July 28, 2019
“For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
These are frightening words from our Lord Jesus, aren’t they? Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, then you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Never, ever. Well, what does Jesus mean by “your righteousness”? Righteousness usually refers to your right conduct under the law. Those who do good are righteous. Those who do bad are unrighteous. God sets the standard for what is right or wrong. If you want to be righteous, then you must do what God says, you must live up to his standard. The obvious way to do this is to follow the Ten Commandments. You must live as God teaches you in Scripture.
Now, we’re used to thinking of the scribes and Pharisees as the bad guys, because they are Jesus’ main antagonists during his earthly ministry. Yet, we should remember, the scribes and Pharisees did a good job of following the Ten Commandments, at least outwardly. They did not worship other gods or swear falsely. They read and listened to the Scriptures regularly, going to synagogue and attending all the required ceremonies surrounding the temple. They paid their taxes, they didn’t murder, they didn’t comit adultery, they didn’t steal. They tithed, meaning, they gave a tenth of all that they made to God. They really did look like examples of righteous living. You may not like the scribes and Pharisees, but you have to admit that they do a pretty good job.
So, what is lacking in the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees? If they are so good, how can we possible have a righteousness exceed theirs? Well, Jesus tells us what is lacking. In Matthew chapter 23 Jesus says, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.”
So, you see, the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees is lacking, because it is superficial. It is only on the outside, while their hearts are far from righteous. And, if you pay attention to what Jesus teaches, he wants us to be righteous on the inside, in our very heart, not just in our outward actions. So, the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees is far from sufficient to enter heaven. Oh, how the mighty have fallen! And while it may feel good to watch the haughty get knocked down from their pedestals, this really isn’t good news for us either. If our outward righteousness does not live up to the snuff of the scribes and Pharisees, how about our inward righteousness? Are we more righteous than they on the inside? Well, examine your heart. Are you? Do you not only do good, but want to do good from the heart both to God and to your neighbor?
No, when we examine our own hearts, we see that we are in the same predicament as these religious elitists. And when we hear what Jesus says about the human heart, it is enough to throw us into despair. He says, “Out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander.” (Matthew 15:19) It is as God says by the Prophet Jeremiah, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9) So how can we, whose hearts are by nature sick beyond understanding, obtain a righteousness that exceeds that of the Pharisees, that is, a righteousness that makes the heart pure? Let us listen to a former Pharisee, who exchanged his lacking righteousness with the only kind that gives eternal life.
St. Paul, who, you might remember, was a zealous Pharisee before his miraculous conversion on the road to Damascus, wrote in Philippians chapter 3, “Though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith...” (vss. 4-9)
St. Paul despairs of his own Pharisaic righteousness under the law, a righteousness that depended on his own works, and instead he clings to a foreign righteousness, to be received by faith. The righteousness, which surpasses that of the Scribes and Pharisees is Christ’s own righteousness. Jesus Christ alone has lived under the law perfectly. He is the one who has fulfilled the Law and the Prophets in human flesh. And he gives us this righteousness to be received by faith and not by our own works.
St. Paul discovered that his best works were still lacking. Even if he got to choose only his very best works, and could cover up all the evil thoughts of his heart, his good works would still be lacking. The righteousness he needed, which we all need, is Christ’s.
This is why Jesus came into the world. He came to fulfill all righteousness. This means that he, as a human being, actively obeyed God’s law; not just outwardly, but from his very heart. Jesus truly loved God with his whole heart and loved his neighbor as himself. Of course, Jesus did not need to do this for his own sake. Jesus has been righteous from all eternity, long before he became man. But he became man in order that he could be righteous for us and in order that he could give us his righteousness by grace, as a gift. St. Peter writes, “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous one for the unrighteous ones, that he might bring us to God.” (1 Peter 3:18a)
Christ Jesus not only performed that which is righteous on our behalf, but he suffered what we deserve for our unrighteousness. This is called the great exchange. Christ gives us his righteousness; we give him our unrighteousness. Christ gives us eternal life and salvation; we give him death and condemnation, which he endured on the cross. This is how Jesus fulfilled all righteousness. This is how he fulfilled everything written in the Law and the Prophets. He not only lived in obedience to God’s righteous law, but he fulfilled every promise of God in order to give that righteousness to us.
The Law and the Prophets, which is another way of saying, the Old Testament, prophecy about Jesus Christ. They promised that God would send a Messiah to save his people from their sins. The righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees was lacking, because they relaxed this teaching and they taught others to relax it as well. They taught people to trust in their own righteousness, which could never get them into heaven, instead of trusting in the promised Christ, taught throughout the Law and the Prophets.
The Prophet Jeremiah prophesied, “Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell securely. And this is the name by which he will be called: ‘The LORD is our righteousness.” (Jeremiah 23:5-6) Jesus fulfilled this prophecy by becoming man, by perfectly fulfilling the law, and by dying to redeem his people. The Pharisees’ righteousness is lacking, because it rejects the LORD as the only true righteousness. It rejects Jesus. All righteousness that rejects Jesus is lacking.
We are declared righteous through faith in what Jesus has done for us, not on account of our own good works. Yet, that does not mean that we Christians do not do good works or that we can just continue in sin, as if what we do does not matter. Rather, if you are in possession of Christ’s righteousness through faith, then you too will produce works of righteousness. We, who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death, so that we might also rise like him to walk in newness of life. Having been joined to Christ’s death and resurrection, we are no longer enslaved to sin, but Christ has set us free. We are dead to sin and alive to righteousness. God has made us instruments of his righteousness.
This righteousness manifests itself, as you can tell from Jesus’ teaching, in loving our neighbor. Those who love God also love their neighbors. The righteousness of Christ, which faith places within our hearts leads us to not only refrain from murder, but to actually curb our anger toward our neighbor and to be reconciled with him as quickly as possible. Christ’s righteousness leads us to not only refrain from fornication and adultery, but to refrain from lust in the heart. This is the natural response to possessing Christ’s righteousness through faith.
Yet, we must take note of a few things when we consider the works of righteousness, which our faith in Jesus leads us to do. First, while good works are necessary for Christians to do, they are not what save us. Consider the thief, who hung to the right of Jesus on the cross. I don’t think we can find a man, who died with more certainty of his eternal salvation. Jesus actually said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:43) Yet, what good works did this thief do? He was converted to the faith on the cross and he died that same day on the cross. Yet, he has certainty of his eternal salvation apart from any works.
We must be careful that we do not trust in our good works instead of Christ’s righteousness. Keeping track of our own good works is a dangerous thing, because it leads us to trust in these works. Rather, Jesus teaches us that when we do works of righteousness, to not let our left hand know what our right hand is doing. Our faith must always center on Jesus. This will not hinder us from doing our own good works. Our very faith in Christ Jesus is what empowers us to do works of righteousness; not the law.
The law is still useful to us Christians. Yet, our relationship with the law is quite different than that of the Pharisees and scribes. They thought that they could make themselves righteous by observing the law. We, however, already know that we are righteous through faith in Jesus Christ. He has forgiven us all our sins through his death and resurrection. Rather, we look at the law as an aid, a helper to teach us how to do what we truly desire to do from the heart on account of our faith in Christ. The law is our tool, our instrument, not our master. Christ’s righteousness has freed us from our bonds under the law.
In this life, we will continue to fail to live the righteous life, which our faith has called us to live. St. Paul himself laments this when he says, “For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.” (Romans 7:18-19) As long as we live on this side of the resurrection, we will experience this struggle between our new self, which bears the righteousness of Christ, and our old self which still wants to serve sin.
And this is why it is so important that we recognize where our true righteousness is. It is in Christ. It is always in Christ. When we sin, we repent and turn to Christ for forgiveness and we are assured that through faith in him that we have a righteousness that guarantees us our place in heaven. Whether we think we are doing really well holding at bay our worst vices, or whether those vices soil our conscience, our righteousness always remains in Christ. He is where we turn in good days and in evil. He is the one, who gives us certainty of eternal life. Jesus alone. On account of Jesus, we are not terrified when Jesus says, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Because we have such a righteousness. We have Christ’s righteousness through faith. Amen.