The Sixth Sunday after Trinity| Rev. Rolf D. Preus| St. Matthew 5, 20| July 11, 2010
“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 Pharisees obeyed the law. That’s what they were known for. They separated themselves from the heathen and from sinners. The book of Leviticus prescribed for God’s Old Testament Church various rituals by which God’s people could keep themselves pure. The Pharisees took these rituals very seriously. They knew that they had to be righteous if they wanted to live in God’s presence both in this world and in the life to come. The Pharisees originally called themselves the pious, but since they separated themselves from others they came to be called the “separated ones” which is what the name Pharisee means. They were set apart from the average Jew of their day. They comprised a select group of men who took the law with utter seriousness.
Most of the scribes were Pharisees. The scribes knew the Bible very well. Many centuries before the invention of the printing press, the only way to produce a Bible was by the laborious task of copying it by hand. This is what the scribes did. They transcribed the biblical text. In those days there was no Bible, as we know it today. There were rather collections of scrolls of the various biblical books. Every scroll was written out carefully by hand. A scribe had to be exact. He had to be correct. He had to be concerned about being right and staying exactly with the text. After all, he was dealing with the word of God. The scribes not only copied the books of the Bible, they also studied what they copied and they knew the Bible very well. They did their best to follow the teaching of the Bible.
The scribes and Pharisees took righteousness very seriously.
If our nation had more folks like the scribes and Pharisees it would be a far more pleasant place to live. Pharisees didn’t commit crimes. They paid their taxes. They gave a tenth of everything they owned to support the work of the church and to help the poor. Instead of taking away from society, they contributed to it. They didn’t commit adultery. They didn’t steal. They didn’t commit violence. They lived clean and decent lives.
They thought they were righteous. Looking at their lives, you would think so, too. Their outward conduct conformed to the standards of God’s law. Isn’t that what righteousness is? Isn’t it living in a right relationship to God’s law? God says do and you do. God says don’t and you don’t. Judging by appearances, the scribes and the Pharisees were righteous men.
But Jesus says, “Unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.” Their righteousness wasn’t good enough. It wasn’t good enough to gain them admission into the kingdom of heaven. The kingdom of heaven or the kingdom of God as it is sometimes called exists right here on earth. It is God’s rule over his children. The scribes and the Pharisees had not entered into it. They had produced a certain kind of righteousness, but it wasn’t adequate to bring them into the presence of God. They weren’t serving God by their righteous deeds. They were serving only themselves.
It was a false, misleading dream
That God his law had given
That sinners could themselves redeem
And by their works gain heaven.
The law is but a mirror bright
To bring the inbred sin to light
That lurks within our nature.
Those who believe that they can become righteous by obeying the law are blinded by a delusion. They trust in what they do to make themselves righteous in God’s sight. They do what they do in order to become righteous, and so whatever they do in obedience to God they do for themselves. They do what they do for themselves, not for their neighbor. They obey God’s law for their own benefit, not because they agree with what the law really requires.
They do not lie, but they hurt their neighbor by what they say and they believe and repeat those things that make him look bad. They do not commit adultery, but they lust in their hearts. They do not murder, but they speak words of judgment, condemnation, and contempt of their neighbor. They use the law of God to benefit themselves and so they don’t obey it at all. The law was not given to teach us how to benefit ourselves. It was given to teach us how to help our neighbor.
Why should we obey the 4th Commandment? So we won’t get into trouble or so that we will promote peace and harmony for others? Why should we obey the commandments against murder, adultery, stealing, and false witness? It is not to gain anything for ourselves, but to protect our neighbor’s body, marriage, property, and honor.
The scribes and Pharisees were trying to make themselves righteous. People who try to make themselves righteous use the law for their own benefit instead of for the glory of God or the benefit of the neighbor. They use the law as a tool to get God to give them what God won’t freely give them: the righteousness that they need to stand before him. But God does freely give this righteousness. He does so entirely by his grace for Christ’s sake. That’s the gospel. Those who try to make themselves righteous use the law to deny the gospel. They deny Christ and Christ’s righteousness. Their obedience to the law is disobedience. Their faithful devotion to the law is faithless denial of the gospel.
There can be no greater insult to God than to deny the gospel of his grace in Christ. The prophet Jeremiah called the promised Christ “the LORD, our righteousness.” St. Paul says that this righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith. It isn’t a righteousness that we do. It isn’t a righteousness that God does in us or through us. It is a righteousness that Jesus does for us. He is born and he places himself under the law and he obeys it. He uses the law always and only for the benefit of his neighbor. He follows the law, not only according to the outward letter, but according to the spirit as well. Nothing love requires escapes his notice or his dutiful fulfillment. Jesus is the only human being who ever produced the righteousness that exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and the Pharisees. The righteousness that Jesus did is the righteousness that God reckons to us in the gospel. The gospel tells us not only that Christ lived and died for us, but also that on account of his obedience and suffering God forgives us our sins and reckons us to be righteous. God imputes or credits to us the righteousness of Jesus. This is how we can have that righteousness that exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees. We have it only by faith in Jesus. It comes only from the doing and dying of Jesus. It is given to us in the gospel and the sacraments of Jesus. Without this righteousness, we are not righteous before God. Without this righteousness we cannot enter into the kingdom of God. Since only Jesus has won this righteousness and since only Jesus can give us this righteousness and since this righteousness is necessary to enter into God’s kingdom, Jesus is the only way to heaven.
And since Jesus is the only way to heaven, he is also the only way to live a righteous life here on earth. Only those who are good can do good things. Jesus said that a good tree bears good fruit but a bad tree bears bad fruit. Only those who have Christ’s righteousness are able to do righteous deeds. Others may do righteous deeds in appearance, but only in appearance. Since they are not righteous they cannot do righteous things. They can only do things that appear to us to be righteous. Underneath the appearance is the empty shell of Pharisaical self-righteousness.
Martin Luther spoke so clearly of the righteousness that we need in the face of the Pharisaical religion of his own day. He said,
There is no quality in my heart at all, call it either faith or charity; but instead of these I set Christ Himself before me, and I say, “There is my righteousness.”
This is what faith does. It sets Christ before us and says: “There is my righteousness. There, in Him alone, I have everything God requires. His doing is mine. His obedience is mine. His love is mine. His suffering is mine. His payment was made for me and the forgiveness he won has been given to me. The perfect, holy, spotless garment of righteousness that comes from his holy, spotless, and righteous life covers me and renders me righteous before God.”
When we teach this righteousness of Christ that is ours by faith alone we are often accused of neglecting good works but this accusation is utterly false. There can be no good works if the works are done for the benefit of the one doing them. The only way a work can be righteous is if it is done for someone else. But if I am working to make myself righteous I am doing it for my own benefit, not for the benefit of anyone else.
Only when I am clothed in the righteousness of Jesus, fully absolved, washed clean of all my sins by his precious blood, faultless to stand before God with no debt to pay, am I free to do good things for the benefit of my neighbor. And only when God has freed me from the judgment of his holy law can I learn to love my neighbor without judging him. Only when I know that for Christ’s sake I am reconciled to God will I know how to be reconciled to my brother. Only when I have the righteousness that exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees will I be able to live a righteous and God pleasing life. This is why we believe, teach, and confess the righteousness of Christ and why we treasure this above anything else. From this righteousness comes every good thing any of us will ever do. Amen