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Exceeding Righteousness (St. Matthew 5.17-26; Romans 6.1-11)

Sixth Sunday after Trinity

“Exceeding Righteousness”
Vicar Andrew Keller

St. Matthew 5.17-26; Romans 6.1-11

19 July 2020


+ In the Name of Jesus +

Jesus’ words in the Gospel reading are curious. He said, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” What do we know about the scribes and the Pharisees? They knew their Scripture and zealously tried to keep the Law, so that God’s wrath would not be against them and the temple would not fall. They were the foremost teachers of the Torah. They interpreted the laws and commandments in such a way that they could convince themselves they had upheld them. We also know that each of the four Gospels record the tension between Jesus and these leaders of the Jews. They despised Jesus for eating with sinners, prostitutes and tax collectors. They plotted and schemed to murder the Son of God for preaching the truth of Scripture. Yet, Jesus said, our righteousness must exceed theirs in order to enter the kingdom of heaven.

The Pharisees and scribes looked at the Commandments and thought, “I haven’t murdered, I haven’t stolen, I love God. Therefore, I have kept the law.” This is the letter of the law, but not the spirit of the Law. The Pharisees and scribes thought they were loving God with all their heart, soul and mind, and loving their neighbor as themselves by an outward display of righteousness. They interpreted the law in a way to justify themselves and make them closer to being like God. Jesus, the premier preacher of the Law who alone has the right to tell its intent, meaning and foundation, knew the sinful hearts of man. He said, “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;” this is the outward keeping of the commandment. However, Jesus goes on the say. “whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.” Here, He insists on an inward keeping of the commandment from the heart. He knows the Pharisees, like us pompously masqueraded around with false piety, deluding themselves that had kept the commandments outwardly. Yet, isn’t it true that hatred for the neighbor dwells in our hearts?

Many hide behind the title ‘Christian,’ using it as entitlement to put down their neighbors. How often do we fall into the Pharisaical trap of self-justification? How often do we look around at those who surround us, and judge ourselves to be vastly superior? We do not love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul and mind. We do not love our neighbors as ourselves. We look at others with contempt in our hearts. Look at the news or social media and it is easy to find an attack on another person. “This politician is foolish and ought to be put to shame.” “This person who wears/doesn’t wear a mask is foolish and doesn’t know anything.” “This group of people don’t think like me and therefore don’t deserve to have an opinion.” On and on it goes. Perhaps we have even thought or spoken in these ways against our neighbor. When harmful, angry thoughts enter our minds and our blood starts to boil, we are murdering our neighbor in our heart.

If we are supposed to observe the Law perfectly, keeping it inwardly and outwardly, how can we sinners possibly receive eternal life? If the righteousness of the scribes and the Pharisees, who were considered the most pious, holy men, who devoted themselves to the zealous study of God’s Word, was not enough to win the kingdom of heaven, what hope is there for us? Who has such exceeding righteousness?

The only righteousness that matters, the one exceeding all, comes only from Christ. When man failed to uphold the Law, God Himself stepped forth in order to save us. Jesus alone loved God with all His heart, soul and mind, living a perfect life, and obeying His commandments perfectly. He alone loves His neighbor as Himself, willingly taking our place upon the cross, bearing our sins, and receiving the wrath, which we deserved for our sin. He suffered all things for a people who could never love perfectly. On that cross, His blood atoned for our inability, our hatred, our sin. All our evil thoughts, words and deeds were placed upon Him on that day. He received the full punishment of our sins. As part of this great exchange, He gave His perfect righteousness to an imperfect people. This was the design of God from the beginning. The sacrifice of His Son’s body and blood alone is acceptable to ransom sinners, a fact which is attested in the resurrection, as Peter spoke in Acts 2, “This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. God raised Him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for Him to be held by it.” Now all sinners are accounted righteous through His exceeding righteousness.

How do we receive this righteousness? We know Christ died for the sins of the whole world, yet some do not receive this gift. We receive this gift through baptism, as St. Paul wrote in the Epistle for this morning, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? We were buried therefore with Him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” You do not have to work to receive Christ’s exceeding righteousness. You do not earn it. At your baptism, the Triune Name of God was given to you. It is a life-giving water, rich in grace, and a washing of the new birth in the Holy Spirit, poured out on you by Christ. You are no longer an enemy of God, but a child who has been justified by His grace. As a child, you are an heir to what Christ has won for you, namely eternal life with Him in His kingdom, which has no end.

We remain in a world full of sin.  We still have the innate urge to rebel against God and to reject His Word, even as baptized Christians. It is a battle that, if left to stand on our own righteousness, we would lose and be lost to the prison of hell forever. Yet, we are not alone. Having received Christ’s exceeding righteousness through baptism, we are able to withstand by His Spirit at work in us. Each day, the Old Adam, who wants nothing more than to reject God’s gift, is drowned and dies, along with all sins and evil desires, and a new man daily emerges and arises to live before God in righteousness and purity forever. Therefore, having received this righteousness from Christ through baptism, do not continue in sin. Do not continue to hate your brother. Do not revert to your old ways of jealousy and hatred. By Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection, we are not slaves of sin, but under His exceeding righteousness. He has reconciled us with the Father through His righteousness, and makes reconciliation with one another possible. If we continue slandering, harming and hating our neighbors, we allow ourselves to be drawn back towards a prison we cannot pay our way out of. Instead, let us love one another, dying to sin and living in Christ, as St. Paul wrote in the Epistle, Romans 6, “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. For one who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe we will also live with Him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over Him. For the death He died, He died to sin, once and for all, but the life He lives, He lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.”

+ In the Name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. +

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