It’s not that we disagree when Jesus says, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20).
We agree, sure. That’s the easy part.
Agreeing with Jesus is important, but, Jesus says, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 7:21). Hearing is easy. Doing is harder.
So, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you’ll never enter heaven.
And the Pharisees are men “set apart.”
That’s what “Pharisee” means: “one who is set apart.”
They didn’t commit crimes. They paid their taxes on time, every year, pandemic or not.
They gave a tenth of everything they owned to support the work of the church and to help the poor.
They didn’t commit adultery or steal.
They weren’t violent.
They lived clean, decent lives.
We cast the Pharisees in caricature, singing, “because they’re not fair you see”—and the Sadducees with them—“because they’re so sad you see.”
The scribes and Pharisees did think themselves righteous—and they are wrong—but looking at their lives, we can understand why they thought that.
If our nation were filled with men like the scribes and Pharisees, in some ways it would be a more pleasant place to live.
Judging by appearances, the scribes and Pharisees were righteous men.
And Jesus says, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20).
Righteousness that saves must exceed that of the Pharisees.
In a way, that’s not good news, because—outwardly—the scribes and Pharisees were the most righteous men around.
In today’s Gospel lesson—which seems devoid of any Gospel, what with Jesus telling us what to do and all that—Jesus preaches the Law in such a way as to break and hinder all the false-righteousness of the Pharisees and us.
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” (Matthew 5:21-22).
A Pharisee considers himself without sin, righteous, and needing no repentance. When a Pharisee sits in the pew on Sunday morning, he thanks God that he’s not like other people and wonders how they all got it so wrong.
But Jesus teaches the Law in simple terms that condemn us all. Unless you’re going to say you’ve never been angry, never called someone a fool, never invoked a curse, never—even momentarily—hated your brother in your heart—you are a murderer under Jesus’ teaching.
Murder, Jesus says, is manifested hatred. So heartfelt hatred, which leads to murder, must be excluded.
Jesus says, “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” (Matthew 23:27).
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is teaching His disciples for the first time, and He needs to show them what true righteousness is.
In terms of salvation, the Pharisees aren’t righteous at all, because their righteousness is whitewashed, puffed up, and perfumed. It hides death.
When Jesus says, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees…” He doesn’t mean that righteousness is on a sliding scale and you have to worry about doing enough.
That’s not it.
God wants you to hear and do. Labor and hope.
Hope with certainty that the Lord and His Work saves.
Labor with compassion that you would help your neighbor and not hurt him.
True righteousness is an either/or. A yes or no.
And you can be certain which one you are.
Either your God is the Lord and you’ll enter into Paradise, or your god is not the Lord and you won’t.
Do you believe in God the Father Almighty? And in Jesus Christ His Son? Do you believe in the Holy Spirit? Do you renounce the devil and all his works and all his ways? If so, you can be certain that God has redeemed you, a lost and condemned creature.
He has declared you righteous by faith in Jesus the Christ.
If your righteousness is false, if you fear, love, and trust the man-made process and not the God who made man, if you carry your sin for the world to see how uniquely individualistic you are, if you try to forgive yourself, you’ll never run out of accusations, you’ll never run out of anger, and you’ll never get out of the prison of hell.
But—if the blood of Christ avails for you before God—and it most certainly does—then the accuser and all accusations are silenced, and—though you’ve murdered, been angry, and cursed—the Christ, whom you crucified, intercedes for you, praying: “Father, forgive them.”
In the Apostles’ Creed, we confess that Jesus descended into hell, a marvelously comforting doctrine.
He ran that victory lap to tell the devil you won’t be showing up.
The self-righteous scribes and Pharisees will be there.
But not you.
Your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees because you have been claimed by the mercy of God. The Lord is your righteousness, who lived and died and lives again, who calls you by name, and is coming soon.
Faith that hears the Word of God and does it exceeds the false-righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees.
We want to find a way to compliment our unbelieving and non-practicing friends and family. We want to find their whitewashed works. We want to say that they’re good people, doing good works, serving their neighbor.
But St. Paul writes: “Whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (Romans 14:23).
And in Hebrews, it is written that “without faith it is impossible to please [God], for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him” (Hebrews 11:6).
It’s either/or. Yes or no.
The one who rejects Jesus in thought, word, and/or deed, rejects the righteousness that comes by faith, the righteousness required for entry into the kingdom of heaven.
Your righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees.
So, believe in Jesus and live as one who does.
Hear His Word and do it.
Confess your sins—your anger, your hatred, your cursing. Jesus calls all of those murder.
Confess them—flee from them—overcome those particular sins, even.
Because sins cannot and do not rule over a Christian.
Of course we agree with Jesus. That’s the easy part.
But do we understand Him?
The Lord is our righteousness.
We will enter into the kingdom.
So yes—we do.
In Jesus’ name, Amen!
Trinity 6 Sermon, 2020
Rev. Benjamin Tyler Holt