“But I warn you—unless your righteousness is better than the righteousness of the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven!”Matthew 5:20
Leo Tolstoy, a Russian writer who is regarded as one of the greatest authors of all time, was deeply affected by the Sermon on the Mount. Commenting about Matthew 5:20, Tolstoy said there were two ways to orient oneself to God’s moral guidance.
The first way consists in focusing on the objects a person encounters, being guided by them. This first way is the way of external rules by which a man must be guided in life. Without the external objects (in this case, the law) there is no guidance.
Tolstoy said the second way is to give a man a moral compass that he carries with him at all times. By this compass, the man may observe one immutable direction, indicated by the hand of the compass. Every movement away from that direction is evident in the movement of the compass hand. Think of that one direction as true north. The ideal life. It enables the man to orient his life to an ideal rather than to rules and other externals. The ideal, in this case, is Jesus and the life to which he calls us.
When Jesus calls us to love one another, he is not giving us a rule, but rather a transcending idea that includes all moral and social instruction. Tolstoy said that the first way of focusing on objects is like a man who is standing in the light of a lamp post. If he moves, he moves out of the light.
However, the man who is governed by the second way is like a man carrying a lamp on a long pole. The lamp is always before him, and it continually opens up the world ahead of him.
When Jesus told the crowds that their righteousness had to exceed the righteousness of the religious leaders, he was talking about having a moral compass that resides within them rather than only having a set of religious laws that exist, primarily, outside them. So, a person understands that, governed only by externals, he can say, “I have never killed anyone.” Even so, a person may harbor internal hatred and disregard.
Jeremiah predicted this new orientation away from externals toward heart-felt, internal guidance. God spoke through Jeremiah these words.
“This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel….I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest…”Jeremiah 31:33-34
Jesus told his audience that it is not enough to have a set of laws. Jesus explained that God intended for the moral and spiritual code given by God to Israel was intended to be internally transforming – exceeding the external, law-based righteousness of the religious leaders.
More like carrying a lantern rather than being confined to a light on a post.
Prayer: O God our Father, you created our world in perfection, beauty, and innocence. Yet we were full of pride and self-centeredness, believing that we knew better how to live in this world. Instead, we dumbed it down, turned it into something second rate, and mediocre. And now you have asked us to do better, exceed, and strive for a better righteousness. Please help us to quit being satisfied with so little and give all our energy and focus to being more like you. In Jesus’ name. Amen.