The Sixth Sunday after Trinity
July 19, 2020
“Righteousness and Reconciliation”
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
If you know what the gospel is you know what kind of righteousness Jesus is talking about when he says, “Unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus is talking about the righteousness of faith. God gives this righteousness to faith. It’s not the righteousness that we do. It’s the righteousness that Christ does. He did the righteous deeds that the standards of true righteousness require. He offered up his obedience to God as the replacement for our disobedience. The righteousness that exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees is the righteousness of Christ that God gives us in the gospel. God gives us this righteousness freely as his gift. The gospel reveals this righteousness. We receive this righteousness by believing the gospel. We believe what God promises us in the gospel and it is ours. God justifies us through faith alone.
When God gives us Christ’s righteousness he justifies us. To justify means to pronounce righteous. It’s a declaration. God says we are righteous. That makes it so. God does not say we are righteous out of thin air, as if there is no real righteousness to reckon to us. Christ’s righteousness is real. He really obeyed. He really suffered for our sins. Christ’s active obedience and passive suffering are a real righteousness that, when reckoned to us, makes us really and truly righteous. God says it and that makes it so.
Most people are scandalized by this and so they deny it. Even most who bear the name Christian deny this. They want people to be reckoned as righteous only when they have done righteous things. They think it would be reckless for God to reckon you to be righteous by crediting you with Christ’s righteousness. After all, if you are righteous before you have done a single righteous deed, where is your motivation to do righteous deeds? You don’t need them to become righteous. You’re already righteous with Christ’s righteousness before you have done anything at all. So why should you want to live a righteous life?
That’s the argument. That’s an argument that only an unbeliever can make. When you know that you are righteous for Christ’s sake you want to do righteous things. If you believe what the Bible says, that your baptism unites you with Christ’s death and resurrection, you want to live a Christian life. The Christian life is a righteous life. We know that sin still clings to us. We won’t be rid of our sinful desires until we die. But we are not slaves to sin. We have new lives to live. When you have the righteousness of Jesus reckoned to you, you know you’re righteous. Righteous people do righteous things.
What is a righteous thing? How can we know? Learn the Ten Commandments or Ten Words that God gave to Moses on Mount Sinai. God spoke these words to and tailor made them for the ancient people of Israel. While that nation is no more, the Ten Commandments remain the best summary of God’s law ever written. Every Christian should know the Ten Commandments by heart.
The fifth commandment says, “You shall not murder.” Jesus says:
Jesus knows what righteousness is. His life lived among us was the only perfectly righteous life ever lived. Jesus knows what sin is. He bore the sin of the whole world in his body on the cross. Jesus teaches us about things that he knows better than anyone. He teaches us that just because you haven’t murdered your brother this doesn’t mean you obeyed the fifth commandment. The sin is not just the outward act: “Don’t murder.” The sin lies inside of you. Jesus points us to what’s on the inside. If in your heart you are angry with your brother without cause, you are in danger of judgment. What puts you in danger? Your brother doesn’t put you in danger. You do. You are your own worst enemy! That’s why you must daily die and rise from the dead. Our baptism unites us with Christ’s death and resurrection, not just on the day we are baptized, but every day of our lives. Every day we can claim the new life baptism provides. Every day we return to our baptism. We repent of our sins and put on Christ. We are clothed in the white robes of his righteousness. The old Adam in us is drowned and dies so that we may rise to a new life lived in righteousness.
Sin lies within. The Bible calls this inner sin the flesh. Our flesh defends anger, insults, judgment, and bitterness. Jesus addresses these sins of the flesh directly. If you’re angry with your brother without cause you are in danger of judgment. If you insult him you are in danger of the council. If you call him a fool you are in danger of hellfire. First anger is cherished in the heart. Then the anger that is cherished comes out in insults. Then it boils over into debasing, demeaning, and humiliating the brother. Jesus explains anger’s deadly progression. This anger is a denial of the gospel. The gospel is the good news from God that he fully and freely forgives us all our sins and reckons us to be righteous for the sake of Christ’s obedience, suffering, death, and resurrection. The gospel is God’s grace. It is ours through faith alone. Our faith tells us that God has forgiven us all our sins for Christ’s sake. We are reconciled to God and he is reconciled to us. We are at peace. This is the gospel truth.
God is at peace with you. So you want to worship him, serve him, and express your love for him. You want to offer your praise to God. You want to give gifts to God. You want to sing to him, pray to him, glorify him, and partake in the holy mysteries he has given to his church. You want to be a God-fearing Christian. So you come to church and you pray the prayers and sing the hymns and give the offering and you remember that you have wronged a Christian brother or sister and you say to yourself, because you are a good Christian or try to be, that you’ll have to think about mending that relationship someday. You really should. It would be the right thing to do. Whenever.
Jesus says no. No, don’t even think about it. Don’t offer your prayers to God. Don’t put your offering in the offering plate. Don’t offer worship and praise to your Father in heaven if you are not reconciled with your brother. First be reconciled with your brother. Then offer your gift.
You cannot love God if you don’t love your brothers and sisters. You cannot worship God if you refuse to be reconciled with your brothers and sisters. God won’t hear your prayers. He won’t accept your offerings. He will turn his face away from you. If you refuse to be reconciled with those who are reconciled to God through faith in Christ then you are denying that faith and you are placing yourself outside of God’s grace, asking from God the judgment that requires you to pay to the last penny everything you owe to God.
The righteousness that exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees is the righteousness of God’s grace. Did God send his Son into this world to die for us and take our sin away because he was gracious? Or is God gracious on account of his Son dying for us and taking our sin away? It isn’t either / or; it is both / and. God’s grace is Christ and Christ is God’s grace and this is our Christian faith. When we deny grace to others and demand payment, retribution, punishment, and humiliation instead, we deny grace to ourselves. We deny Christ. We are thrown into prison. Jesus says, “Amen, I say to you, you will by no means get out of there till you have paid the last penny.” Prison is hell. It is where there is no forgiveness, where everyone pays in full for his sins, where nobody lives at peace with anybody because hatred rules and love cannot be found. It is eternal. The debt that is owed cannot be repaid except by Jesus Christ whose righteousness exceeds the righteousness of all others.
“Unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will be no means enter the kingdom of heaven.” That’s what Jesus says. This righteousness is perfect obedience to God’s commandments. Only Jesus has it. He doesn’t sell it or offer it in exchange for something you do for him. He gives it to you. He gives it freely by his grace alone. You don’t earn it and you don’t deserve it. You simply receive it through faith. And you live by faith. You live by faith in God’s grace.
God’s grace triumphs over his judgment. That’s what happened at the cross. Christ’s love for us sinners bore God’s judgment against us. Grace triumphed over judgment. For us Christians this means we live a very different kind of life than those seeking to establish their own righteousness before God. We don’t live before God seeking ways to gain his favor. We already have it. He has made peace with us. We are reconciled to him. So we seek peace, we seek reconciliation with our brothers and sisters. We admit our sins against them. We forgive their sins against us. We treat our anger against our brothers and sisters, not as something to which we give expression, but as something we confess to God as sin. He justifies us. He is reconciled to us. We live at peace with God and one another.
Rolf D. Preus