Beloved. If you were to ask most people what type of person a Christian is, what type of answer do you think you will get? Certainly there would be a whole variety of answers. On the one hand, in our day and age, you might get an answer like a Christian is someone who is intolerant of others, someone who lives in the past, or someone who wants to take all the “fun” out of life. On the other hand, you might get the answer that Christians are weak, wishy-washy people who go along with the latest trend to fill their churches. You might get an answer like Christians are just like anybody else, no difference. You might even get an answer like a Christian is supposed to be “holy”, a good honest person, someone you can trust; that there is something different—in a good sense—about them.
But in Jesus’ day, if you were to ask the average person in the street what kind of person the Pharisees and the scribes, the experts in the law, were you would certainly get the answer that they were the best of the best, the most holy and pious people who live so much better and more holy lives than the average person could live. Just by looking at them, you could just see that they exude holiness. After all, they kept all these additional laws made over the centuries by their ancestors—all in an attempt to keep God’s law. So God must really be pleased with them and all their holiness. But, then, what do we hear Jesus say in today’s Gospel? Indeed I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and experts in the law, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. So here, these “most holy of the most holy”—the Pharisees and experts in the law—do not have a holiness/ righteousness that allows them to enter the kingdom of heaven. What hope does the average person have? So what hope does even the Christian have—after all, the average Christian is hardly known as a “super saint”—especially by those who know him/ her best.
Indeed I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and experts in the law, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Very strict words from our Lord—in order to enter the kingdom of heaven, we need a righteousness that is even more righteous than that of the super righteous of Jesus’ day. In other words, we need a better righteousness.
When Jesus here says that even with their “super righteousness,” far beyond that of the average person, these religious leaders of the Jews cannot enter the kingdom of heaven, He is saying that even though they fulfill the outward requirements of the law, they are still unacceptable to God. What are we to make of that? It is simply this: the righteousness God requires is not just the outward act or non-action. The righteousness God requires is an absolute purity. God demands an absolute purity of all internal and external acts; that they flow from, come from a righteous and pure nature. But who of us can do that? Who of us has that righteous and pure nature?
So, there are, then, two kinds of righteousness—the civic, outward righteousness and a spiritual, inward righteousness. This outward, civic righteousness is what the people saw in the Pharisees and experts in the law; they lived outwardly good, decent lives. We see the same thing today. There are many Jews, Moslems, Hindus, atheists living an outwardly decent, moral life—a righteous life, outwardly fulfilling many of the Ten Commandments; even putting many Christians to shame by the good things they do and exemplary life they live. Those are the people that we want as our fellow citizens and as neighbors. These “virtuous heathen” are following the law that God has written on the heart of all people. This is the outward, civic righteousness. This was the righteousness of the Pharisees and experts in the law. People see this righteousness. This righteousness is a good thing; we need more of it in the world. But this righteousness does not save a person. Indeed I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and experts in the law, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
It is an incomplete righteousness. It is not that perfect, complete righteousness God demands of us if we are to be saved. It is not that better righteousness. The outward act may be there but where is the heart? How is the heart? Later on Jesus says of these religious leaders [Mt. 15.7-8]: 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 [Mt 23.27-28]: You are like white-washed tombs which indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. Even so you also outwardly appear righteous to men, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness. With His law, God does not just demand the outward purity of acts but also that they come from a righteous and pure nature. No matter how good our lives may be, our outward righteousness may be, we all still lack that perfect, sinless, righteous and pure nature.
Jesus continues in our text showing that the outward righteousness without the inward righteousness is nothing before God: You have heard that it was said to people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and whoever murders will be subject to judgment.’ 22But I tell you that everyone who is angry with his brother without a cause will be subject to judgment, and whoever says to his brother, ‘Raca,’ will have to answer to the Sanhedrin. But whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of hell fire. Notice: a person could very well not murder someone—and appear outwardly righteous—but still be full of sin and unrighteousness. Whoever murders will be subject to judgment, shows that the end result of the sin is punished, but what about its beginning desires, thoughts and words—the raca, fool, etc.? They were not restrained. St. James writes [1.14-15]: Each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed. Then, when desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full grown, brings forth death. In our text, yes, the sin of murder may not be committed and there is that outward righteousness—but inward there is anger with its desire for vengeance and that thinks evil; there is that inward unrighteousness. That inward unrighteousness may then show itself in “normal”, “every day”, “not big deal” sins like insults and angry actions. And if called out on it—“Hey, at least I didn’t kill anyone!” and some semblance of outward respectability and righteousness is maintained.
God requires of us a better righteousness. Indeed I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and experts in the law, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. That’s why Jesus here tells us: You have heard that it was said to people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and whoever murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that everyone who is angry with his brother without a cause…. He is showing us that outward righteousness is not enough. He directs us to His holy Law so that we learn our sin and that, in fact, we are not righteous—certainly not inwardly and outwardly not as righteous as we may think. Our text is a call for us to examine our heart and life to see our sin and to recognize that if we want to get into heaven we need a better righteousness, a righteousness [that] surpasses that of the Pharisees and experts in the law, that is, not just an outward righteousness but a true, internal righteousness, one that is ours through faith in Jesus. If we think we are righteous enough on our own to enter the kingdom of heaven, then we will never want a share in a better righteousness. We need and we strive for a better righteousness—but it will never come from us, from within us; the better righteousness we need is a righteousness that comes from outside of us to us—a righteousness that comes from God which He gives to us and which we then receive in Spirit-worked faith.
The better righteousness [that] surpasses that of the Pharisees and experts in the law is God’s righteousness. It is His saving work for us in Jesus; what He does for us in Jesus. This is the whole point of Jesus’ coming. Jesus came into this world to be our righteousness. The Son of God took on human flesh and blood in the womb of the Blessed Virgin, was conceived and born without the stain and tinge of Original Sin, all to cleanse our sinful conception and birth. He lived a life from the womb, through childhood into adulthood and into death on the cross all without sin—to obey for us all of God’s holy Law and to give God that perfect righteousness He demands of us in His holy Law. All of which we are unable to do because we are sinners and continually sin against Him and His holy law. It is this holy and perfect righteousness of Jesus that God offers and gives us.
And to atone for/ pay the price for all of our unrighteousness, Jesus took on Himself all of our sins, became the world’s sinner, and went to the cross to endure all of the wrath and punishment of God for our sin. He, the One perfect and holy righteous Man, the God-man, paid the price for our unrighteousness. When He rose from the dead Easter Sunday, He was declared holy and righteous; His sacrifice for our sin was accepted. In Him God has declared us forgiven and righteous. In Jesus we have that righteousness [that] surpasses that of the Pharisees and experts in the law. In fact, it far surpasses that righteousness because now, through faith, our righteousness is the righteousness of God Himself. It is the perfect righteousness. The better righteousness is not from us but it is God’s His gift to us.
And here we have that beautiful tie in to today’s Epistle on baptism. Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him by this baptism into his death, so that just as he was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too would also walk in a new life. In baptism we are united with Jesus. Baptism unites us into His death and His resurrection. When Jesus died, we died; when Jesus was raised from the dead, we were raised from the dead. We are united with Jesus! We are united to the holy and righteous One! That’s what faith and baptism does—it unites us to Jesus, who is our righteousness. United with Him in Holy Baptism, we are most closely united with Him—He is in us and we are in Him. And He has given us the Holy Spirit. It was the Holy Spirit in the waters of Holy Baptism who created that new spiritual life in us, who united us with Jesus, our Righteousness. By His work, we have a better righteousness—one not from us but a divine righteousness, the very righteousness of the Son of God Himself.
Does that mean we don’t have to worry about striving for a life of righteousness since we in Jesus already have a perfect righteousness? Absolutely not! Through Baptism and the faith it creates, we have a true piety of heart. That same faith receives Jesus and His righteousness and the Holy Spirit who works in us a joyful inner obedience to the will of the Lord. We have the Holy Spirit in us, He is working in us and on us leading us into righteousness. By the work of the Holy Spirit we put to death/ crucify our inner lusts; we put to death the actions of our sinful flesh; we fight against our sinful desires. By the working and power of the Holy Spirit, we see our lives more and more righteous—not perfect!—but more in accord with the holy will and law of God. What is imperfect, what still remains of sin, has already been perfectly done for us by Jesus and is forgiven. We have a better righteousness, dear Christian, one that far surpasses that of the Pharisees and experts in the law because Jesus is our righteousness. Our righteousness is not from ourselves but from God. INJ Amen