17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. 19 Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 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.
Being two thousand years removed from the time that Jesus spoke these words and having never been to Galilee, I have little as far as context to work with. Still, I try my best to place myself in the audience the day Jesus delivered his Sermon on the Mount.
Jesus’ words may appear in black and white (maybe red) but they were not delivered in a vacuum. He was speaking to an audience that represented many walks of life and were reacting to his words either favorably or negatively. So, he says the words above because this was what many people in the crowd were thinking. He even says, “do not think” because he knew what they were thinking.
The law was the most important thing to the Jewish people and there must have been a rumor going around that Jesus was out to do away with them. He had to address this thought because it was out there and he addresses it with very pointed language. He assures his listeners that the law is not going away but is to be fulfilled to the letter but then he astonishes the crowd with this statement, “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.”
Everything that Jesus teaches beyond this point hinges on this statement. Jesus describes something that is beyond even the most devout among them. The Pharisees were all about trying to fulfill the law through their effort, Jesus is all about fulfilling the law through himself. Only with a heart inhabited by Jesus and transformed from the inside out can truly fulfill the law. Our efforts only lead to legalism. Legalism was the practice of the Pharisees and it was destructive, damaging, and disruptive.
Jesus, with the help of the Holy Spirit, creates a new heart within us so that fulfilling the commandments of scripture is the most natural thing for us to do and is a life giving and transformative experience. We have work to do for sure but it is work that helps Jesus do his work (prayer, study, silence, fasting, and other disciplines,) we are not earning anything.
Quit trying so hard to become a better person. You can’t do it. Only Christ can change you. With this approach, the next set of commands will seem more like a promise rather than a drudgery.