Dearly beloved. In today’s Gospel Jesus says: For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. The scribes and Pharisees were the religious leaders of the Jews and well respected for their piety. Not only did they very strictly observe the Law of God Moses recorded, but, they also very strictly observed the various man-made laws that went above and beyond what God had commanded. Outwardly, the scribes and Pharisees seemed very pious and were regarded by the people as the most righteous of the righteous.
But, in reality, were they? Later on St. Matthew [23.27,28] records Jesus pronouncing a whole series of woes on the scribes and Pharisees: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness." And elsewhere Jesus said of them [Luke 11.39, 40], “Now you Pharisees cleanse the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. You fools! Did not he who made the outside make the inside also? And later Jesus said to the Pharisees who rejected Him [Lk 16.15], You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts. For what is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God.
So then, what is Jesus saying in our text when He says, “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven”? Although the people considered the scribes and Pharisees to be righteous because of all their outward show of piety, they weren’t really righteous inwardly, in the heart. All of their so-called righteousness was a show.
In this verse, Jesus teaches us that as Christians, our righteousness is not just an outward righteousness of works/ acts before people. Instead, our righteousness as Christians is a true, inner righteousness of the heart. Our text today Jesus teaches us that our righteousness as Christians is a righteousness of faith. This means: a person is not a Christian because they are righteous; instead, we are righteous because we are Christians.
There are many like the scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ day. They believe that they are righteous and worthy of heaven because of what they do or do not do. They are like the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable who prayed [Lk. 18. 11-12]: God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get. Those who think they are righteous and worthy of heaven by what they do are, in fact, the impenitent ones. They either do not think that they sin, or if they are bothered by conscience they either rationalize it away or they make their sin out to be no big deal by favorably comparing themselves to “much worse” sinners, or they try to “make up” for that sin by doing a few self-appointed works they consider to be good.
But when all is said and done, what is that person doing? They rely on themselves and their own works to try to appease God and get into heaven. This is the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees—a self-righteousness, a self- justification. But Jesus knows the heart; He knows our sinful heart. That’s why He warns us in our text against this sort of so-called “righteousness.” That’s why in the rest of today’s Gospel, He clearly shows us that sin is not just the outward act but sin is also the state and attitude of the heart. Our hearts are sinful and before God all our supposed/ seeming righteousness is not true, perfect righteousness—the kind He requires if we are to enter the kingdom of heaven.
May we heed Jesus’ warning today and search our hearts for thoughts and attitudes of self-righteousness that look toward outward works and appearances to gain favor with God and heaven—that righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees. Finding self-righteousness, may we repent of it and by the power of the Holy Spirit root it out of our heart. In the power and strength of the Holy Spirit, may we instead seek a righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, one that is better. And that is a righteousness not of outward works that we trust in for God’s favor and heaven, but a righteousness of faith.
But what is that righteousness of faith? What makes a Christian a Christian is faith in Jesus and His work. Faith sees our own supposed holiness and righteousness is not better than the empty faithless works of the scribes and Pharisees and despairs and flees to Jesus and firmly trusts and relies on Jesus and His work.
What is so wonderful is that we look over our lives and see all the sin we commit day in and day out—even the sin of self-righteousness, and we see how unworthy we are of heaven, of how far we have fallen from the glory and perfection God demands of us, we can be honest with ourselves—and most importantly to God—and confess that sin. We do not have to worry about trying to make up for it to God or about trying to excuse it or minimize it to quiet our accusing conscience.
Instead we comfort ourselves with God’s word of forgiveness and the work of Jesus for us. It is precisely because of our sin that Jesus, the true God, came to earth and became true man. Because of our sin, Jesus placed Himself under God’s Law to keep it for us—all of it, the very law of God we break day in and day out. What does this teach us? –In and of ourselves we have no righteousness in which we can stand before God and enter heaven, no matter how hard we try. But, dear Christian, we have the righteousness of faith! That means that by faith, trusting in Jesus, His perfect holiness and righteousness/ His perfect keeping of God’s holy Law is credited to us. And faith receives it!
As Christians we stand before God not in our own righteousness but with the righteousness of Jesus. But what about the sins that we daily commit? These, too, Jesus dealt with. He took our sins upon Himself to the cross where He suffered God’s wrath over each sin of each person ever to live. All of God’s wrath over our sins was poured out on Jesus. We are forgiven our sins—Jesus’ resurrection shows that! Now sin cannot rise up, accuse us and drag us down to hell.
So what do we see here? –Jesus not only paid the penalty for our sin, but He also gives us His perfect keeping of the Law for us/ His holiness and righteousness. And faith receives it! True, Christian righteousness—the righteousness all Christians have—then, is the very righteousness of Jesus, the very God Himself. It’s a perfect righteousness, one that far exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, which was only a weak, sham, outward righteousness.
Only Jesus’ perfect righteousness, which He freely gives us, is worthy of heaven. The only way we receive this righteousness is through faith—trusting in Jesus and His work for us. And the very fact that we have faith is God’s work alone. It is His gift to us. The Holy Spirit created it in us. Our Christian righteousness is a righteousness of faith—faith that receives Jesus’ perfect righteousness.
Now, since we Christians have the perfect righteousness of Jesus—no matter how great our sins are—does it mean that it doesn’t matter how we live since our sins are forgiven anyway? Absolutely not! Although our Christian righteousness is the perfect righteousness of Jesus which is ours through faith, our Christian righteousness also includes our striving to live a godly life more and more free from sin. Remember what St. Paul writes in today's Epistle [Rom. 6.3 ff]: all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.
Because we have been baptized/ because we are Christians, we have the Holy Spirit. He is working to preserve faith in our hearts. Because the Holy Spirit was given us at baptism, He is now working in us so that we fight against sin in our lives. Any good we do—that’s the Holy Spirit leading, prompting, strengthening us. We now as Christians delight in and want to do the will/ the holy Law of God. Since we have the Holy Spirit, our true righteousness will increase because in true love of God and our neighbor we strive to do God’s will in word and deed. This godliness of the heart flows from faith—that same faith that longs for and receives Jesus’ perfect righteousness.
By the Holy Spirit’s power we live a life that is more and more righteous; but we dare never become full of pride and think that we deserve heaven or earn God’s favor. We dare never trust in our righteousness; instead our faith/ trust is always and only in Jesus. Here’s where a serious, thorough look at our lives in the light and mirror of God’s holy law keeps us honest. That’s the beauty of daily examining our lives. It gives us time to pause and reflect on God’s holy law and how much we fail miserably each day, and often, in keeping it.
The diligent Christian, who has tasted the goodness and mercy of the Lord, who loves the Lord and wants to do His will, will all the more feel his/her sins and the accusation of God’s holy law. In love of the Lord, we don’t examine our hearts and lives superficially; instead, we are even “harder” on ourselves. We don’t look at mere externals, but we recognize that God demands purity in both our external and internal acts; we recognize that we sin against God in deed, word and thought. That’s what Jesus call on us in our text: “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire."
Having honestly examined him/herself according to God’s law, having recognized sin and having asked for the forgiveness of sins, we in faith rejoice in the perfect forgiveness Jesus announces to us through the pastor in the absolution and places in our mouths in the Blessed Sacrament. The forgiveness of sins and the perfect righteousness of Jesus are our greatest delight; we have new life now and eternally in heaven. This gives focus to our lives now—especially as we live with our fellow sinners. Forgiveness is now the center of our lives—not only receiving God’s forgiveness in a life of repentance and faith, but also in forgiving those who sin against us and striving to be reconciled with them; seeking forgiveness of those we have sinned against. That’s what Jesus says in our text: So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.
Not only are we concerned about our sins against God and strive to be reconciled to Him in Jesus, but in true Spirit-led repentance we try to “undo” the sin we have done and become reconciled again with the one we have sinned against. Even the most holy works are to be interrupted if we remember one of our sins against another. Here we think of Holy Communion. If there is a sin standing between you and especially a fellow church member, first be reconciled with them and then come to the holy altar receiving the Lord’s forgiveness and showing the oneness and fellowship that you both now share. Forgiveness—both the one that we give to the one who has sinned against us and that which we seek from the one we have wronged is central to our Christian righteousness.
Beloved, our Christian righteousness is a righteousness of faith—faith which receives Jesus and His perfect righteousness. In this Spirit-worked faith, and led by Him we delight in doing the Lord’s will and turning away from sin. When we do sin against another, we seek their forgiveness and reconciliation with them; and we willingly forgive those sinning against us. This is the Christian righteousness that marks our lives. It is the work and gift of the holy Triune God to Whom be all praise, honor and glory forever. Amen.