“Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.”
Recall that these are the people who were well-known for following the Law to the letter, which would seem to be exactly what Jesus was talking about yesterday when He said that not one letter or even a part of a letter would pass from the Law until the end of all things. How are we to be even more perfect than perfect?
Jesus, as always, teaches us. Today’s lesson: follow the Law with perfect love. For example He reminds us of the commandment against murder, perhaps the easiest of the commandments for most people to follow; certainly the scribes and Pharisees would have agreed. But then Jesus tells us that when we harbor hatred in our hearts toward our brother, when we “murder” the image we bear of another person within us, we may yet be liable to judgment.
This is because sin lies foremost in our intention, in the disposition of our hearts, than it does in our actions; what is the difference between shooting someone in a rage and shooting someone accidentally? Sin comes from the heart: Jesus says in Luke 6:45 that “a good person out of the store of goodness in his heart produces good, but an evil person out of a store of evil produces evil…” The sinful act—murder in this case—is merely the fruit of a bad seed. While it is certainly worse to murder someone than to simply entertain the thought or harbor the desire, Jesus teaches us today that even those interior dispositions impact our relationship with God and neighbor, who relates to us not merely according to whether we do good things or bad things (the classic “I’m a nice person”), but primarily according to the degree of our love for Him and for our neighbor.
It is precisely by following the Law in our hearts, before and above doing so in our acts, that we surpass the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees. It is by loving that we carry out the Law to its full and follow it perfectly. “I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another.” (John 13:34)