19 Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:19–20, NKJV)
Jesus respected and obeyed the Law of Moses, and, He taught those who lived under it to do the same. But, Jesus speaks here to more than faithfully keeping the Law of Moses. He drives to the heart of righteousness in the kingdom of heaven (the Son’s kingdom, which is His church, Matthew 16:18-19; Colossians 1:13; Hebrews 12:22-23, 28). The scribes and Pharisees hypocritically strained at gnats and swallowed camels by emphasizing parts of Moses’ law while abandoning “justice and mercy and faith” (Matthew 23:23-24). That was their form of righteousness. But, righteousness in the kingdom is not about selecting some commands and ignoring others. It is not about displaying ourselves so others will praise us (Matthew 6:1, 5, 16). Greatness in the kingdom of heaven is about a heart and life that “does and teaches” all of God’s commands (Matthew 5:19). That is how we “seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness” (Matthew 6:33).
23 Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone. 24 Blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel! (Matthew 23:23-24, NKJV)
Jesus did not pronounce this stinging condemnation of the scribes and Pharisees because they were careful to tithe herbs (this was commanded in God’s law to Israel, Leviticus 27:30). He pronounced woe upon them for abandoning the principles and motives that characterize acceptable obedience to God. They strained out a gnat and swallowed a camel with their minute correctness while failing to obey God out of justice, mercy and faith. They “passed by justice and the love of God” in their zeal to keep the law (Luke 11:42). Unfortunately, this passage is frequently used as an “either, or” proposition to justify disobedience in the name of justice, mercy, faith and the love of God. Jesus did not say that. He taught that careful obedience is useless unless it genuinely expresses faith, mercy and justice. Obeying God does not contradict justice, mercy, and faith. While being faithful to obey God, be just and merciful to others. Do not “pass by the love of God” lest you fall into condemnation (John 14:15; 1 John 5:3).