What sort of person will enter the Kingdom of God? This is the question that Jesus answered in Matthew 5-7. Expecting a Messiah who would overthrow the Romans and set up an eternal kingdom on earth, the Jews were filled with anticipation as they listened to Jesus. Christ chose not to directly attack their misconceptions but to hint at His kingdom’s nature by describing the type of people who would qualify for it.
The Beatitudes (derived from the Latin for blessing) are a sequence broadly outlining the metamorphosis from sinner to an heir of the kingdom. A sinner who realizes his spiritual poverty will grieve over it and embracing humility, shuns pride. The desire for righteousness will make him merciful (true mercy requires no suspension of true justice), giving him purity of mind. This purity of thought will drive him to seek peace with those around him. His purity, however, will enrage the sinners around him and drive them to attack him, yet his joy will be untouchable because it comes from his appreciation of Christ through the testimonies of the prophets.
In short, qualification for the Kingdom of Heaven is decided more by a person’s attitude than their isolated actions. The Beatitudes start with internal transformation and then end with an external drive for harmonious living. Underlying whatever heirs of the Kingdom do, is a hunger for harmony with those around them. Jesus doesn’t give specifics for behavior because he is allowing for sanctified creativity. Even when they make mistakes, true Christians are qualified for the kingdom because they are striving for harmony i.e. they are filled with awe for God and struggle with sinful nature to fulfill His will.
This went against the teachings of the Pharisees who never missed an opportunity to dish out rules to govern behavior. Throughout his ministry, Jesus would be accused by these men of disregarding the Law and the Prophets (Old Testament). So Jesus felt it necessary to state that he had come not to repudiate the Law and Prophets but to execute them. The Law and Prophets (and the New Testament) are ultimately hollow without Jesus. In fact, considering the fact that Jesus was condemned to death by men quoting scripture, we can safely conclude that nobody is as dangerous and as vicious as a person who reads the Bible without Jesus’ understanding of it.
“I tell you, unless your righteousness is more than that of the religious teachers and the Pharisees, you can never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:20 FBV)
The Pharisees were considered among the most righteous among the people. Everybody wanted to be like the Pharisees (except the Sadducees but that’s another story). Thus, Jesus’ belittling of their righteousness must have been catastrophically shocking. However, the following comparisons that Jesus made between their teaching and his reveals the reason behind it: The Law is more than a long list of “dos” and an even longer list of “don’ts”. The Law is a description hinting at a way of thinking; a character. By reducing the Law and Prophets to a series of actions based on mere theological abstractions, the Pharisees (and their contemporary comrades-in-arms) eviscerated them and missed who they pointed to; Jesus Christ, the perfect fullness of God.
The people must have feared what God would think if they abandoned the exhaustive (and exhausting!) lists that the Pharisees had devised to ensure that nobody ever offended God. Jesus then told them not to approach God with fear and worry. There was no need for long convoluted and fancy entreaties a’ la the pagans, but simple heartfelt prayer to a God who could clothe transient grass with beauty would suffice for humans are worth far much more than grass to God.
Here was the fundamental flaw in the Pharisees mindset: they misunderstood God and consequently, misunderstood his Law. This was what Jesus had come to correct: the misapprehension of God’s character and show that Salvation is to be found not in a list of theological abstractions but in a life based on principles, principles applied by those with a right attitude to God. It is this attitude that would strengthen anyone who had it against the storm that will come to all.