The question that would naturally come to mind in response to Jesus’ statement in 5:20 is this: How righteous, exactly, were the scribes and Pharisees? The answer is: Not very.
At another time, Jesus referred to them as “whitewashed tombs which on the outside appear beautiful, but inside they are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness” (Matt. 23:27). That is, they appeared outwardly righteous, but were inwardly evil. They did a great job at keeping the letter of the Law, but ignored the spirit of it, often justifying themselves by twisting or even altering God’s commandments.
This intrinsic flaw in the scribes and Pharisees, in fact, was Jesus’ major focus in much of what remains in the Sermon on the Mount. We find that He quoted a number of God’s well-known commandments, and after each quotation, revealed the difference between keeping the letter and spirit of each law. In so doing, He repeatedly exposed the hypocrisy of the Scribes and Pharisees, and revealed His true expectations for His disciples.
Jesus began each example with the words, “You have heard.” He was speaking to people who had probably never read, but only heard, the Old Testament scrolls read by the scribes and Pharisees in the synagogues. It could be said that His audience had been sitting under false teaching all their lives, as they heard the scribes’ and Pharisees” twisted commentary on God’s Word and observed their unholy lifestyles.