For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. [Matthew 5:20 ESV]
Everyone teaches what they know and believe, or that they can’t don’t know and refuse to believe, about God to everyone around. Our view of God and what we believe about Him is shown in the evidence of our lives, our words and attitudes. Those who watch us, especially God because He sees and knows everything, will see our worldview, the evidence of our lives, and draw a conclusion about our relationship with the One who made us and owns us. What we do will reflect who we are and who we are will influence in some way all with whom we come in contact.
Throughout His public life Jesus confronts the recognized teachers of His time, those who traditionally held authority over the people. He measures them against the standard of His life and God’s righteousness and demands the citizen of the kingdom of heaven surpass their measure of conduct. Their righteousness, which Jesus challenged on every occasion, is judged self-righteous, an attitude and motivation diametrically opposed to those who are poor in spirit.
Being poor in spirit is the first and deciding element in the eternal characteristic of the citizen of the kingdom of heaven. Before anyone becomes a citizen of the kingdom of heaven they must recognize the truth of sin, especially in themselves, and must hate sin. Those who are rich in spirit, motivated by self-righteousness, reject the truth declared by God that all sinned before Him in Adam and are themselves sinful. If the thinking of the heart demands God recognize their individual works as righteous then they do not need the sacrifice of Christ and reject the teachings of Scripture. Citizens of the kingdom of heaven serve God from love not the irrational expectation their works deserve eternal merit.
Jesus, teaching in the Temple during the days just before His crucifixion and resurrection, challenges the people to test the teachings of God and their spiritual leaders. Actually, the spiritual leaders try to test Jesus, to punch holes in His arguments and find flaws in His teachings, setting Him up for criminal charges. Over and again He answers them, finally silencing them. Knowing His time is short He contests their authority and their teaching.
Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so practice and observe whatever they tell you—but not what they do. For they preach, but do not practice.” [Matthew 23:1-3 ESV; read Jesus’ woes from 23:1-36.]
He shows how the Scribes and Pharisees, who sit on Moses’ seat, teach the opposite of what God wants taught. They love the places of honor, are self-righteous not poor in spirit. They seek out converts to Judaism and then teach them to sin against God, to ignore the consequences of sin and self-righteousness. They teach people to not value God and what He is doing instead focusing upon the temporal and worldly, and taking control instead of relinquishing control to God. They hold to the minutia of their interpretations of the law refusing to hunger and thirst after the Lawgiver. They show no mercy, no active love to those with whom God desires an eternal relationship, cleaning the outside of the cup and ignoring the demand for purity on the inside, something only God can give. They follow in the steps of those before who murdered the prophets, those who hate sin and spoke the truth about God to a people who refused to listen, by refusing to listen to God in their presence. They will kill Him like they killed the prophets. But they cannot keep Him dead any more than they can suppress His teaching.
We are faced with Jesus’ most severe warning against self-righteousness. He commands we recognize and embrace our poverty of spirit. Either we are eternal, living for God who is the source of life, in His presence, or away from Him, existing in death away from the source of life.
Truly, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation. O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not! See, your house is left to you desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again, until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’” [Matthew 23:36-39 ESV]