Surpassing Righteousness. 6th Sunday after Trinity 2014. Matthew 5:17-26
St. Peter Lutheran Church
St. Matthew 5:17-26
July 27, 2014
In the old testament, whenever anyone was going to draw near God in worship, he had to be clean. The priests had to wash themselves and put on clean robes before going into God’s house.
But even though they followed the prescribed rules for cleanliness, that did not necessarily make them clean in God’s sight. In fact, God rebukes the Israelites through the prophet Isaiah [chapter 1]:
What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices, says the Lord…
Bring no more vain offerings…
When you spread out your hands
I will hide my eyes from you;
Even though you make many prayers, I will not listen;
Your hands are full of blood.
Make yourselves clean;
Remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes…”
Now the Israelites were not going into the temple with their hands bloodstained from murder. They were outwardly clean. But the law of God was never only concerned with outward cleanness and outward righteousness. The law of God is spiritual and commands inner, spiritual cleanness of the heart.
This is what Jesus is teaching in the Gospel reading for this Sunday. “Unless your righteousness surpasses the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
The scribes and Pharisees insisted on the law of God as the guide to God’s holy will and righteousness. And they were right to do so. The ten commandments show us what we must do and be if we are to receive God’s approval, if we are to be righteous.
The problem was not that the Pharisees and scribes insisted on the commandments of God, but that they did not insist on them enough. They insisted on the commandments as guides to how you should act. But God’s law goes further than that. “The law is spiritual,” says St. Paul in Romans chapter 7. It does not judge just outward words and actions. It judges what is invisible—the thoughts and motivations of the heart. And it was here that the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees was lacking.
They lacked the purity of hear that Jesus says is necessary to enter the kingdom of God and to see God.
The righteousness surpassing the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees is perfect love.
All of God’s commandments require love. “Love is the fulfillment of the law.” The first three commandments require love for God above everything else. The next 7 commandments require that we love our neighbor as our own selves.
The love God commands is not merely affection but selfless love. Love must be expressed in actions, but it dwells in the heart before it extends outward.
So you can engage in actions that seem to be in obedience to God’s command, but they may really just be empty shells, hypocritical works.
For instance, the Pharisees taught “You shall not murder, and whoever murders will be liable to the judgment, that is, to the court that puts murderers to death.”
But thought they refrained from shedding blood with their hands, in their hearts there was a bloodbath. Their hearts were full of anger and bitterness. Remember how jealous they were of Jesus, how quick to huddle together and plot to get rid of Him?
They thought that the 5th commandment only extended as far as outward actions, not that it also commanded the heart to be free from anger and the desire for revenge.
This is what Jesus is explaining to His disciples. Yes, you must not murder with your hands, and God has appointed authorities on earth to punish you if you do. But there is a court we cannot see—God’s court. And to it are liable not only those who kill with their hands, but those who are angry in their hearts. Those with anger in their hearts are already sentenced by that invisible court, God’s court, whether their anger only stays inside or if it leaks out in irritable talk, insults, saying “Fool”—not to mention the worse results of anger—cursing, verbal abuse, physical violence, and finally, murder.
Jesus doesn’t fault the scribes and Pharisees for offering the sacrifices commanded by God, observing commanded festivals, studying Scripture. He doesn’t say they should quit doing those things and become like tax collectors and prostitutes.
He just says if you study Scripture and offer sacrifice but are angry with your neighbor—or if you’ve sinned against your neighbor and not sought his forgiveness—your righteousness is not enough to make you acceptable to God.
This was why God told the Israelites through Isaiah that they had bloodstained hands and He would not accept their worship and prayers until they were clean.
Not that they all went straight from murder into the temple, but that they offered worship to God while their hears were stained with the spiritual murder of anger and vengefulness.
Jesus says you must have a better righteousness than that to enter the kingdom of heaven. Your hands must be free from violence and blood, your lips from angry words, and your heart from anger.
Now where is the person who has this righteousness that surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees? Is there anyone here today whose lips have never insulted or spoken ill of someone? Would anyone dare to say that they have kept the fifth commandment and not been angry when someone did them wrong?
Anyone who would dare to say that would be robbing Jesus of His glory and honor. Because only in Jesus do we see a man with no anger and vengefulness toward those who did Him wrong.
In some of the saints we see great patience and gentleness. But only Jesus was free from all anger toward His enemies.
You see it in the gentle way He deal with those who plotted to kill Him. He dealt gently with Judas, seeking always his repentance even though He knew Judas would betray Him. He ate with the Pharisees and taught them because He loved them even though they were trying to kill Him. And even when He spoke harshly to them, it was not out of the passion of indignation but out of His passionate love for them, that they might come to their senses and repent.
Jesus did not get angry with those who persecuted Him. He loved them and longed for their salvation.
And if you grasp that, you can better understand Jesus’ astounding love and kindness to repentant sinners. He associated with sinners whom respectable people considered beyond hope. He humbled Himself and served those who should have been serving Him.
Jesus was and is not angry with sinners. He loves them, even though sin makes us His adversaries. He does not pretend to love them while secretly just waiting for them to fall.
He is serious. He prayed for the Pharisees and scribes while they were laughing at Him as He was crucified.
He was not skeptical and irritated with the thief on the cross, but there, in His greatest agonies, prmised and gave the kingdom of heaven to him.
Such love Jesus has! He shows us in Himself the righteousness that surpasses the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees. That is perfect love, where He seeks only the good of His neighbor whether they curse Him or bless Him.
Jesus is the only man whose righteousness is sufficient to enter the kingdom of heaven.
But His righteousness is yours, if you believe in Him.
How is it ours, we ask? I still get angry, nearly every day. I have to strain to keep my lips from vengeful talk about those who injure me. I find it to be nearly impossible or very difficult to humble myself and seek reconciliation with those who are angry with me. So how do I have the righteousness that surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees?
Not because it is in you, but because it is counted to you, reckoned to you, credited to you by God. Jesus’ righteousness, His perfect love even for those who harmed Him, is credited to you through faith in Him. God counts us as having loved our neighbors as He did.
That is the reason why Jesus is not angry at sinners even though, as true God, He had a right to be. The reason He is so ready to pardon and to accept back people who fall seven times in a day, to forgive seventy times seven.
Why? Because H came not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. He came to accomplish every dot and iota of it. He came to keep the littlest command to the greatest. He came to receive its judgment on every transgression—for you.
Through sin we are born adversaries of God and His Son. But He didn’t want us to remain enemies. He became one with us who were enemies of God so that He might receive God’s sentence upon us.
Everyone who believes this has the righteousness that surpasses that of the Pharisees and scribes.
This faith makes our heart pure before God—it cleanses our hearts from bloodguilt in the blood of the holy and innocent Son of God.
We don’t come before God with our bodies washed but our hearts still defiled by anger.
We are clean because faith in Christ cleanses our hearts.
The water of baptism washes our consciences of all sin in the death and resurrection of Jesus.
The body and blood of the Lord, received in faith, sanctify and make our hearts holy. Because in the Lord’s Supper we eat and drink all righteousness.
Then follows love. We are willing to forgive our neighbor and seek his forgiveness because we have been pardoned by Christ.
Dear Christians, you are pardoned. Jesus is not angry with you, no matter how you have stumbled in the past. He is ready to receive everyone who comes to Him, even and especially when we come to Him with our hearts polluted by anger.
He will forgive you, cleanse you, and put out the fire of anger with His innocent and precious blood shed for you.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Soli Deo Gloria