16. July 2023
“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.”
In the holy Name of + Jesus. Amen.
The scribes and Pharisees spent their lives striving for righteousness. They dressed religiously. They studied the Scriptures daily. They conducted the affairs of the temple and synagogue. Often set apart at birth, their lives were ones lived in outward observance of their religion. The righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees was the righteousness of appearance but not the heart.
As Christ elsewhere says: “Hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy about you, saying: ‘These people draw near to Me with their mouth, And honor Me with their lips, But their heart is far from Me. And in vain they worship Me, Teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’ ” (Mt 15:7–9). The scribes and Pharisees honored man’s traditions over God’s Commandments. They were not concerned with faith in the Divine Promise. Instead, they were concerned with human praise and worldly glory. They wanted to be known as religious so that men would honor and respect them. Such a religion is useless. (James 1:26) For honor and respect are first due to God, as the holy Law of God commands. (Matthew 22:37b; see also Deuteronomy 6:5)
The righteousness that exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees is that of the perfect heart or conscience. It is the righteousness of the right motive, the pure desire, the perfect love, and the generous spirit. This righteousness seeks not its own benefit but always and only the neighbor’s benefit. It is a righteousness that covers up what would shame or bring the neighbor into disgrace. It is a righteousness that rejoices in helping the neighbor out of his trouble. This is the righteousness that is needed. Jesus says that if one does not have such righteousness, one cannot enter into God’s kingdom.
By way of example, Jesus reminds you of the Fifth Commandment. “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 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.” (Mt 5:20-23)
If you thought that the righteousness God demands and commands in the Law given at Sinai could ever come from you, consider even one commandment like the Fifth. Jesus preaches the Law lawfully, accomplishing what it was always meant to do: convict the world concerning sin, righteousness, and judgment. That was always the point, to bring all God’s Israel captive to sin, that they would never trust in themselves to bring about the kingdom of heaven on earth.
When faced with the Law’s demands, you have only a few options. First, you can ignore the Law and live by the desires of the sinful heart. This is the rebellious, liberal life that denies everything God has shown them by nature or told them by His Word. You might call such a person a pagan or a heathen. Second, you can adjust, manipulate, and massage the Law into something not so severe and harsh. So you might soften the Law with loopholes and escape clauses. Maybe the things Jesus or Paul said only applied in the first century? Maybe we’ve never read the Bible the way it was intended. This is the way of liberal so-called Christian churches. Or there is the legalist move, adding new and more laws that are doable and attainable while ignoring the full severity of what God commands and demands. This is what we see in the Pharisees and Scribes. And third, you might despair of any hope by the Law, seeing no way to do it and no way out of its accusation. This is the work that the Holy Spirit wants to happen! He wants you to stop believing there is hope in you to be, do, or say what God requires.
Such a righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees is nowhere to be found within the self. As the hymnist put it: “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.” (LSB 555)
But even when the full weight of the Law came bearing down on our first parents and all our parents since the crushing blow of the Law’s hammer grinding us down into pieces, that is never the last word or even the primary Word God wants you to hear. That’s why from the beginning, God the Father promised His Son as the seed of the Woman, born under the Law, to redeem those under its killing blows. He repeated the promise of the Messiah to every patriarch. The promise was the hope of every matriarch. The faithful heard and believed God’s Word of judgment but put their hope in the redemption, salvation, and deliverance in Jesus Christ, the promised seed, the branch from Jesse’s stump, the Lamb of atonement, the scapegoat for sins.
If such righteousness cannot be found within oneself, then righteousness before God must be found outside oneself, extra nos. And if this righteousness is to be valid before God; if it is to open heaven, then it must be from God’s Word. And thanks to God, He has provided it! The Way is Christ, who has become our righteousness before God. (1 Corinthians 1:30; Jeremiah 23:6d) This is why St. Paul can speak the wonderful words: “But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness.” (Romans 4:5)
Thus, the theological constitution of our congregation asserts: “Our churches teach that people cannot be justified before God by their own strength, merits, or works. People are freely justified for Christ’s sake, through faith, when they believe that they are received into favor and that their sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake. By His death, Christ made satisfaction for our sins. God counts this faith for righteousness in His sight (Romans 3 and 4 [3:21–26; 4:5].” (Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions, Augsburg Confession, Article IV, 33)
“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.” Thanks to Jesus for giving us that righteousness through His suffering and death. Thanks to Jesus for removing the crushing weight of the Law and pressing into us the eternal weight of glory, the forgiveness of sins. Thanks to Jesus for forgiving us daily and richly through our Baptism in His Word. And thanks to Jesus that He gives us today His righteousness under bread and wine, His body and blood. In Him alone is our only hope of life and salvation. Amen.
Rev. Christopher R. Gillespie
St. John Ev. Lutheran Church & School – Sherman Center
Random Lake, Wisconsin