The Sixth Sunday after Trinity
“The Righteousness We Need”
July 15, 2007
“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 5:20
The funeral agenda contains these words of St. Paul to be spoken at the graveside committal service: “The sting of death is sin; and the strength of sin is the law.” Sin isn’t understood as sin unless the law is there to point it out. The primary purpose of the Ten Commandments is to do just that. We must learn to see sin as sin. Only God’s law can show us this. And should we think that a mere outward obedience to the Ten Commandments will satisfy the law’s demands, Jesus points out that malice is murder, lust is adultery, covetousness is theft, and these are real sins, which call for real punishment, both now and forever.
Most reasonable and religious people don’t think that God gave us his law to show us our sin. Instead they assume that God gave us the Ten Commandments to teach us how we may avoid his curse and gain his blessing. They appeal to the Bible itself to support this opinion. After all, God says, “I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate me, but showing mercy to thousands, to those who love me and keep my commandments.” God gives a clear promise to those who obey the Fourth Commandment, “that your days may be long upon the land which the LORD your God is giving you.” But the blessings that God promises those who obey him don’t enable anyone to obey him. The promises that the law offers are always conditional promises. You will indeed be blessed on the condition that you obey. If you meet the condition that the law requires, then, and only then, can you lay claim to the promises that the law makes.
Now it is undeniable that doing good things results in a happier, more successful, and less painful life. Years ago I read a book by a noted psychiatrist entitled, The Myth of Neurosis. The author argued that most of the troubles that drive people to various counselors and mental health professionals are caused by bad behavior. If you learn how to behave properly, you will reap the rewards of your good behavior. How do you get a good reputation for being an honest person? Tell the truth! Even unbelievers understand that you reap what you sow.
But outward obedience to God’s law isn’t enough if you want to enter the kingdom of heaven. Outward obedience will lead to a better life here on earth, but it cannot get you to heaven. This is why Jesus said, “Unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.” What kind of righteousness does Jesus demand? He demands what he himself does. He demands love. Unjust anger, the desire to insult, to blame, to fight, and to contend can find any number of justifications. We can easily find reasons why our neighbor is wrong and we are right. It isn’t that hard to show that he deserves whatever judgment or insult we level against him. We are all masters as using the law to curse our neighbor and to bless ourselves.
Using the law as the means of hurting your neighbor is to pervert it. St. Paul states it simply, “Love does no harm to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.” (Romans 13:10) Moreover, love desires what is best for the neighbor. If God made me and God made my neighbor, is he not as valuable as I? If Christ redeemed me and Christ redeemed my neighbor, is he not as valuable as I? What gives me the right to desire anything less for my neighbor than what I want for myself? If I choose to badmouth my neighbor and to assume the role of judge and jury over him, am I not using God’s law – a law that teaches me to love – as an instrument of hate? I am distorting God’s law of love.
Legalism is the root of every kind of false teaching. It is the source of every kind of sin against our neighbor. Legalism is the idea that we can use the law for our own benefit instead of for the benefit of our neighbor. A legalist asks how he can get the law to make him look good. And of course, we all look good when compared to someone who looks bad. Falling into legalism is a constant danger to Christians.
People embrace legalism because they think it will make them better than their fellows. This is what the scribes and the Pharisees did. But the law was not given to make you better than you are. It was given to teach you how to make things better for your neighbor. You are not commanded to love yourself, but to love your neighbor. You are not commanded to honor yourself, but to honor your neighbor. You are not commanded to do yourself no harm, but to do no harm to your neighbor. And likewise, you are commanded to respect your neighbor’s marriage, property, reputation, and everything else that belongs to him. To regard the law as something to make you better than you are is to deny the law. No law could possibly be given that could make you good. The legalist thinks he is making great strides in bettering himself as he obeys whatever rules he derives from the law. But he never even begins to obey the law. He does not love his neighbor.
The religious legalist offers things up to God. Take Cain, as an example. He offered up the produce of the field. But he hated his brother, Abel. First he was to become reconciled to his brother, only then could he have offered God anything God would accept. And so Jesus says, “Therefore if you bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.”
If you want to be righteous, truly righteous, you must sincerely want what will benefit your neighbor. You may not be angry with him. You may not set out to do him harm. You may not consider his reputation as of little account. You must want peace with him and you must want to correct any wrong you have done against him. You may not hide behind excuses to avoid doing what love requires for the benefit of your neighbor. That is the righteousness that Jesus requires.
“Unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.” So says Jesus. He interprets Moses for us. He does so far more strictly than any other teacher does. He tolerates no compromise of the law given on Sinai. He rather demands the full submission of the whole heart to the most radical demands that love requires of us. You simply must be reconciled to your brother. You have no choice. If you won’t be reconciled to him, God won’t accept your offering or hear your prayer. You will be put into the prison from which you will never escape. As Jesus said, “Assuredly, I say to you, you will be no means get out of there till you have paid the last penny.”
If you use God’s law to elevate yourself above your brother, you are in actual fact doing the very opposite. You are condemning yourself. We need to understand that. God’s law is God’s. Not ours. When we speak it, we do so only as God’s representatives. It remains his. And it cannot be taken away from him. God’s law defines what true righteousness is. It is never what we do for our own benefit. It is only what we do to worship God and to serve our neighbor. God does not accept the worship of the one that uses his law to hurt, rather than to help.
The righteousness that exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees is the righteousness of the perfect heart. It is the righteousness of the right motive, the pure desire, the perfect love, and the generous spirit. It is the righteousness that is always right because it seeks not its own benefit, but always and only the benefit of the neighbor. It is a righteousness that covers up what would shame or bring the neighbor into disgrace. It is a righteousness that rejoices in helping the neighbor out of the trouble he is in. This is the righteousness that you need. If you don’t have it, you cannot enter into God’s kingdom. The kingdom of heaven is entered into here on earth when you are brought into fellowship with God. The kingdom of heaven is brought to its fulfillment in glory, at the resurrection. But you cannot rise to eternal life in heaven unless you have here on earth the righteousness that exceeds the righteousness of the legalists.
So do you have it? Where is it? It isn’t in you. It is in Christ. It isn’t the righteousness that you have done. It is the righteousness that Jesus has done. Where is it? Look to your baptism. In today’s Epistle Lesson, St. Paul reminds us that we were baptized into Christ’s death. We were joined to the death and resurrection of Jesus. We died and we rose from the dead with a new life to life. The sting of death is sin, as the apostle teaches. But that sin is washed away by Jesus’ blood. Baptism is the washing that applies Jesus’ blood to us and thereby washes away all our sins. The strength of sin is the law, as the apostle teaches. But Christ has obeyed the righteous requirements of God’s law. He has taken sin’s strength away and he has given us his own righteousness in the place of our sin. This is what covers us and presents us before God as his righteous children. What the law could not do for us, Christ did. He provides the righteousness that we need to enter into the kingdom of heaven. This is an unconditional gift. This is not like the promise of the law that depends on our obeying it. This promise of righteousness that renders us blameless before God depends on Christ’s doing, not ours. And so we can rely on it with total confidence.
And relying on Christ’s obedience, his blood and righteousness, we rely on the love of God. Only those who are at peace with God through faith in Christ can be truly reconciled to their brothers. This is why we seek our righteousness in Christ alone, never in the law. Only then can we use God’s law to benefit the neighbor instead of perverting the law to benefit ourselves. Only when Christ gives us the righteousness we need – his own – do we live at peace with God and our brothers and sisters here in time and hereafter in eternity.
Rolf D. Preus