For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
 "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.  So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you,  leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.  Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison.  Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny. Matthew 5:20-26 (ESV)
For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
The Righteousness of Scribes and Pharisees, Your righteousness must exceed that. It’s a strange statement. Jesus normally is berating the scribes and Pharisees for hypocrisy and other things, but here he all but assumes they are righteous. The truth is they had a modicum of righteousness, and they excelled at it. It was a human, civil righteousness, the kind of righteousness that makes one righteous in the eyes of one’s neighbor but not in the eyes of God. It is the kind of righteousness many confuse with righteousness before God, the kind achieved by human endeavor. And there is a kind of righteousness that can be achieved by human endeavor, the kind that makes a person think of another as being a good person, when Jesus says there is only one who is good, and means that only God is good. There is only one righteous and that is God. The righteousness God requires is much more than human endeavor can accomplish. It is a lot more than the augenschein that we are used to considering as righteousness, and yet it is this righteousness that we need should we want to enter into the kingdom of heaven.
Most take this as an invitation to out Pharisee the Pharisees, to beat them at their own hypocritical game. The Pharisees tithed mint and dill, I’ll tithe my potatoes too! You know this game, it is a silly one. It’s one where people try to excel at the law. It normally ends up being a game where one begins to ignore God’s law, and replace it with his own ideas of right and wrong. This is an effective game, for the devil. It is quite good at deceiving neighbors and possibly even whole cultures, but it is not good at making anyone righteous or deceiving God. And thankfully, it only deceives your neighbors for a season or two, well normally.
We are familiar with this game, it is a game that stifles life and culture. It is a game that ends up forbidding coffee, and turning a blind eye to fornication. It is a game that occupies itself with making it hard to find a drink and lets the financial industry rob the poor blind as it allows for usury. All in an attempt to uphold an appearance, an augenschein of righteousness. But then the laws don’t seem to help, most often they seem to just exacerbate the problems. Something is wrong when teenagers find it easier to buy Marijuana, oxycotin, meth, or heroin than they do a six pack or cigarettes. But I’m sure the underlying problem can be solved by another law…
See that is the law’s lie, it holds out hope that another law can solve that problem, and then another law, and another law, and finally you have something like the fence the Pharisees built with 600 some laws meant to keep you from breaking the Ten Commandments, and yet it never worked. It could not produce righteousness. The Pharisees became nothing but whitewashed tombs, sepulchers painted white. Not only did they fail to enjoy life, they failed to accomplish that which they set out to do.
And this is the upshot of so many of these games. They take the joy out of life, and God meant for life to be enjoyed, it’s a gift, and then they fail to produce that which they promised, righteousness. If one could be righteous at all, one would have exceeded the righteousness of Pharisees. There is no righteousness where the law is concerned. It just entangles you in a web of deceit.
But there is another way, not of law but of Gospel, Christ’s way. Jesus knows how to make us more righteous than the Pharisees, he declares us righteous by fiat of his own death and resurrection into which we have been joined through baptism, where we were buried with him into his death, that just as he was risen by the power of God we too might walk in the newness of life. Yes the newness of life, life that has been declared righteous despite its sin, life that has been restored despite the death that it deserves. Life given once again, and again, and again in the forgiveness of sins, as often as it is needed, a righteousness given. For it is the righteousness of Christ, the righteousness he gives in baptism, the righteousness he gives in the new testament he sealed with his blood, the righteousness he gives in the forgiveness of sins that exceeds that of the Pharisees. And it is this righteousness that breathes fresh breath of joy into life, even joy amidst happiness, joy amidst a pain, joy amidst accomplishment, joy amidst sorrow. And this righteousness, it doesn’t go unnoticed. It becomes contagious as friends and neighbors notice you don’t care to keep up appearances, that you have no time for augenschein righteousness, but live life in love for others. See because when you are righteous, you don’t have to pretend to be righteous, and you know your righteousness is not a matter of law, much less man made law, but a matter of Christ, and the forgiveness of sins.