For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
21 “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ 22 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. 23 So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. 25 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. 26 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.
Pretty tall order. One thing about the Scribes and Pharisees, they had an earthly righteousness that was hard to touch. They took the law seriously. They did their best to follow it. In the eyes of the world they were a show in for heaven. And Jesus here says it is insufficient. Your righteousness has to exceed theirs if you want to enter in to the kingdom of heaven.
He then starts explaining the law. Showing how it condemns. Few of us have ever taken another person’s life, not with our own hands. But few of us can ever say we haven’t been angry with our brother. “You fool” seems to be a rather light hearted insult compared to the insults we normally use. I’ve never heard of a child’s mouth being washed out for saying fool. Jesus says it makes us liable for hell. Now what are you going to do? This is why our righteousness needs to exceed that of the Pharisees. And yours does not, not even in the eyes of men.
So we have a dilemma. Righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, righteousness that qualifies us for the kingdom of heaven is unattainable by our own efforts. Nothing we do can qualify us. Even the thought that it can or does shows us just how messed up we really are. I mean here it is folks. We think we have done something really great when we get involved with charity, when we go to work at the church, when we get involved with the youth in town and coach little league or something. And we really like people who do this sort of thing. People who seem to naturally put others ahead of themselves. We do love them. They are rewarded richly on earth because it seems so extraordinary. And on earth it often is. That’s the sad thing. But when measured against God’s law, does it really add up? Is it really extraordinary?
Take God for example, and the patience and love he shows towards mankind, does anything we do compare with what he has done? Does anything compare with the generosity with which he gives us and all evil people daily bread, despite our sin? And what have we done that we weren’t supposed to do, that we weren’t actually obligated to do when the greatest commandment is to Love God with all your heart, mind and soul, and the second one like it, to love your neighbor as yourself. And rather in a fit of anger we call our brother a fool. If we truly loved God with all our heart with all our soul and all our mind, we would not have to be told to love our neighbors as ourselves, for we would love those whom God loves. And that is the kicker, there aren’t any for whom God has no love. That is why he gives them their daily bread, that is why he sent his son to die for them, just as he sent him to die for you, because when it comes to God’s law, we are all in the same boat and liable to the hell of fire. This is why Jesus tells us to love our enemies. Oh, and just as earthly righteousness has its earthly rewards, so earthly crimes have their earthly punishments. God rewards our good works on earth, sometimes we don’t see it, but he does. Even as evil is punished. Yet when we are done with everything we do, we have only done what we are obligated to do by the command to love, we have nothing to show too God as being extraordinary, nothing we have done pays any of the debt we have accumulated over the years, calling our brother a fool. I mean if that makes us liable for the hell of fire, what about all the times I punched him in the face? How about all the times I invoked the name of God to curse him to hell? And we are so messed up in our thinking that in our minds it is easier to hear God’s name invoked as a profanity than to hear an “F-bomb”. No, we have nothing to show, even after doing the best work we have, we have nothing to say to God, but that we are unworthy servants.
Unworthy servants, and yet servants of God nonetheless. We have not become his servants by acts of our own righteousness. It is not any righteousness of our own that has allowed us to enter the kingdom of heaven. No, the righteousness that has allowed us to serve God in his kingdom here in time and for all eternity is a righteousness that surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, it is the righteousness of God. It is the righteousness of God that we receive by faith, a gift of God given to us in baptism, a righteousness we partake in daily as we stand before God and repent of our sins, and pray, it is a righteousness we are given week in and week out as we approach the Lord’s table to receive the sacrifice he offered once and for all on behalf of our sin on the Cross. It is there that God has made his righteousness known to all the world, it is a righteousness found in love and mercy, a love and mercy that compelled God himself to become one of us, to live under the law as one of us, to fulfill it completely, and offer himself as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. It is this righteousness that is extraordinary and pays our debts, and makes us who are liable to the hell of fire into his servants in everlasting innocence, righteousness and blessedness. Amen.