“A Better Righteousness” (Matthew 5:21-37)

Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany
February 16, 2020

“A Better Righteousness” (Matthew 5:21-37)

Every week at the end of the Holy Gospel reading, I say, “This is the Gospel of the Lord.” Well, today at the end of the Holy Gospel reading, when I said, “This is the Gospel of the Lord,” I wanted to answer back and shout out, “No, it isn’t! This is not the Gospel of the Lord! This is all Law!” And indeed it is. Jesus is laying on the Law mighty thick. But he’s doing it for a good reason. He wants to strip away our self-righteousness, so that we will be ready to hear the good news of a better kind of righteousness than we can come up with on our own. And so our theme this morning: “A Better Righteousness.”

Our text is the Holy Gospel for today, Matthew 5:21-37. We’re in the Sermon on the Mount, and today we pick up where we left off last week. That’s why I included the closing verses from last week’s reading in your bulletin, to set the stage for the reading for today. So look in your bulletin now as I read Matthew 5:17-20:

[Jesus said:] “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. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

And then Jesus’ words continue with verses 21-37, as you heard a few minutes ago. But notice what Jesus says to set that up: “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

So, what exactly was the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees? Well, it was their own perceived righteousness that they thought they had by virtue of their keeping of the Law. The scribes and Pharisees thought that by their outward keeping of God’s commandments–at least by not doing anything really bad–they were certainly superior to the obviously bad people like the tax collectors and the prostitutes, and therefore they were keeping the Law well enough for God to reward them with eternal life. But Jesus doesn’t want his disciples to think that that’s the way it works. So he sets out to dispel that faulty notion.

You know, we often think of the scribes and Pharisees as “legalists,” but in reality, they were kind of the opposite. The ironic thing is, they didn’t teach God’s Law strong enough. Instead, they made the Law too easy, too manageable. What they did was to sort of build a hedge around God’s Law with their own manmade commandments. For instance, they would say, “We better not break the Sabbath commandment, so let’s create an additional commandment, which will make it so we can’t even get close to violating the Sabbath.” Thus they would come up with a rule about how far you could walk on a Sabbath day’s journey, because, if you walk too far, that might be considered to be working on the Sabbath, and that’s a big no-no.

But do you see what effect that might have? The scribes and Pharisees got more hung up on their own manmade rules than they did with the true meaning of God’s commandments. And in so doing, they made the Law too soft. They made the Law into something they could manage. If you try real hard, you can control how far you walk on the Sabbath. And thus the Pharisees could look good in front of others and look down their noses at the people who didn’t try as hard as they did. But meanwhile, they missed the whole point of the Sabbath, which has to do with stopping your normal work so you can pay attention to God’s Word, which never teaches that you can be righteous before God by your works. The scribes and the Pharisees couldn’t see the forest for the trees. They strained out a gnat and swallowed a camel.

The scribes and Pharisees thought that as long as they kept God’s commandments in their outward final form, they were keeping the Law well enough to earn their salvation. So, for example, they would think: “Well, I haven’t actually murdered anybody, have I? So I guess I’ve kept the ‘You shall not murder’ commandment.” But that is making God’s commandment too easy. So in our text today, Jesus has to show us the extent to which that commandment reaches. 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.”

Jesus is amping up the Law here. He’s saying that it’s not just the final outward act of murder that violates the commandment. It’s everything that leads up to it, whether in thought, word, or deed. Anything you do that harms your brother, any harsh words you speak that injure his spirit–you’re breaking the murder commandment. Don’t soften that commandment down. I don’t care who you are, you have committed murder, you have broken God’s commandment.

Take another example: Adultery. The Pharisees would say that as long as they had not actually slept with another man’s wife and committed adultery in that narrow sense, they had kept the commandment. But Jesus says, No, you’re making the Law too easy again: “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.” You see, the sin problem starts in the heart. You think you’ve kept this commandment well enough for God to be impressed with you? Think again. No way. The adultery commandment covers all sexual sins, again, whether in thought, word, or deed. It’s the lust in your heart that’s the basic problem, not just the final act of lying with another man’s wife.

Brothers and sisters, we’ve all got an inner Pharisee within us. We want to think we’re good enough for God to be pleased with us. “I’m certainly a better person than those bad people over there.” This kind of relative righteousness comes naturally to us all. With a scribe’s lawyerliness, we try to make excuses for our behavior and rationalize our sin, as though God can’t see through what we’re doing.

So Jesus has to strip away this veneer of self-righteousness, lest we fool ourselves into thinking we’re good enough on our own. The righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees isn’t righteous enough. If we think it is, we’re not going to be interested in hearing about a Savior.

In the movie “Jaws,” there’s a scene where Sheriff Brody is at the back of the boat, and suddenly he sees the great shark they’ve been searching for. This shark is huge, much bigger than they imagined. Brody is stunned. He goes up into the cabin and he tells Quint, “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.”

Friends, that’s how it is with our trying to be righteous before God. You’re gonna need a bigger boat. You’re gonna need a bigger righteousness than anything you can come up with. God’s Law convicts us all. We all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. Oh, we may be outwardly respectable. We haven’t committed murder, we haven’t committed adultery, in the sense of the outward final act. But that’s not good enough. God’s Law extends to our inner thoughts, to the words that we speak, and to the acts that we do. To the wrong things we do and the right things we fail to do. The righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees isn’t going to cut it. You will not inherit eternal life that way. You will not enter the kingdom of heaven that way. You’re gonna need a bigger boat. You’re gonna need a bigger righteousness. You’re going to need a better righteousness.

Where are you going to find such a righteousness? Not within yourself. But there is one place where you will find it. And that is, in Jesus. He came to fulfill all righteousness. Jesus kept the Law of God perfectly, on our behalf. He always loved God with his whole heart. He always loved his neighbor as himself. Thought, word, and deed–everything done the way it’s supposed to be done. Righteousness fulfilled.

And yet, Jesus suffered the punishment that we poor sinners deserve–again, on our behalf. The judgment has been lifted off of you and placed onto him. And because Jesus is the holy Son of God, his sacrifice covers all our sins. And in exchange, he gives us all his righteousness. Now we are judged righteous before God, because we are connected to Christ by faith.

Where do we find Christ and the better righteousness he freely bestows? Well, you’ve come to the right place. Because the church is the boat where Jesus is in the boat with us. Thus we need not fear the jaws of death. Jesus has conquered death, as shown by his resurrection. And you have been joined to Jesus in baptism. Jesus gives you his righteousness right here in the church, in the Gospel, and in the Sacrament of his body and blood.

You’ve got Jesus—or, to put it another way, Jesus has got you. And so, you’ve got the better righteousness. It’s the only one that works. It’s the righteousness that Jesus freely gives you. And this really is . . . the Gospel of the Lord.

Published in: on February 16, 2020 at 1:48 am  Leave a Comment  
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