I believe that there is a difference between the righteousness of Jesus and the Pharisees. But in what sense do they differ from each other? Some say, Pharisees are legalistic in their righteousness, but what does it really mean? And how can we surpass their righteousness, as Jesus taught, in a day to day basis in our personal relationship with God?
The “righteousness” of the Pharisees was based on outward, visible actions. It was not necessarily a righteousness based on the heart and on devotion to God. Theirs was a righteousness based on doing things which may or, more likely, may not have been joined by having a righteous attitude. For example, they prayed and fasted, but did so, at least as much so as to impress those who would see them as out of a love for God. They avoided adultery, but lusted after those with whom they avoided adultery. They did not kill or commit violent acts against their enemies, but held bitterness in their hearts toward them. They did all the right things which would convince their peers that they were righteous, but the one person who was not convinced by this outward righteousness was God. Jesus said that, not only should we not commit acts of adultery, we should not even contemplate such acts. He said that, not only should we not murder our enemies, we should treat them with love and compassion. When we do righteous acts, we should take pains to ensure that these acts are a devotion to God, not a play for the praise of men.
How do we surpass the righteousness of the Pharisees? One way is to take the advice of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. We need to give equal, if not more attention to having a righteous heart and attitude as we give to righteous outward behavior. I think the best way to ensure that we have righteousness which surpasses the Pharisees is to put into practice the “Beatitudes” in our lives. It would be to do the right thing and to avoid doing the wrong thing, but to do all these things with a spirit of purity, mourning, poorness of spirit, peace-making and mercy. (Moving on to Chapter 6 of Matthew) We should have a Kingdom attitude. We should put our treasures in heaven, not on the earth. We should value the things of God vastly more than we value the things of the world. In fact, we should not give a thought to our lives–to the things that the world think are most important. Rather, we should seek first a righteous relationship with God. If we do these things, then our righteousness will surely be greater than that of the Pharisees. Most of us cannot be as religious as they were, but we can be more godly.