*Note: There are two types of righteousness. There is righteousness before God resulting in salvation. And there is righteousness that is equivalent to being a good, virtuous person. The kind of person who follows God’s law and “does justice”. This second righteousness is what I’m talking about here!
When you think about a Pharisee, you likely imagine a harsh, judgmental, stickler for the rules. Pharisees think they must (and can) earn their salvation. While some slip into this way of living, nobody wants to be known as a Pharisee. And for good reason. The Pharisees frequently play the villain in the Gospels.
But when Jesus denounces the Pharisees, it isn’t because they’re trying to be righteous. Jesus condemns the Pharisees because their attempts at righteousness were all for show. They were clean on the outside, but filthy within (Matthew 23:25–28). They looked the part of righteousness in order that they might receive honor and recognition from others (Matthew 23:5–7). This is why they were routinely labeled “hypocrites” by Christ. The word “hypocrite” originally referred to those who wore masks—actors on a stage. The righteousness of the Pharisees was not the true righteousness of God—it was just an act. They were simply playing a part.
In doing so, they failed to fulfill the law of God: loving God and neighbor. For all their displays of “righteousness”, their love was utterly lacking (Matthew 23:23). As the Bible makes clear, we are nothing without love (1 Corinthians 13:1–3).
In these troubled times, my concern is that we—as the church—do not merely play the part of the righteous. Our righteousness must not be a hypocritical righteousness, seeking worldly honor. But a righteousness rooted first in our love for God. A deep-seated trust that his word is life and his ways are perfect. A sense of awe that God stooped so low to not only make himself known, but to make us his own. And this love for God will root our righteousness in love for our neighbors. Because we love God, we love what he loves. His work is our work. And so we love our neighbors and work for their good, equipped with the power of God himself working within us. It is no beautiful mask hiding ugliness beneath. It is no whitewashed tomb covering death and decay inside. It is the fruit of a life made new.
This new life will result in us loving others, not only in word or talk but in deed and in truth (1 John 3:18). We won’t simply talk about love for humanity, for others, and for our neighbors. Instead, we will do the hard work of actually loving the people in our lives.
It’s been said that it is easier to love humanity as a whole than it is to love our neighbors. “Individual men and women…are uninteresting, exasperating, depraved, or otherwise unattractive.” The people around us require something of us. They get under our skin and give opportunity to the work of patience and kindness. They see our faults and give opportunity to the work of humility and repentance. They have specific needs and dreams and hurts that require our energy and presence. There is a cost to loving another person; a cost that we can avoid if we use our love for all of humanity as an excuse to love nobody in particular.
May we be the people we are called to be. In the words of Romans 12:9, “may our love be genuine.” Or, as other translations have put it, “May our love be without hypocrisy.”