Trinity 6, 2017
Rev. Benjamin Tyler Holt
A good Sunday School question is “Are the Pharisees righteous?”
We’ve all been taught, and rightly, that they were not. They crucified our Lord. They murdered Him.
In one of His woes to the scribes and Pharisees, 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” (Matthew 23:27-28).
In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus teaches the Law perfectly; and we need Him to do that because we don’t get the Law.
We think we get it. We say we’d like to get it. But when it comes to getting the full-sternness of the Law, we Pharisees and hypocrites. We don’t get it, and we don’t want to.
Here’s what I mean. Are you a murderer?
Your first thought isn’t yes, because we know what murder is and we haven’t done it. Jesus’ words today show us that it’s not that simple. God defines what murder is and where it begins. Not you.
Jesus 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” (Matthew 5:21-22).
There’s a profound difference in the way Jesus interprets the Law and the way the Pharisees and all of us interpret the Law.
According to the Pharisees, here’s the Law, “You shall not murder,” and, should you murder, here’s the punishment, “[You] will be liable to judgment.” That’s what was said to those of old.
What you need to understand, if you’ve never thought of it this way before, is that the Pharisees really did think themselves blameless regarding Jesus’ death.
We say they crucified Him, but they didn’t. The Romans did the deed. The Pharisees just watched it happen. And to a Pharisee, that makes all the difference.
After Jesus’ betrayal and arrest, “When morning came, all the chief priests and the elders of the people took counsel against Jesus to put him to death. And they bound him and led him away and delivered him over to Pilate the governor” (Matthew 27:1-2). They wanted to put him to death. But they wanted to keep the Law. They didn’t want to commit murder themselves, so they deliver Jesus to Pilate. If they get Pilate to do it, they’re innocent.
That’s what a whitewashed tomb looks like. That’s what a Pharisee looks like. Ultimately, that’s what works without faith looks like.
The Pharisees understood the Law to punish the violent act. So, if you avoid the violent act, you avoid the punishment contained in the Law. That makes sense, but it’s wrong.
Jesus is right.
Jesus understands the Law to prevent the violent act.
Not only shall you not murder. You shall do nothing that can lead to murder: anger, insults, cursing, name-calling. These you shall not do.
The Pharisees’ definition of the Law excuses themselves. They have works, but they lack faith.
Jesus’ definition of the Law accuses, kills, and breaks everyone. “Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him” (1 John 3:15). But Jesus teaches this way so that you may turn and be healed. Then, faith produces the works that prevent the violent act.
When Jesus says, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven,” (Matthew 5:20), we are to discern between the whitewashed righteousness of the Pharisees that cannot save and the true righteousness that saves sinners.
So, are the Pharisees righteous?
Yes, but not in any good way. They’re righteous by works—by comparison—by declaring themselves to be innocent and changing their definition of guilty whenever needed. These are whitewashed tombs and hypocrites.
True righteousness, righteousness that saves, is a righteousness that God puts on you by faith, by God declaring you righteous for Christ’s sake, by God defining the Law in such a way as to exclude the possibility of your keeping it and sacrificing our holy and blameless Lord, who did keep it, so that, through Him, all and only those who believe in Him would be saved.
Pharisees define righteousness as what you do. Living a certain way. Doing certain things. But that’s not a righteousness by which you can live eternally.
Paul writes, “the just [the righteous] shall live by faith” (Romans 1:17).
Righteousness, primarily, is not what you do but who God declares you to be for Christ’s sake.
He declares you righteous when you hear His Word and believe (Romans 10:17).
He declares you righteous when you put on Christ in Holy Baptism (cf. Galatians 3:27).
He declares you righteous when you believe that you are received into favor, and that your sins are forgive for Christ’s sake, who, by His death, has made satisfaction for your sins. This faith God counts as righteousness in His sight (cf. Augsburg Confession IV).
Now, if I tell you to do something, you can only check it off the list once you’ve done it.
I know how obvious that sounds, but it’s important; because, if I tell you to believe the Lord forgives you. Or if I tell you to wait for His return and trust that He loves you. If I tell you to hope in God, you can only check that off the list when He does it.
The exhortation to believe is not giving you a work to accomplish. Neither is telling you to wait or trust or hope. You accomplish those things by doing nothing. And by God doing it all.
Telling someone to believe in the Lord Jesus is telling a starving, dying man to eat the food you’ve put into his lap and to rejoice.
That’s what Jesus teaches. That’s what He says.
In fact, that Jesus says the things He does is why the Jews seek to kill Him.
It’s not the content of His teaching but rather His authority that they want to kill.
It’s not the content they despise but His authority.
Later Rabbis agree with Jesus’ teaching: “Whoever hates his neighbor is to be counted among those who shed his blood” (Babylonian Talmud Qiddusin 28), that’s from the Babylonian Talmud, the Jewish civil and ceremonial law, which dates from the fifth century and before. From the same source, “If anyone makes the face of a companion pale before a crowd, it is as if he shed blood” (Babylonian Talmud Bab Mesi’a 58b).
The Pharisees hate that Jesus speaks as one who, Himself, has authority.
Jesus says, “But I say to you…” (Matthew 5:22).
The hypocritical Pharisees and Jews of Jesus’ day “cannot accept…as the Word of God the utterances of a man who speaks in his own name—not ‘thus says the Lord’ but ‘I say unto you’” (Garland, Reading Matthew, pg. 64, quoting A. Ginsberg).
The Jews couldn’t believe it. They wouldn’t believe it.
Why they killed Him is why we worship Him:
God speaks to us as our brother and friend to save those broken by the Law.
When Jesus says, “But I say to you…” it is, indeed, God Himself who’s speaking. He teaches us the Law so as to expose, beneath the whitewash, the tomb of death.
We don’t need our righteous works. We don’t need our righteousness.
We need His righteous work. His sacrifice. His love. His shed blood. We need Jesus.
We need His righteousness.
And, by faith, by the Holy Spirit who is at work in the word proclaimed, poured out, and eaten, by faith, the righteousness of Christ is yours.
Then, we hear Jesus’ words, the true teaching and meaning of the Law, and we can see exactly how to love our neighbor. How we can help them.
Peace, not anger. Patience, not insults. Forgiveness, not curses.
In Jesus’ name, Amen!