The Sixth Sunday after Trinity
July 28, 2019
“The Righteousness You Need to Enter Heaven”
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
The kingdom of heaven is the church. The church is here on earth and the church is in heaven. It’s the same kingdom. Here on earth it is the kingdom of grace. In heaven it is the kingdom of glory. In either case, the kingdom of heaven is the kingdom of God.
The church is the ark of salvation. They say you don’t have to go to church to get to heaven. That’s because they don’t know what the church is and they don’t know what heaven is. Going to church is the closest thing there is to heaven on earth. I’m not talking about going to any and every religious gathering on a Sunday morning. You must go to a church that teaches the gospel rightly and administers the sacraments according to Christ’s institution.
The church has the gospel. The gospel reveals the righteousness you need. St. Paul wrote of it in Romans 1:16-17,
For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, “The just shall live by faith.”
Unless you have this righteousness that is from faith to faith you cannot enter the kingdom of God. That’s what Jesus says. He says that if you want to enter into his kingdom you must be righteous. Your righteousness must be genuine. It must be better than the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees. These men were the holiest, most righteous, most pious, most religious people around. The scribes spent hours and hours making copies of the Bible. They knew the Bible backwards and forwards. The Pharisees were so intent on doing righteous deeds that would get them into heaven that they painstakingly derived from the Ten Commandments no less than 613 rules. There were 365 things they were not permitted to do and 248 things they were required to do. They obeyed all of these rules. They didn’t want to take any chances on making a mistake. The scribes and the Pharisees were as righteous as sinners can make themselves to be. In other words, they weren’t righteous at all.
The church is not a building. It is not a manmade institution. It isn’t established by human design or sustained by human endeavors. It isn’t identified by a list of rules. The church is those who have the righteousness that exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and the Pharisees. This righteousness is not of their own making. It is the righteousness of Christ. It is from faith to faith. You don’t get this righteousness by doing anything. It is given to you by God in his gospel. You receive it through faith in the gospel, which is the power of God to salvation. Faith in the gospel is the only way to heaven.
The religion of works says you make yourself righteous by doing righteous things. Jesus proves this religion is a lie. You say you do not murder. You say this makes you righteous, as least as far as the fifth commandment is concerned. Is that so? Are you angry with someone without cause? You will appeal to some highfalutin principle. The real principle is your pride. You are in danger of the judgment. The judgment you render will be rendered to you.
Do you say to your brother “Raca?” Raca is an Aramaic word that nobody knows how to translate. It comes from the word to spit. It’s to insult someone, to show contempt toward someone, to look down on him, to consider yourself better than he. Have you insulted your brother? You are in danger of the council. You will have to give an account.
Do you call your brother a fool? You are in danger of hell fire.
Oh, you have many righteous deeds. They shine so prettily for the whole world to see. They identify you as being very righteous, very righteous indeed, far more righteous than those fools you judge, insult, and condemn. But, you see, this righteousness you claim is a mist, a vapor, a lot of hot air. It’s nothing.
The reason you despise your brother is because you don’t love him. The reason you don’t love him is because you are a murderer. St. John writes: “Whoever hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.” (1 John 3:15) You did not kill him. You did not strike him. You despised him, insulted him, and treated him as refuse to be discarded.
What does Jesus say? He says if you want to offer God a gift and you learn that your brother has something against you, go and be reconciled to your brother before you offer your gift to God. If you won’t be reconciled with your brother, if you refuse his pleas, if you would rather judge him than forgive him and receive forgiveness from him, then it is you who will be handed over to the judge and the officer and be thrown into prison. Prison is a biblical metaphor for hell.
To justify means to reckon someone to be righteous. God reckons us to be righteous by reckoning to us the righteousness of Jesus. This is his obedience. It is his obedience to the law, doing everything it requires, not merely following manmade rules, but loving God with his whole heart and loving even those who hated him. It is his suffering for our sins, bearing in his own body the sin of the whole world. This obedience and suffering of Jesus is true righteousness, the righteousness you need to make it into heaven. You must be justified by God through faith alone in Christ your Savior, or you will by no means go to heaven.
When God justifies sinners, he withdraws judgment. He looks on them kindly. Grace isn’t a quality he pours into us. Grace is the attitude he has toward us. He looks on us favorably. He is peaceful. He is reconciled. He has removed judgment, and condemnation. He does not hold us in contempt. He treasures us and treats us as precious.
Those who are justified through faith alone do not trust in their own righteousness. They know their highest and holiest works are laced with sin. They cherish the gospel above anything else they have in this life. The gospel tells them they are justified by God’s grace in Christ. It changes their hearts. Those they despised and insulted and contemned are no longer objects of their scorn. Instead, they love them. They would rather be reconciled to those who have wronged them than to see them pay for their sins. They are ready to admit their own sins and seek peace with those who accuse them. Instead of protecting and defending their sinful pride, they confess it to God for the sin it is and ask God to forgive them. Forgiven by God, they forgive.
Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.” (Matthew 5:9) Why sons of God? They imitate their Father in heaven who made peace with us through the blood of his Son. As St. Paul writes,
Christians believe the word of reconciliation. Through faith they are personally reconciled with God. Reconciled with God, they don’t seek retribution. They don’t despise their brothers and sisters. They don’t try to justify themselves by obeying obeyable rules while ignoring the demands of God’s law of love. They want to be reconciled with those who have done them wrong and with those they have wronged. This desire comes from the faith that has received righteousness and peace from God.
To refuse reconciliation with your brother is to refuse reconciliation with God. To insult him, despise him, and rail against him instead of loving him, praying for him, and seeking reconciliation with him is to despise the greatest gift we can have in this life: the righteousness of faith, Christ’s righteousness we receive through our faith, the righteousness that makes us living members of Christ’s church.
At first glance this gospel lesson appears to be all law and no gospel. He says you need a greater righteousness than that of the most righteous people. He says you must not be angry without cause, insult, or despise your brother or sister. He says you must be reconciled to those you have wronged and those who have wronged you. He warns us of hellfire.
But consider who is talking. It’s Jesus! He is the LORD, our righteousness. He robed us in his righteousness when we were baptized where we died and rose with him. He freed us from sin and gave us new lives to live. The life of faith is the life of love for our brothers and sisters.
Rolf D. Preus