July 8, 2018
“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.”
Is Jesus giving legal advice here? But what if no one is suing me? For how many of us does this legal advice even apply? In fact, it applies to every single one of us. Jesus is not giving us legal advice for being sued in an earthly court. He is telling us how to be prepared to stand before the judgment seat of God. Everyone will stand before God’s judgment throne and give an account of all their deeds, both good and bad. The plaintiff, who will accuse you before this court is the Law of God itself, which we just heard in our Old Testament lesson: The Ten Commandments. Every transgression you’ve committed against this Law will be presented before the court. And if you are found guilty in this court, you will be thrown into the prison called hell, where you will pay the penalty of your debt for eternity.
How then can you come to terms with this accuser? What is your legal defense? Are you going to plead not-guilty to breaking the Ten Commandments? Have you had no other gods before the LORD God? Have you honored your parents and all authorities in life? Have you abstained from murder, adultery, and theft? Perhaps you think you have. “I don’t worship Allah or a golden statue. I don’t get into legal trouble. I’ve never killed anyone, cheated on my wife, or stolen anything.”
And, this probably is how most people plan to defend themselves when they get their day in God’s court. But Jesus himself destroys this defense. “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...” Jesus teaches us the true meaning of the commandment. The commandment isn’t simply concerned with your outward expression. That is how the Pharisees treat the Law, who, Jesus says, are like whitewashed tombs, who are clean on the outside but filthy on the inside. No, the commandment is concerned with the intent of your heart.
Yet, even this rebuttal from Jesus doesn’t deter the human pride. “I’m justified in my anger! So-and-so has done me wrong, so I have a right to be angry with him.” You do? Okay, then. Give your defense before the judgment seat of God. Tell him that you are justified in your anger and are not guilty of breaking this commandment. See how that goes for you.
But this is another example of the righteousness of the Pharisees. The Pharisees’ righteousness is hypocritical and self-justifying. They don’t actually care for their neighbor. If you are truly justified in your anger, then go to your brother with whom you are angry and tell him! Confront the one who has sinned against you and seek repentance, so that you can forgive! No? You won’t do this? You just want to remain “justifiably angry?” Then your justification for being angry is in serious doubt. Righteous anger seeks to make a wrong right through repentance and forgiveness. Righteous anger doesn’t stew and hate. This is not the righteousness of God, but the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees.
Jesus says, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” You can’t defend yourself in God’s court by saying, “Well, I’m not perfect, but I’m better than most people.” That won’t cut it. You have to be perfect. Your righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees. And their outward righteousness, which is the only kind of righteousness you can see with your eyes, surpasses them all.
So, how can you have a righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees? Well, you have to have a better righteousness. So, first we have to learn a little more about the righteousness of these religious elites. We already know that theirs is an outward righteousness. They claim to keep the commandment, “You shall not murder,” even while wishing and even demanding that the Governor Pilate crucify Jesus. (They apparently think the commandment says, “Your hands shall not murder, but your mouth and heart may.”) But why is the Pharisees’ righteousness purely outward? It starts with their teaching. The Pharisees teach that you are saved by your works. Their purpose for doing good works is entirely selfish. They don’t refrain from murder out of love for their neighbor. They don’t murder, so that they won't be found guilty. Yet, their heart has no care for their neighbor’s physical safety.
This is a completely different type of righteousness than the one Jesus wants you to have. The Pharisees’ righteousness is external, hypocritical, and phony. The righteousness you need to be saved is internal, sincere, and true.
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.” and “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.” The righteous works of the Pharisees are inferior, because their teaching is inferior. They relax the commandments of God and teach others to do the same. But the Law and the Prophets are not only about outward works.
The Law and the Prophets refer to the books of the Old Testament. This certainly includes the Ten Commandments. Yet, the Law of Moses is not all law. Within the Old Testament there are also many promises: promises of a Savior, who will crush Satan’s head, be born of a virgin, be stricken for the transgressions of God’s people and rise from the dead and sit on the throne of David forever. Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament scriptures not only by perfectly obeying the Ten Commandments, both inwardly and outwardly, but by fulfilling every prophecy of the Savior. Every sacrifice made in the Old Testament by men of God was a prophecy pointing to Christ Jesus, who would die on the cross. And in his suffering and death for the sins of the world, Jesus fulfilled these prophecies.
Jesus is God. He didn’t need to submit himself to the Law. But he became a man, so that he could fulfill the demands of the Law in your stead. You have broken the Ten Commandments. Jesus obeyed them and gives you the credit through faith. Jesus had no sin whatsoever, but he bore the sins of all people and suffered the punishment for them. When we see Jesus dying on the cross, we don’t simply see the sorry sight of an innocent man falsely condemned to die. We see the righteous judgment of God against every sin ever committed and to be committed. This means that when the Law accuses you as you go to God’s court, you do not try to come to terms with it by justifying your actions and eschewing the blame. No, when the Law accuses you, you point to Jesus on the cross and say: “There is my righteousness. I believe were sinners more than sand upon the ocean floor that Jesus has paid the full ransom and made atonement for them all, including me!” You come to terms with your accuser through repenting of your sins and trusting in Jesus, who is the only one who has fulfilled all righteousness.
You are declared righteous by God through faith in Jesus Christ. Through faith Jesus gives you a righteousness that far exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees. With this righteousness you have assurance that your sins are forgiven, that God is pleased with you, and that you will be safe as you stand before God’s judgment throne on the Last Day. This is a righteousness that you cannot see, but dwells within your heart. So, what then becomes of your outward righteousness? Well, you don’t need it to be saved. So, why then do you show love for your brother? Because you actually love him. The righteousness you have through faith in Jesus causes you to desire to love your brother. This isn’t rooted in outward actions, but inwardly.
The unbeliever looks at the righteousness through faith and says, “Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?” But the believer responds, “How can we who died to sin still live in it?” Through Baptism and faith in Christ, you die to sin and arise a new person. The righteousness that dwells in you through faith in Christ produces outward works of righteousness from the inside out. Jesus says in Matthew chapter 13, “For to the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.” To those who have Christ’s righteousness through faith, more righteousness will be produced through them in outward works of love. But to those who do not have this righteousness of Christ through faith, even their outward works of righteousness will be taken away from them. God will not accept them, because without faith it is impossible to please God. (Hebrews 11:6)
Having been justified by God through faith in Jesus Christ, the Law cannot accuse you of sin. You are no longer its debtor. Yet, now you are free to do good works, which exceed those of the scribes and Pharisees; good works, which start from the heart. This is why Jesus also tells you to leave your gift at the altar if you remember that your brother has something against you. Being a Christian is not simply about having a good relationship with God. It is about having a good relationship with your fellow Christians as well. Your relationship with God is vertical. Your relationship with your fellow Christian in horizontal. This is what Jesus teaches us in the Lord’s Prayer, when we pray, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Our faith in the forgiveness of sins from our heavenly Father is inextricably connected to the forgiveness we grant our brothers and sisters. This is because the forgiveness God gives you through Jesus, he also gives to your fellow Christian. When you forgive others, you confess the forgiveness of sins freely given for Christ’s sake.
Nowhere is this vertical and horizontal relationship more visible than at the Communion rail. And this is why it is so important to forgive those who have sinned against you and to repent to those, whom you have sinned against before you receive Communion. When you partake of the true body and blood of Jesus you are not simply expressing fellowship vertically with God. This isn’t a personal meal just between you and God. You are also expressing fellowship with those around you, who partake of the same feast. This is why you shouldn’t commune at churches that teach false doctrine and then commune here where we teach and confess truthfully. This is also why you should reconcile yourself with those you are angry with or who are angry with you before you receive Communion. If you will not forgive your brother or sister or refuse to repent for the sin you’ve committed against your brother and sister, then you cannot receive Christ’s body and blood with a good conscience. That means that you would receive the Sacrament unworthily. Instead of receiving it for the increase of faith toward God and fervent love toward your fellow Christian, your reception of the Sacrament can cause spiritual harm and your faith and love will decrease.
So, how do you come to terms with your accuser as you go with him to court? Clearly not by justifying your own actions. Yet, you don’t even come to terms with your accuser by pointing out that you have forgiven others or been reconciled with your neighbor. Because of the weakness of human nature, we never accomplish this perfectly. You come to terms with your accuser only by pointing to Christ as your righteousness and fulfillment of the Law for you. St. Paul says of his outward works of righteousness, “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. … and being found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ.” (Philippians 3:8b,9a)
Let Christ Jesus be your defense attorney. Let him plead your case with his pierced hands and feet. Only Christ’s righteousness will give you the confidence to stand before God’s judgment throne without fear. And you receive this righteousness through faith alone. Amen.