Matthew’s Jesus and the Criterion of Righteousness

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!

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6 Responses to Matthew’s Jesus and the Criterion of Righteousness

  1. RS Bailey says:

    I’m leaving this for you because it means so much to you to accurately interpret and believe. His Word says our righteousness is like filthy rags– self righteousness. God compares us to His holiness and not to one another. Therefore, the only holiness you can offer satisfactorily to God is His son’s, Jesus’, free gift of His righteousness. “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness…” Isaiah 53:11 says, “He saw the anguish of His soul and was satisfied.” In context, He saw the result of His obedience to the cross, for us, and was satisifed. The result was our salvation meaning life now and for ever. “If you eat His body and drink His blood, you will have life.” Life is “zoe” life– God like life –with everything needed for fullness of life including health, provision, greatness, love, creativity, courage, power… In the exchange on the cross, our lives hung and we live out the life Jesus deserved. For more information, check out on Amazon’s kindle, The Gospel of God is Grace. God Bless You.

  2. It looks like you haven’t read the post carefully, nor for that matter really grappled with Matthew’s Jesus’ message. You’re guilty of imposing exterior theological interpretive grids and texts to Matthew and in effect merely interpreting away Matthew and Matthew’s Jesus’ message. Again, Matthew’s Jesus, per the text itself—what it says and does not say (and then our goal is to figure out why it says what it does)—clearly and quite adamantly disagrees with the line of theological musing you’ve posted. It may even be argued that Matthew wrote his text and shaped his Jesus and his message to refute this “free gift” no individual responsibility, non-torah obedient gentile salvation! We’re looking at Matthew and Matthew’s Jesus’ message, period. Rather than simply discarding it, tossing it out the door, and willfully and quite blatantly neglecting it, you ought to be grappling with it and its Jesus and message, and attempting to understand it on its own terms and as a product of its historical and literary context.

  3. Fred says:

    You are amazing. You thrash someone for using other texts of the Bible in their interpretation and yet in your opening post you are using the same comparisons of Mathew to the Gospels of Paul and John. So very hypocritical. You just can’t take snapshots of the Bible as looking at a specimen under a microscope, it just does not work like that.

  4. Fred, this is NOT the same situation. The previous commenter was using other texts of the Bible to interpret away or dilute Matthew’s message by interpreting it through the theological lens and convictions of other writers. I use them comparatively, the goal of which is to read and understand Matthew on his own terms, Paul on his own terms, etc. and not to mesh these texts and messages together into a single theological position. It’s called being honest to these texts individually, and the beliefs and messages of their authors individually. You would have perceived that if you read the post.

  5. Anna Quarum says:

    Dear Steven, I understand what you are doing and your work is an answer to prayer in my “bible believing Christian” journey. I have a seminary degree and have been a bible geek my entire life. I sense that you are a sincere thoughtful honest seeker. It is also obviously clear that you are Christian for all those other commenters who ask you if you are Christian. I imagine that must really hurt. The point that I hear you trying to make is that we must examine the texts in such a way that the text speaks for itself as a single document. To your commenters I submit, If the bible really is the word of God like many of you clearly believe, then should not each book be able to stand alone as the Word of God? Is the truth of each book not complete on its own? Why are there 66 books in our canon? Why do we have 66 books for something that could be just as easily be communicated in one simple brochure? Why do we Christians get so freaked out sitting in the tension of Matthew’s Jesus? The amazing thing is that we don’t have just Matthew, we have Mark, Luke and John, each of which bring their own view to the table. I feel the angst with many of your commenters responses to your blog is due partly to fear and for most Christians, laziness. It is simply so much easier to have one book in a single jacket instead of 66 books that each require a new lens to appreciate. It is sloppy scholarship that asserts that we can carelessly lump everything together and say it all makes sense citing a single verse as a pretext.
    People, I am a life long conservative Christian with a history in the Baptist, reformed and fundamentalist traditions. I appreciate your concerns for what Steven is trying to share. However, we cannot fear that our theology will completely unravel if there is blatant contradiction in our 66 texts. And even worse, we cannot do hermeneutical gymnastics to cover up these “shameful mistakes” to make them look like we know better now that we are more enlightened by the spirit. Understanding the bible in its totality is an arduous undertaking and we God loving Christians must be willing to do our homework instead of solely relying on what theologians of the past have told us. WE are RESPONSIBLE for this assignment and we will most certainly be undone by what we find. We must check our presuppositions at the door and put on some humility glasses. There is a reason most people including christians do not read the bible. That is because it makes no sense on the first read because today’s reader has NO CLUE regarding the context in which it was written.

    Steven, my question for you is where do you find community? Do you attend a church that affirms your scholarship?

    Keep up the good work.

  6. Anna Quarum says:

    I need to clarify that I am a “recovering” baptist, reformed, fundamentalist. I do not fit any distinctive theological camp these days.

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