For I say to you, that unless your righteousness excels beyond that of the scribes and Pharisees you will not enter into the kingdom of heaven!
Any student or critical reader of the Gospels immediately notices the stark differences in their portrait of Jesus and the teachings attributed to him. This is most pronounced in the Jesus of the synoptic gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke—and John’s Jesus. Additionally, each gospel account gives radically different theological views on what Jesus taught concerning salvation. And this is complicated further by taking into consideration Paul’s claims about Jesus and salvation. Here, I’d like to limit myself to a couple of observations about Matthew’s Jesus, who teaches that righteousness, above and beyond Torah righteousness, is the sole criterion for salvation.
The Gospel of Matthew is quite clear in this regard: salvation, its Jesus teaches, only comes through acting, being, and conducting oneself righteously, and moreover a righteousness that now must exceed the righteousness of the Torah, what the scribes and Pharisees follow. In other words, modern Christians—well modern Christians actually ignore Matthew’s Jesus or interpret him away through the help of Paul and John’s Jesus, whose criterion for salvation is simply belief—erroneously assume that with Jesus Torah stipulations are more lax, and exacerbated by Paul’s teachings, are no longer required at all. This, however, is not what Matthew’s Jesus teaches at all, and in fact if we look closely at those places in the text where admittance or non-admittance into the kingdom of heaven is explicitly talked about or implied, we readily see that… well in the words of Matthew’s Jesus himself, “few are chosen.”
Here is a list of deeds, actions, behaviors, etc. that are specifically mentioned as not warranting forgiveness, salvation, and/or entrance into the kingdom of heaven.
- Any individual who does not forgive the sins/trespasses of others, their own sins/trespasses will not be forgiven by God! (6:14, 18:35)
- Committing adultery, and perhaps all “sexual immorality” (5:27-32). Again, Matthew’s Jesus does not do away with the Old Testament punishment for adultery, which is death (but see #192); rather he redefines what adultery is—lusting with the eye! The goal for Matthew’s community, as legitimated through the mouthpiece of Jesus, is to be more righteous than Torah-followers! In all of Jesus’ “you have heard it said” sayings the Torah commandment and punishment is not done away with— “not one ‘i’ or one stroke of a letter will pass away” (5:18); rather what the crime is becomes more extreme! It is now the thought of said sin that becomes the sin, not its doing! The punishment, as far as this text is concerned, remains the same, and is now therefore extended to the thinking of the sin, and not just the doing of it! This is in fact more harsh than any Torah stipulation! In the language of Matthew’s Jesus, it demands more righteousness!
- Every one who does not bear good fruit, that is do good (7:19). Presumably again, we are to understand this as an ethical obligation to fellow humans.
- Those who do not do “the will of the Father” (7:21-23). This deserves a whole other enter because “will of the Father” as defined by Jesus himself in this gospel is in complete and utter contradiction of doing, say for example, the will of Yahweh as defined by Leviticus. Again, it is humans, human communities, etc. who in legitimating their own ethical systems and beliefs, appeal to divine authority claiming they are the will of God. Certainly there may be parallels to be found between what the Yahweh of the Aaronid priests command and what the Father of Matthew’s Jesus commands. But when Matthew’s Jesus says “Therefore whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets”—sorry, this is not what is advocated by the Yahweh, the Yahwehs, of the Torah and the Prophetic literature. This is rather how the Law and the Prophets were interpreted, viewed, perceived, in the Judaism of Jesus’ and Matthew’s day. Again, such reinterpretive maneuvers tell us more about the views, beliefs, and perceptions of its readers, than those of the actual texts that such later interpretive traditions purport to re-present.
- It is implied that whoever hears Jesus’ teachings and does not do them will also be unforgiven, not saved (7:26-27; cf. Rom 2:13)—a willful and blatant refusal to obey the Jesus’ teaching. Of course this contradicts John’s Jesus, who—I would argue “John” consciously created to speak against Matthew’s Jesus—merely states that hearing and believing is the criteria by which one is saved, nothing is ever said about doing them (Jn 5:24; cf. 3:16).
- Whoever denies Jesus, that is Matthew’s Jesus (10:33)! This seems to included: those who love father and mother, son and daughter more than Jesus, and those who do not pick up there own cross, i.e., become martyrs.
- Whoever blasphemes against the Spirit (of God) (12:31). Certainly the individuals in the 2 entries above would qualify.
- Causing a child who believes in Jesus to sin (18:6).
- Those whose hand or foot has caused them to sin, and they have not cut it off! (18:8).
- Those who have committed adultery with their eye and have not plucked it out!! (18:9). Yes, we are to read these literally—if your righteousness does not exceed that of the Torah, you will not be saved is the message here! What do you hold more valuable: your eye or your (eternal) life?
- Those who do not forgive a fellow man’s debt (18:35). I sure hope my creditors are reading this!
- Apparently all who are not watchful and ready (25:1-13).
- And finally, those who do not feed the hungry, give drink to the poor, take in the homeless, clothe the naked, and minister to the sick and imprisoned (25:31-46).
The argument is clear from the text: unless your righteousness excels beyond that stipulated in the Torah! Accordingly, we are to heed Jesus’ many warnings:
Difficult is the way which leads to life and there are few who find it (7:14).
Not everyone who says to me “Lord, lord” shall enter the kingdom of heaven (7:21).
It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God (19:24).
For many are called, but few are chosen (22:14).
Assuredly I say to you, I do not know you (25:12).
Assuredly I say to you, inasmuch as you did not do these to one of the least of your fellow humans, you did not do these for me. And you will be cast away into everlasting punishment (25:45-46)
It looks like no one is getting saved according to the sayings of Matthew’s Jesus. This is worse than the Old Testament! So unlike the Pauline literature, and the Gospel of John, Matthew’s Jesus does not postulate belief as an all encompassing blanket-criterion for being forgiven or saved.
Indeed, it is not belief, nor Paul’s sacrificial atonement theology, but righteousness that is the sole criterion for Jesus’ Matthew, and that righteousness is defined in ultra-human ethical terms. The message is clear: Anyone whose righteousness does not exceed the righteousness stipulated in the Torah will not be saved!
Alas, luckily for modern Christians, other and contradictory Gospels and Jesuses were preserved in the New Testament to temper the Jesus of Matthew. For Christians will cite Paul, cite the Jesus of John, use Paul and the Jesus of John to reinterpret, interpret away, neglect and discard Matthew’s Jesus with his ridiculous out-dated requirements of righteousness! Why do, when we can now simply believe? they will say. Because, hell, who wants to live according to religious teachings whose ethics basically says you have to do one-up on the Torah, be more righteous than Torah commandments! We can simply believe—better yet feign belief—and be saved!
No, let’s start being honest to these ancient texts and their beliefs, not ours!