The Sixth Sunday after Trinity
July 27, 2014
“The Righteousness that Exceeds all Others”
St. Matthew 5:20-26
"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. You have heard that it was said to those of old, 'You shall not murder, and whoever murders will be in danger of the judgment.' But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment. And whoever says to his brother, 'Raca!' shall be in danger of the council. But whoever says, 'You fool!' shall be in danger of hell fire. 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. Agree with your adversary quickly, while you are on the way with him, lest your adversary deliver you to the judge, the judge hand you over to the officer, and you be thrown into prison. Assuredly, I say to you, you will by no means get out of there till you have paid the last penny." St. Matthew 5:20-26
Traditional Christians bemoan the decline in traditional morality. The Ten Commandments are out of style. Idolatry is defined away. God’s name is changed to accommodate politically correct requirements. God’s word is twisted into teaching that is not Christian. Fathers and mothers are shown utter disrespect. Civil law attacks the sanctity of life. Sexual sins are civil rights. Private property is trashed in the name of social justice. A man’s reputation gives way to the public’s right to know every disgusting thing he’s ever done. Covetousness and greed prevail as human life is measured by its commercial worth.
There is a word for this moral disintegration we are witnessing all around us. It is called antinomianism. Antinomians dismiss God’s law as irrelevant. Some antinomians discard God’s law because they reject God. They think that every individual should make up his own rules to follow according to his own conscience and, as long as he is not hurting anybody else, no one has the right to rein him in. Such people presume in arrogance that because they cannot see how their actions are hurting others their actions must not be hurting others.
Not all antinomians openly reject God. Many people reject the law in the name of Christianity. They argue that the law has nothing to say to us because we are led by the Spirit. They ignore the fact that while we Christians are indeed led by the Spirit, we are also sinners who need to be instructed on what is right and what is wrong. Antinomianism is false doctrine – poison to the soul.
Antinomianism has an evil twin. It is the sin of legalism. Legalists seek righteousness by means of the law. If we are going to make ourselves righteous by obeying the law, the first thing we will need is a law that we can obey. Legalists think that they can become righteous by doing righteous things. So they twist the law into rules they can obey and then, when they have obeyed their rules, they imagine they have obeyed God’s law and God must regard them as righteous.
Our Lord Jesus reserved his most severe criticism for the legalists. Their false teaching is even more dangerous than antinomianism. Antinomians are easy to spot. When people start justifying such sins as adultery, abortion, homosexuality, and the like, we traditional Christians know they are wrong. Any Bible believing Christian can recognize antinomianism when he sees it. Legalism is harder to spot. It often passes itself off as conservative, Bible believing, Christianity. After all, rules are good for you! What civilized person would object?
There is nothing wrong with having rules. It is wrong to rely on rules to make us righteous. God’s law reflects the pure, holy, and unchanging will of God. It cannot be reduced to doable rules. To alter it so that we can obey it is to deny it. Legalists play God. They twist it into doable rules so that it no longer accuses them of sin. They deny God’s law while pretending to honor it. God’s law accuses sinners. While nobody wants to be accused of sin, the only way we can find true righteousness and enter into eternal life is if we come to see ourselves as God’s law shows us to be.
You say you haven’t murdered anyone? You haven’t beaten anyone with your fists? But have you been angry? Have you spoken unkindly to him? Have you expressed to him your contempt? Oh, you say you have the right to show him disrespect because of his sins? You are doing no wrong when you insult the one who has done you wrong? Jesus disagrees.
The scribes and the Pharisees knew all about rules. The Pharisees had 613 rules, 365 things they were not permitted to do and 248 things they were required to do. But somehow, among all their rules, there was no rule that required them to love their brothers. Yet love is the single requirement of every one of the Ten Commandments. They are really two commandments: love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself. The rest of the commandments teach us what this love entails. Legalists think that they are obeying the law when they obey their manmade rules. In fact, the single rule of love – love God above all things, and love your neighbor as yourself – is the true meaning of every one of God’s commandments.
Jesus points this out. If you argue that you did no wrong because you didn’t murder the one you insulted and accused, you condemn yourself with your own argument. You didn’t love him. That’s the point. That’s always the point. St. John puts it quite plainly in his First Epistle where he writes, “Whoever hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.” 1 John 3:15
Love is indivisible. You love God? You love your neighbor. The two cannot be divided. Consider how the Catechism explains the true meaning of the commandments that teach us how to love our neighbor. Each explanation begins with the words, “We should fear and love God that we may . . .” and then it proceeds to discuss what we owe to our neighbor. Love for the neighbor is joined to love for God. They cannot be separated. This is why Jesus says:
God does not want your worship, your praise, your offering, your service, or your love – if you will not love your brother. God loves you. He loves the one with whom you refuse to be reconciled. By refusing to be reconciled; by holding on to hatred; you refuse God’s love, for love is indivisible. If you insist on holding onto your judgment, you will be judged according to the same standard you impose. When Jesus talks about being delivered to the judge, the officer, and then thrown into prison, he’s not talking about civil authorities. He’s talking about the judgment of God! God has not called us to a life of hatred. He has called us out of hatred and malice and judgment.
Legalism hides behind the outward requirement not to do murder while it revels in murdering by thoughts and words. God’s law won’t permit it. And it indicts us all. It hands us over to the judge, to the officer, and prison looms before us as our own hatred accuses us and consigns us to a status outside of the kingdom of heaven and unable to do anything to find our way in. Because it is as Jesus said, “Unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will be no means enter into the kingdom of heaven.”
So we go to God and confess to him our sins of hatred, judgment, and anger. He who loves us with an eternal love points us to where Jesus bore the insults, endured the disrespect, and patiently submitted to the taunts, the jeers, and the mockery of sinful men. He prayed for their forgiveness. He overcame hatred with love.
He bore in his own body divine judgment against all sin. The sin we have done against others and the sin others have done against us, the hatred, the lies, the self-righteous judgment, and every other variant of evil of the entire human race was imputed to him as he suffered all alone as the sinner of sinners, condemned to die under judgment and pain. For what? To fulfill all righteousness! He lived the life of love, judging no one. His innocence bore our sin and took it all away. His obedience is reckoned to us for righteousness.
Christ alone has fulfilled the law of love. He loved his Father in heaven above all things. He loved his neighbor purely and perfectly. His righteousness is not just the eternal righteousness he has as the eternal God. His righteousness is the righteousness he did in loving purely and completely. His righteousness is what he suffered when he bore the sin of the world. His righteousness is reckoned to sinful humanity. For Christ’s sake we are righteous. Our baptism clothes us in Christ, covering us with his perfect righteousness, a righteousness that far exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees. It exceeds all the righteousness of all the saints, heroes, and religious icons. Compared to his righteousness, all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags. St. Paul wrote of it. In his Epistle to the Philippian Christians he contrasted his own legalistic righteousness to the righteousness of Christ. He said:
This is our righteousness through faith in Christ. When God gives it to us he also fills us with his Spirit so that we may learn to love as we have been loved.
Rolf D. Preus