Text: Matthew 5:20-26
Date: Pentecost VII + 7/15/07
“Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” So says our Lord in His Sermon on the Mount. In other words, entering the kingdom of heaven, salvation from sin, death, devil and the eternal judgment of hell requires this thing, this quality, this attitude called “righteousness.” And then, it is not to be the halfway, half-hearted righteousness or only a pretend, outward form of righteousness like that of the hypocritical Pharisees, but a real and higher righteousness even than theirs.
What is “righteousness”? It means being morally upright, that is, without guilt or sin. It’s the illusive quality painstakingly sought for by politicians and commercial businesses and achieved, usually, only outwardly by means of a careful crafting of your public image, the covert covering up of past mistakes and failures, the hiding of sinister motives of gain, fraud or deceit. The press sometimes promotes and other times cuts through, whenever it can, the phony, the fraudulent, the cheat and the charlatan. The Bible, however, cuts through all, even those we most look up to, saying, “all have sinned” (Rom. 3:23), and, “None is righteous, no, not one” (Rom. 3:10). So these words of Jesus hit us, first, as condemning Law. “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Since all have sinned and there is none righteous, this means no one enters the kingdom of heaven.
At least the scribes and Pharisees tried! They followed all the rules. In fact, to make doubly sure they were following all the rules they came up with a check list; 613 more rules based on the original Ten that God gave, applying the Ten Commandments to every aspect, detail, nook and cranny of daily life. They had rules concerning proper conduct in church and in society; rules about what kind of people you could eat with and others you should stay away from; even rules on how to properly prepare food and wash the dishes (cf. Mark 7:4)! People naturally expect religion to consist of a set of rules, the hoped for result, the better you keep the rules the better your chance of getting into heaven.
Recall the incident of the rich young man. Once, “a man ran up and knelt before [Jesus] and asked him, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ And Jesus said to him…‘You know the commandments: “Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother." And he said to him, ‘Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth.’ And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, ‘You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.’ Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions” [Mark 10:17-22 (ESV)]. He went away sad because he finally realized what we all are so reluctant to admit, as the Apostle Paul said it, “that no one is justified before God by the law” [Galatians 3:11 (ESV)]. This is what Jesus means when He says your righteousness must exceed that of the legalists, the scribes and Pharisees, that is, true righteousness is not a matter of only outward conduct but must be a righteousness of the heart.
As this righteousness is beyond our ability to achieve, it must be gained in some other way. That’s where the grace and mercy of God come in, the Gospel, the Good News that is in Jesus Christ, our Lord.
Let me lay a legal and theological term on you. The sort of righteousness Jesus is talking about is called “forensic” righteousness. It’s a legal term. In a court of law it is the use of objective scientific inquiry or technology in the investigation and establishment of facts or evidence. The facts or evidence of our situation on our own is that we are sinners. We are not righteous by any stretch of the imagination. But, thanks be to God, these are not the only facts admitted into God’s eternal courtroom. For the fact is, “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” [John 3:16 (ESV)]. The fact is, as we heard in today’s Epistle, that when Jesus died on the cross, “the death he died he died to sin, once for all” [Rom. 6:10], that is as the one-and-only sacrifice on behalf of and sufficient for the sin of the whole world. Now, in the courtroom of God, it is on the evidence of this fact, the all-atoning death of Christ, that God the Judge can now turn to sinners who belong to Christ and declare them, on the evidence of the death of Christ, to be righteous! The righteousness God is looking for is the declared righteousness on the evidence of faith in Christ.
The key, then, is not your own works-righteousness, but your connection with the righteousness of Christ. That connection St. Paul hails in today’s Epistle, saying, “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life…. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” And, “if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.”
In this way, you see, the “righteousness” God is looking for is more than merely that of outward deeds but of the heart. As guilt and sin is ultimately separation from God, so true righteousness means everything in your life working the way God originally intended it to work, beginning with being reconciled to God, becoming a son or daughter of God. In the forgiveness of your sin, by faith God gives you a new life, makes you into a brand new person, fills you with faith, hope and love.
Now, in Christ, even your relationship to the Law of God has changed. While the Law still reveals our sin and need of God, in Christ, the fulfiller of the Law, we now learn to love God’s Law as it reveals His heart of love, His gift of life. Jesus refers to the Ten Commandments in the Sermon on the Mount. But He reveals the heart of righteousness and God’s Law as He says, “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. 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.”
Righteousness. It is a matter of the heart—the heart renewed by God through the forgiveness of sins by faith in Jesus Christ. Your righteousness then exceeds that of the legalists because you have found what they have rejected: the love of God in Christ Jesus, the Lord.