It’s hard to see, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that the kingdom of heaven is hard to enter. Of course, this isn’t exactly a comforting thing to hear. “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness'” (Matthew 7:21-23). As if that’s not harsh enough, Jesus also says, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20).
And it just seems to get worse. “Jesus said…’Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him. And even when you saw it, you did not afterward change your minds and believe him” (Matthew 21:31-32). Especially for the rich. “And Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how difficult it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” And they were exceedingly astonished, and said to him, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God” (Mark 10:23-27). But it’s not just the rich. “Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it” (Mark 10:15). And then there’s this whole confusing thing about evil spirits: “But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you” (Matthew 12:28). By no other entity or name will the casting out of demons usher in the kingdom of God.
There is good news, though. To be “more righteous than the Pharisees,” it seems like all you have to do is let people into the kingdom of heaven: “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves” (Matthew 23:13-15). The kingdom is difficult to enter, not just because it is difficult to see, but because it looks different than we think it does. Righteousness is not about how holy you can appear or how well you can follow rules, especially when those rules become stumbling blocks for people to enter the kingdom of God (we call that legalism). It’s not to say that anything goes, of course. Certainly not. But exceeding the righteousness of the Pharisees isn’t about following more rules or following the rules better. It’s about opening doors that may have previously been shut in people’s faces to enter the kingdom of God.
Might such past wounding make it hard to receive the kingdom “like a child?” We want to receive love, care and kindness freely, with joy and without suspicion, but we’ve been hurt by people who have offered us those things in the past. We’ve been told we had to behave this way, dress that way, not be struggling, clean up our act, any number of things before we could present ourselves to God. The kingdom of God is difficult to enter, but not in the ways we, in our Pharisee moments, have made it. We don’t enter it by policing others’ actions but by doing the work of the kingdom ourselves. It is difficult for creatures like us who cannot know the future to seek security in the unseen God rather than wealth or their ability to provide for themselves. It is difficult for finite, shortsighted creatures such as us to believe in what they cannot see and promises that seem impossible. And it is so very difficult for creatures such as we are to even change our minds. But if the kingdom of heaven is among us, growing and rising, then we must change our minds, or let our minds be changed if we are to seethe kingdom of God, enter it and, most importantly, have it enter us.