Matthew 5:(17–19), 20–26 – Sixth Sunday after Trinity


Exceeding Righteousness

Matthew 5:(17-19) 20-26

Let us pray:

Lord God, heavenly Father, we confess that we are poor, wretched sinners, and that there is no good in us; our hearts, flesh and blood being so corrupted by sin that we are never in this life without sinful lusts and desires. Therefore we beseech You, dear Father, forgive us these sins, and let Your Holy Spirit so cleanse our hearts that we may desire and love Your Word, abide by it, and thus by Your grace be forever saved; through our Lord Jesus Christ, Your Son, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one true God, now and forever. Amen. (Veit Dietrich: Trinity 6)

Grace, mercy, and peace to you, from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

If you go out on the street and ask someone to name one of the Ten Commandments, almost always the first one named is “You shall not murder.” It is the most basic rule and law for mankind. Don’t kill each other.

It seems pretty simple. Don’t shoot anyone, stab any one, starve anyone, don’t do anything that would end another person’s life. If we were to take our man on the street who knew the commandment “You shall not murder” and ask him, “Have you kept this commandment?” they would almost certainly say “Of course.” Most people have never taken another’s life, and if they have I’m sure they wouldn’t mention it.

This was the Pharisees’ idea of righteousness. It had to do only with the outward works. If you held your hands back from ringing someone’s neck, then you had kept this commandment. It didn’t matter if you hated the person in your heart, or were bitter about some sin committed against you, or if you spoke poorly about the person. All this you could do, and still be righteous, as long as you didn’t run your neighbor through with a sword.

This is why Jesus calls the Pharisees “white-washed tombs.” On the outside they looked clean, righteous, holy, but on the inside they were full of rot. The Pharisees loved a law that you could keep, that way they could have a checklist of their own goodness and everyone else’s sin. And we should know that at the time our Lord Jesus walked the earth, the Pharisees had a pretty good thing going. They had everyone convinced that they were righteous, holy, the ones with whom God was pleased. They might have even been convinced of that themselves. If you were to go to Jerusalem and ask, “Is there anyone holy around here?” the person would have pointed you to the closest Pharisee.

The Pharisees were convinced that they kept the law, and that because of that they would reach heaven.

This is why the words of Jesus would have dropped like a bomb,

“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.”

What? The Pharisees were the height of righteousness, and now Jesus is saying that it has to exceed that!?

Jesus goes on to explain the issue.

“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.”

There it is: Jesus unfolds the preaching of Moses; He lets the Law loose to do it’s killing work. All illusions of man’s righteousness are crushed. It is not enough that we hold back  from taking someone’s life. This commandment requires us to care for every physical need of our neighbor, and more, it requires us to love our neighbor and be kindly disposed toward him, to think and speak kindly of our neighbor, even our enemies. Every thought or word or anger against your neighbor, says Jesus, is deserving of the wrath of God. Every time you have, in anger, called a person a fool, or even thought of them as a fool, you have committed a sin that deserves the judgment of the fires of hell – it is just as if you had murdered him.

Sin is not just committed with our hands, but also with our mouths, our minds, our eyes, and our hearts. And Jesus shows that the law of Moses requires absolutely everything. It is not enough to be righteous on the outside, we have to be pure and holy in our hearts. If our hearts do not overflow with love for our neighbor, we are murderers.

Now you might say, “Pastor, don’t get carried away here. Surely killing someone is worse than calling them a fool.” True enough from an earthly perspective. I would much rather you have angry thoughts toward me than to come up and punch me in the face; I would much rather you call me a fool and not hit me on the head with a baseball bat. Among men there are differences and degrees of sin. Some sins are more destructive on earth than others. But before God all sins are equally detestable, equally unholy, equally damning.

To curse is to kill, to look with lust is to commit adultery, to covet is to steal, and all of it, each and every sin is to commit idolatry, to worship a false god. What happens now is that Jesus, in teaching us what exceeding righteousness is, ends up showing us our exceeding sinfulness. When we try to measure up to the standard of the law that He teaches in the sermon on the mount, we fall short, desperately short, of the mark. This preaching condemns us. We don’t keep God’s law and we can’t keep God’s law.

And now we come to a dangerous crossroads. If we believe this word of Jesus (and we are Christians, that means that we do believe this word) that we cannot keep God’s law, we are presented with a number of temptations.

If we don’t like the Law, we may—like a child who has been told “no,” ask again.  And again.  And again.  The hope is that somehow the answer will be different the next time. If we don’t like the Law we look for a different interpretation, the acceptable exception for the rule.  We hunt and peck and search and whine and dig and do anything we can to try and find a loophole. Certainly the Law will bend to our ingenuity, and we will be able to get what we want.  It is the American way. If you don’t like the rules, change the rules or throw out the rule-book.  It is the human way since Adam and Eve, asking with the serpent if God really said what He said.  It is your way, every time you try to wiggle out of what you know is right and true and good, and seek the easy way, the less painful way, the way that gets you what you want.

There are some who don’t like the Law who claim God is unfair—there really in no way to keep the Law, so they resign themselves to their own judgment. We think, “If I’m a sinner and there’s nothing else for me but to sin, then I’ll try to go out in a blaze of glory.” This is the way of our flesh: to live without the law, to do whatever we want because it doesn’t matter anyway. “If all I can do is sin, then I won’t even try to stop, to quit, to keep the law. If we cannot keep God’s law, then we don’t have to keep it; we don’t even have to try. This is also our sinful flesh squeezing out from under God’s law. But, in the end, there is no escaping it. We truly ought to love our neighbor, but we don’t.

Our righteousness, even if it exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, still falls short of the mark. God’s law always accuses us; it condemns us; it kills us. If we want a righteousness that will prevail before the throne of God, and grant us passage through the judgment to the kingdom of heaven, then we need a righteousness outside of ourselves, a righteousness apart from the law.

Righteousness is precisely what Jesus came to give. That’s what forgiveness of sins is all about. God mercy is known chiefly not in healing, prosperity, clothing, or family. God’s mercy is placing the entire penalty for our unrighteousness upon the righteous One, Jesus Christ. His shoulders carried the whole burden of the sin of Adam He bore it in the beatings, the spitting, the whipping, the mocking, the thorns. He dragged it through Jerusalem and suffered it at about the third hour. Finally, Jesus drew His last breath, declared, declared “It is finished!” and suffered our death in our place.

By Christ’s death and shed blood, our unrighteousness, our iniquity, our sin, was pardoned, forgiven, and removed. This pardon was washed over us in Holy Baptism, pronounced in Holy Absolution, and is given us to eat and drink in Holy Communion. Our righteousness is nothing but “filthy rags.” Christ’s righteousness given to us exceeds the demands of the Law—the Law is fulfilled in Christ. Only by Christ’s righteousness can we enter into the kingdom of heaven. Only by Christ, is there forgiveness unto righteousness and thus eternal life.

Listen to these beautiful words of St. Paul, who spent his life preaching this righteousness, the righteousness that comes by faith.

 Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.

But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law . . . the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction:  for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. (Romans 3:19-25)

Jesus instructs us “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

There is a righteousness that truly exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, the very righteousness of God Himself, the perfection of Jesus applied to you in the declaration of all your sins. You are forgiven, that is, you are completely righteous, perfect in the sight of God, holy to stand in the presence of God. The law that we could not keep has been kept on our behalf, and this perfect keeping of the Law has been given to you.

And now, you know the will of God for you. In faith you delight that He has revealed to you how you are to love your neighbor. The Holy Spirit strengthens you continually in that faith so that you can begin to keep these words of Jesus. And as you make a beginning of loving your neighbors and caring for their bodily needs, you have the confidence that you are forgiven, that you are loved by God, that He smiles upon you, and gives you His peace.

And the peace of God which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Based on a sermon by Pastor Bryan Wolfmueller 


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