popular concepts today. They ate at each other’s tables and studied the Scriptures. Fourth, they were good givers. The Pharisees left no conceivable source of income out­side their determination to give God His due (Luke 18:12). Finally, they were active evangelists. Jesus said that they would travel over land and sea for a single proselyte (Matthew 23:15). [1]

It could be a description of conservative evangelicals. Hovestol gives four warning lights – signs of a Pharisaical spirit [2]:
– a contemptuous view of others (Luke 18:9)
– a shallow sense of forgiveness (Luke 7:36-50; Matthew 6)
– a wrong sense of grace and fairness (Luke 15:11-32; Matthew 20:1-16)
– an unhealthy view of failure (Matthew 21:33-46)

Secular people do self-righteousness as well as religious people. Some people, for example, feel self-righteous for their enlightened, liberal views. They feel superior to refugee-hating Daily Mail readers or to intolerant Christians. Daily Mail readers feel superior to benefit scroungers and economic migrants from failed states.

The critique of self-righteousness in the Sermon on the Mount
This is how this critique of self-righteousness plays throughout in the Sermon:

1. Matthew 5:1-16
Jesus will liberate God’s people to be light in a dark world. God’s people are not the (self-)righteous or religious, but those who seek righteousness from God because they realise they need. It is a community of the broken.

2. Matthew 5:17-48
Jesus calls us to a deeper, greater righteousness than that of religion. Religion is bankrupt and superficial. Instead, Jesus calls to a righteousness of the heart that flows from grace.

3. Matthew 6:1-18
Religion is hypocritical because it is concerned only with appearance. It does ‘acts of righteousness’ for the wrong reasons: for self-glorification. In contrast, we live as children of our heavenly Father, already accepted by him and living for his reward.

4. Matthew 6:19-34
If you fix your eyes on rewards on earth (6:19-21) – whether the praise of people (6:2, 5, 16) or possessions – then your life will be full of darkness (6:22-23). We should fix our eyes on heaven, looking for heavenly treasure and trusting our heavenly Father (6:25-27).

5. Matthew 7:1-12
In the Sermon a hypocrite is a self-righteous person (6:2, 5, 16). Here a hypocrite is a self-righteous person who wants to look good by putting others down (7:1-5). We all have faults and problems (specks), but the big fault (the log) is to be self-righteous and think you are superior. Instead we should ask, knock and seek our heavenly Father for his grace (7:7-12). Our ‘rule’ is the rule of love (7:12).

6. Matthew 7:13-27
The sermon ends with a choice: between two gates, two roads, two trees, two foundations. But this is not a choice between religion and irreligion, between a good life and a bad life. It is a choice between God’s grace and self-righteousness. These are two alternative presented in the rest of the Sermon and those who are condemned are those who think they have served God (7:21-23). A self-righteous life is fragile because it lacks good foundations (7:24-27).

1. Tim Hovestol, Extreme Righteousness: Seeing Ourselves in the Pharisees (Moody, 1997), 30.
2. Tim Hovestol, Extreme Righteousness, 50-54.