By Allen White
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. Matthew 5:20
In Jesus’ day, the epitome of righteousness were the Pharisees, a Jewish sect who strictly observed the Law. In the minds of some, they were model Jews. They defined what righteous behavior should look like. They weren’t cut from a different cloth. They just played the game well.
The righteousness of the Pharisees was less about pleasing God and more about fitting into a religious culture. Their efforts weren’t applied to spiritual growth as much as policing the boundaries. A righteous person could neglect his aging parents (Mark 7:10-12), but as long as he didn’t work on the Sabbath, he was still righteous. It was more about fitting in than depending on God. When was the last time you felt completely out of place? Whether you didn’t feel cool enough, or you were awkwardly aware that your manners weren’t up to par, or you simply couldn’t add to the conversation because you didn’t even understand it. No one likes to feel out of place.
When I was 19 years old, I traveled for36 hours to Hong Kong for a Summer mission trip. While Hong Kong at the time was a British colony and shared a common language, there were many things that I didn’t understand. What I learned quickly was that I should never insult my hosts by refusing anything they offered. They had to save face.
I complied with everything they directed me to do. I tried everything they offered me to eat. But, when the dining began to involved pickled cow intestines at the Korean Barbecue and chicken feet with our Dim Sum, I became wise to the fact that they were just playing with me. I couldn’t call them on it or else they would lose face. But, I also didn’t have to eat with them either. McDonald’s and Denny’s were just down the street.
Human standards always fall below God’s standards. Religion is not meant to elevate people, but to control them and possibly to attempt to control God. A relationship with God allows Him to enter into our world and give us what we can never earn – faith and grace and righteousness.
There is a certain safety in religion. It has a scorecard. Grace is risky. We have immunity regardless of our performance. That’s very hard to reconcile.
Paul Young, the author of The Shack, tells this story:
A man died and went to Heaven. He soon stood before Saint Peter, who asked, “Here’s the deal, in order to get into Heaven you have to have 100 points based on the good things you’ve done on earth.”
The man replied, “Well, I spent the last 30 years caring for the poor, working in soup kitchens, housing and clothing the homeless.”
Peter said, “Okay, I’ll give you a point for that.”
The man was a bit astonished. Thirty years of service only amounted to one point out of 100. He said, “I served as a pastor for 25 years. I counseled the distraught. I performed weddings and funerals. I cared for the needs of my congregation.”
Peter replied, “Okay, I’ll give you another point for that.”
“Two points,” the man thought to himself. “How will I ever get in?”
Just about that time another man walked up and went straight through the pearly gates. The first man turned to Peter rather perplexed and asked, “What about him?”
Peter smirked, “Oh, he doesn’t play this game.”
Stop playing the game. Stop working hard to be someone that you’re not. Be yourself, and let God work on the rest.
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