In Matthew 5:20 Jesus tells his disciples “ … unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” But what exactly does Jesus mean by “righteousness”?
The Greek word δικαιοσύνη (dikaiosune) “righteousness” corresponds to צְדָקָה (tzedakah) in the Hebrew Bible. “Righteousness” refers to moral behavior that conforms to God’s Law. For example, the psalmist writes, “Judge me, O Lord, according to my righteousness” (Ps. 7:8). The psalmist here asks God to evaluate him based upon his faithful obedience to the Torah’s commandments.
While in the writings of the Apostle Paul, “righteousness” is an end-times gift of the Spirit, this is not how Jesus uses the term in Matthew. “To do righteousness,” means to obey the commandments, while “to sin,” means to disobey the commandments. So, to “be righteous,” means to obey the Torah. But how are Jesus’ disciples to exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees? Jesus, after all, acknowledged that his opponents were in fact very “righteous.”
To answer this question we need to understand that in Second Temple Judaism the issue was not whether or not you kept the Torah, but whether you kept the Torah correctly. Like Jesus, the Qumran Jews also rejected Pharisaic interpretations of the Torah. They despised the Pharisees and called them דורשי החלקות (dorshey hachalaqot) – which means “seekers after the smooth things” (4Q169; CD 1:18). This is a wordplay on דורשי ההלכות (dorshey hahalachot) “seekers of the ways to walk.” In Hebrew, the word הֲלָכָה (halachah) means “the way to walk” and refers to the practice of applying the Torah to daily life and the word assigned to the compromising practices of the pharisees is hachlakah (which sounds very similar on purpose) and refers to something being “polished up/smoothed over”.
Not all Jews agreed on what it meant to be righteous in that era. Jesus’ followers exceeded the צְדָקָה (tzedakah) “righteousness” of the Scribes and Pharisees by following the correct interpretation of the Torah – in other words, the Messiah’s authoritative interpretation of the Torah. And thus, like the psalmist said, we will live our lives in conformity to God’s Law.