The Righteousness that Exceeds
The Sixth Sunday after Trinity| July 19, 2009| Rev. Rolf Preus| St. Matthew 5, 20
“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.”
Are you good enough for God? You should be. After all, he made you. God doesn’t make junk. Moses wrote the divine verdict on the divine creation: “Behold, it was very good.” Surely, you are good enough for God. He made you. God doesn’t require us to be anything more than what he created us to be.
But we are not what he created us to be. If we were, we’d be good enough for him. But to acknowledge that we are fallen – that’s not so easy to do. It’s easy enough when we’re just talking talk. All of us are sinners. Yes. That’s right. And that’s it. But that’s not it. That’s just the beginning. You can’t run away from your sin by saying that everyone else is as you are so it’s really no serious problem. The problem is that you cannot even see what the problem is.
The scribes and the Pharisees were experts in the law. They were experts at interpreting it in such a way as to justify themselves. All sinners try to justify themselves. It can’t be done, but that doesn’t stop people from trying.
To justify is to render a verdict of acquittal. No one would argue that it is fair for a man to pass judgment on himself. Not even the Lord Jesus Christ – the only perfectly innocent man who ever lived – would do that! He appealed to his Father. He appealed to his works. He never justified himself. One just doesn’t do that.
God is always the one who justifies or condemns. God renders the verdict. He says that someone is righteous. When God says it, it is so. It is so because he says it. He says it because it is so. So when God justifies you, you are righteous.
But where is your righteousness? If God is going to justify you, you have to be righteous. So where is the righteousness that makes you righteous? Where is the goodness that makes you good? Have you done it? Is it in what you have done?
You must be righteous if you are to enter into the kingdom of God. Your righteousness must pass the test of God himself. Does yours? Have you done enough good to outweigh the bad? How righteous are you? How much righteousness do you have?
God gave Israel the Ten Commandments or the Ten Words. These commandments describe the righteous life. Those who obey the Ten Commandments are righteous. The scribes and the Pharisees extracted rules from the various commandments. They thought that if they obeyed the rules they would be obeying the commandments from which the rules were extracted.
But that doesn’t work. God’s law cannot be reduced to a list of rules which, if you obey them, you have obeyed God. The commandments of God require what no number of rules could possibly cover. They require that you love your neighbor.
Jesus takes the Fifth Commandment as an example. It says, “You shall not murder.” Now if we were to reduce this commandment to rules, we could come up with a list of prohibitions against anything that risks doing bodily harm to our neighbor: boxing, race car driving, smoking, etc. But Jesus doesn’t do that. Instead of constructing a system of rules whereby we can pretend to obey this commandment, he gives examples of how we kill with words and violate the commandment without literally disobeying it.
You harbor anger against your brother. You don’t confront him in love. You don’t correct him in humility. You don’t dare. You’re afraid. Perhaps your anger isn’t well grounded after all and you don’t want to appear a fool. Or perhaps you’d rather be angry than reconciled. So you stay angry. That’s a sin. That falls under the same prohibition of: “You shall not murder.”
You call him names. You idiot! You fool! You demean him. You say words designed to hurt. That’s sin. That’s murder. But you deliberately avoided hurting him physically. Yes, you did, even as you deliberately hurt him by demeaning him. You killed him in your heart. You hated him. You regarded him as less than yourself. St. John the Apostle put it quite plainly as was his wont: “Whoever hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.” 1 John 3, 15
Murder arises in the heart. Cain murdered Able in his heart before he killed him physically. You have no right to hate your brother. You may not hide behind your rules. “I followed the rules.” But there is only one rule. You are to love your neighbor as yourself. Have you? Have you spoken of your brothers and sisters as you would want them to speak of you? Have you treated them with kindness? Or have you put yourself in the place of God and presumed to stand in judgment against those you consider beneath you?
This is not righteousness. This is sin. In order to be justified by God there must a real righteousness. And it must exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees.
They were legalists. Legalists reduce the law to rules that they are capable of obeying. Then they obey them. They imagine that they have thereby obeyed the law.
But the law was not made for rules. It was made for love. When you show contempt for your brother you murder him. You place yourself over him. And no amount of rules can fix this. Hatred is hatred. It need not be passionate. In fact, it is most likely dispassionate. It’s more matter of fact. It’s saying that he doesn’t really matter. Not like I do. He’s beneath me. He’s below me.
Where is your righteousness? Can you find it? Or do you search in vain for it? In looking for it do you find sin instead? Do you look for love and find something else? A cheap imitation? Selfishness? Lust? Greed? And then do you try to figure out how to turn this mess of sin into righteousness by comparing yourself to those who are even worse than you and thus compounding your sin by mixing into it a judgmental spirit that rejoices in the sins of others?
Where is our righteousness? Where is that goodness that will make us good enough for God?
You can examine your conduct and you will not find it. You can look within your heart and you will not find it. You can follow the rules letter perfect and you will not find it. You can struggle in prayer and you will not find it. You can go into seclusion and meditate and you will to find it. And you certainly won’t find it in following your own passions and desires as if your will is God’s.
Where is the righteousness that you need? Christ and Christ alone has it. He did it. The prophet calls him, “The LORD, our righteousness.” He alone loved as love requires. He alone obeyed the Ten Commandments as they were meant to be obeyed. Instead of reducing the commandments to rules Jesus embraced the totality of their requirements: he loved with a pure and devout heart.
When he was insulted he responded with blessing. When dealing with his inferiors he treated them with respect. He did not despise the outcast, the losers, those who had messed up their lives beyond repair and received nothing but contempt from the respectable religious types. Jesus showed them compassion instead of contempt. He loved.
This is the righteousness that we need. What Jesus did was righteous. His obedience is the righteousness that we need if we are to enter into the kingdom of heaven. Only Jesus has obeyed. Only his righteousness will do. The only way God has ever justified anyone was by reckoning to him the righteousness of Jesus.
You need this righteousness if you want to be justified by God. And if you are not justified by God – if God doesn’t declare you to be acquitted of all sin and innocent before him – you cannot enter into the kingdom of heaven. You will remain locked out. Only those covered by the wedding garment can enter into the wedding hall.
If you attempt to enter into heaven clothed in your own righteousness you will be denied entrance. Only those who have Christ’s righteousness are justified by God. He reckons to them the obedience and suffering of Jesus. He does not say that they are righteous when they have no righteousness. He does not lie or pretend what isn’t so. He says that they are righteous because they are! They have Christ’s righteousness by faith. Through faith alone they receive Christ’s righteousness and are thereby justified by God.
Are you good enough for God? Not according to anything you have ever thought, said, or done. Were God to regard you according to your own works he would reject you as unfit for the kingdom of heaven. But for Christ’s sake God forgives you your sins and reckons to you Christ’s obedience as your righteousness. It is yours though you do nothing to get it. You receive it by believing what God tells you when he gives it to you. You don’t earn it. You don’t deserve it. It is yours because God graciously gives it to you. He gives you this righteousness when he baptizes you in his holy name. He gives you this righteousness in the gospel you hear proclaimed. He gives it to you in the Lord’s Supper. Even as he gives you to eat and to drink with your mouth Christ’s very body and blood, he also justifies you by that blood. You have this righteousness, not by doing, but simply by trusting that the words “for you” mean “for you.”
Let us pray:
I have naught, my God, to offer,
Save the blood of Thy dear Son;
Graciously accept the proffer:
Make His righteousness mine own.
His holy life gave He, was crucified for me;
His righteousness perfect He now pleads before Thee;
His own robe of righteousness, my highest good,
Shall clothe me in glory, through faith in His blood. Amen