“A Different Kind of Righteousness” (Matthew 5:1-37)

Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany
February 13, 2011

“A Different Kind of Righteousness” (Matthew 5:1-37)

“For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” So said Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. Listen to that again: “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Now this saying of Jesus assumes a couple of things: 1) that entering the kingdom of heaven is something to be highly desired; and 2) that it takes righteousness to enter it.

So let’s start there, with those two points. First, would you like to enter the kingdom of heaven? I’m assuming you would, especially when you consider the alternative. The only other alternative is to be shut out of the kingdom. And that would be really, really bad. It would mean being stuck in the domain of the devil, death, and damnation. You would come under the judgment of God, his wrath against sinners, and be condemned to eternal punishment. You would have no hope, nothing to look forward to, except death and the even more fearsome prospect of what lies beyond. That is the reality that awaits you if you are shut out of the kingdom of heaven and cast into the outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.

And, on the other side, you would miss out on all the blessings of life in the kingdom of heaven. Life in the kingdom will be life as God intends it to be. Full of life, what it means to be really alive. Humans in right relationship with their Creator, no more sin and separation. Humans in right relationship with one another, no more hurting and hating. Creation restored, no more disasters or diseases. This will be pretty good, to say the least. Healing and wholeness, joy and community and blessing abounding. Forever. Fantastic, beyond your wildest dreams. This is what it means to enter the kingdom of heaven. It’s something you will want to do.

But how to get in? That’s the big question, isn’t it? And Jesus says it requires righteousness. A pretty high standard of righteousness, at that. Better than that of the best people of his day, the most religious people around, the scribes and Pharisees. The scribes were the experts in the Law of Moses. They knew the rules, as handed down by the Lord through his prophet Moses, and recorded in Holy Scripture for all Israel to obey. And the Pharisees were the ones who set out to obey them, as scrupulously and meticulously as anybody in the land. They wanted to make sure that they were doing it right, better than anyone else, to make sure that they, at least, would qualify for entrance into the kingdom of heaven.

So Jesus’ words here are rather shocking: “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” My, who could do that? If the scribes and Pharisees don’t make it in, then what chance do I have?

Well, that’s the point. Now you’re getting the idea. What Jesus is saying here is that you need “A Different Kind of Righteousness.”

If you think you have, within yourself, a righteousness that is good enough to get you into heaven–that’s what the scribes and Pharisees thought–if that’s what you think, think again. And so what Jesus does in the verses that follow here is to strip away the phony, false, inadequate righteousness that scribes, Pharisees, and anyone today with a similar mindset may think they have within them. Only then will you be ready to receive a different kind of righteousness, the only kind that will pass inspection and get you into heaven.

So what was this righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees? What was it like? What characterized it? In brief, it was merely a surface kind of righteousness. It was a superficial keeping of the rules that came from within them, from what they could generate and what they could manage. And it looked good on the outside, it looked impressive to others.

That sort of surface righteousness needs to be undone. When we think like that, we need to have the rug pulled out from under us. We have to realize that that just ain’t gonna cut it, not in God’s sight. That’s what Jesus sets to doing, telling us things are worse than you imagine.

Consider the Ten Commandments. The Fifth Commandment, for instance, “You shall not murder.” The scribes and Pharisees would say that, as long as they did not physically kill someone, they had kept this commandment. But Jesus shows that the intent of this commandment goes much deeper than a mere outward, surface keeping. 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.”

You see, the Fifth Commandment forbids doing any harm to our neighbor, in thought, word, or deed. Hateful words toward our neighbor reveal the same sinful heart that, in extreme cases, ends in actual murder. But it’s the same sinful heart. So if you’ve got angry thoughts and you speak hurtful words to your neighbor, you have not kept the commandment. You are a murderer, and you will go to hell. That’s what your own righteousness will get you.

Or take the Sixth Commandment, “You shall not commit adultery.” The scribes and Pharisees thought that, as long as they did not physically sleep with another man’s wife, they had kept this commandment too. And if they did want to sleep with another woman, why, all they had to do was to get an easy divorce, make sure they had a legal certificate, and then take up with the other woman. Then it was OK, in their mind.

But not in God’s mind. God sets too high of a value on the gift of sexuality he gives us to let it be treated so shabbily. The prohibition on adultery covers all forms of sexual immorality–again, in thought, word, or deed. And so Jesus says: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”

Lustful thoughts reveal the same sinful heart in you and me as the man who actually engages in physical promiscuity. We all are sinners. And if it were just a matter of our keeping of the Law, we would all go to hell. You and I need a different kind of righteousness.

When the Law, as it really was meant to be understood–when the Law strips away our phony, superficial, surface righteousness, then we are ready to hear about and receive a righteousness that will pass the test. The righteousness that comes from outside of us. Listen with open ears now when Jesus says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.”

Jesus fulfills what we fail at. He is the only who has kept the Law as it should be kept, which is, perfectly. He comes with that greater righteousness, the one that passes the test. He by right enters the kingdom of heaven, but only after first suffering the wrath laid upon sinners. On the cross Christ dies the death of sinners, taking your sins and your death upon himself. The Son of God dies in your place, so that you now will not die forever. God must really love you–he really does, in spite of your sins! Jesus’ blood and his righteousness–this is what covers you and cleanses you and gets you into the kingdom! There is no other way. This is the different kind of righteousness, the only one that works. It is a righteousness that comes from outside of you and is given you as a gift.

But once you are pronounced righteous–freely, by God’s grace–this different kind of righteousness then gets to work inside of you and begins to change you from the inside out. The righteous life of the Christian is different from that of the scribe and Pharisee, because it goes deeper than the surface. It is connected to Christ, first of all, by faith, and then that faith works its way outward. On the surface the outward works of the Christian and those of the non-Christian may look similar in many respects. But the difference is that connection to Christ, by which our works are made acceptable to God, because they proceed from faith and they are covered and purified by Christ’s forgiveness.

So Jesus can indeed speak of “your righteousness,” because he does expect you, his disciples, his followers, his believers, to do a more genuine keeping of the commandments. The good works that we do will be a light shining out to the world, not to gain praise for ourselves–that was the game of the Pharisees–but rather, our good deeds will cause men to give glory to our Father in heaven.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.” Jesus strips away our self-righteousness, in order to give us his righteousness–and with it, the kingdom. When you come to the end of your rope, as far as scribe-and-Pharisee righteousness, then you’re ready to receive the righteousness of a different kind–the Christ Jesus kind of righteousness. This different kind of righteousness will indeed get you entrance into the kingdom of heaven. It’s a righteousness that comes from outside of you–a free gift, rooted in the death and resurrection of our loving, living Lord. And it is a righteousness that then gets to work inside of you, changing you from the inside out. Yeah, that’s quite a bit different from the surface righteousness the world knows. And you know what? It works!

Published in: on February 12, 2011 at 10:48 pm  Leave a Comment  
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