Jesus says, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20).
Now, it’s easy to agree with Jesus, whatever He says.
When asked, “Do you agree with Jesus? What He says? What He does?” you’ll say, “Yes.”
So it’s not that we disagree with what Jesus says, “Your righteousness must exceed that of the Pharisees or you’ll never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20, paraphrase).
We agree. But that’s the easy part.
Do we understand—that’s much more difficult—and much more helpful.
Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you’ll never enter heaven.
And that’s not gonna be an easy task considering that Pharisees are men “set apart.”
That’s what “Pharisee” means: “set apart.”
The scribes and Pharisees took righteousness very seriously.
They didn’t commit crimes. They paid their taxes.
They gave a tenth of everything they owned to support the work of the church and to help the poor.
They didn’t commit adultery or steal.
They weren’t violent.
They lived clean, decent lives.
Too often, we draw, in our minds, a caricature of the Pharisees—“because they’re not fair you see”—and the Sadducees with them—“they’re so sad you see.”
But all that’s just the bleating of a sheep—“ba-ba-ba baa.”
The scribes and Pharisees did think themselves righteous, but—looking at their lives—we see why.
If our nation were filled with men like the scribes and Pharisees, it’d be a far more pleasant place to live.
Judging by appearances, the scribes and Pharisees were righteous men.
But Jesus says, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20, emphasis added).
The righteousness that avails to life everlasting, to the kingdom of heaven, must exceed all that.
In a way, that’s not good news, because outwardly, the scribes and Pharisees were the most righteous men around.
A Pharisee, of himself, would say that he keeps God’s Law.
But in today’s Gospel lesson—seemingly devoid of any Gospel—Jesus preaches the Law in such a way as to break and hinder all the false-righteousness of the Pharisees.
He 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).
Before Jesus has His say, the scribes and Pharisees were keepers of the Law—because they defined the Law in such a way as to make themselves capable of keeping it.
The type of righteousness the scribes and Pharisees excelled in—the type of righteousness of which even the unbeliever is capable—is not the type of righteousness that saves, the righteousness required for entry into the kingdom of heaven.
The scribes and Pharisees are righteous in their own eyes, in the eyes of men.
They are not righteous by faith in the Lord Jesus.
I’ve said before that unbelievers can’t obey God.
That only Christians can pray.
That only Christians can do good works.
This is what I mean.
If we’re talking about righteousness before men—like blameless Job or the requirement for overseers, pastors, to be “above reproach” (1 Timothy 3:2)—that’s not the righteousness that saves, faith trusting in Jesus.
That’s man in relation to man.
So yeah, unbelievers can be righteous—like the Pharisees—but this is righteousness only in the eyes of man and not in the eyes of God.
Jesus compares this righteousness, the righteousness of unbelievers, to whitewashed tombs.
He 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” (Matthew 23:27).
Now, basically, everything Jesus says has been said to destroy the righteousness of the Pharisees.
He’s teaching His disciples for the first time, and He needs to show them what true righteousness is.
The Pharisees aren’t righteous at all, because their righteousness is fleshly, self-righteousness: whitewashed, puffed up, and perfumed—hiding death.
Paul actually shames self-righteousness when he says, “If anyone…thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more” (Philippians 3:4).
What he means is, the righteousness of the Pharisees gains nothing.
He goes on: “Whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ…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 of God that depends on faith” (Philippians 3:7-9).
So when Jesus says, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees…,” He doesn’t mean that righteousness is on a sliding scale and you have to worry about doing enough.
God wants you to labor and hope.
Hope with certainty that the Lord and His Work saves.
Labor with compassion that you may help the one who is in need.
Today, Jesus wants you to know that true righteousness, heaven—faith in the Lord Jesus—is an either/or.
It’s a yes or no.
And you can be certain.
Either your God is the Lord and you’ll enter into Paradise, or your god is not the Lord and you won’t.
Yes, you believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and will enter into the kingdom of heaven, the kingdom of God.
Or…no, you don’t. And no, you won’t.
Jesus teaches this to show His disciples and us what the point of the Christ, our Savior, is.
If your righteousness is false, that is, if you carry your sin, if you try to forgive yourself, you’ll never run out of accusations, because you know you’ve murdered—been angry, called someone a fool, and cursed. If you carry your sin, you’ll never get out of the prison of hell.
But—if Jesus the Christ carries your sins, your burdens, if Jesus forgives you, the accuser is silenced, and—though you’ve murdered, been angry, and cursed—the Christ, whom you crucified, prays for your forgiveness: “Father, forgive them” and gives you peace: “Do not fear…Peace be with you.”
We confess in the Apostles’ Creed that Jesus descended into hell.
He did so to tell the devil that you won’t be showing up.
The self-righteous scribes and Pharisees will be there.
But not you.
Your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees because your righteousness is Jesus Christ, the Lord who lived and died and lives again, who calls you by name, who’s coming soon.
Today’s Gospel lesson is strange because of how Jesus teaches us to confess the faith.
We would never want to say that our righteousness exceeds—is greater than—anyone else’s.
But, Jesus says: “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20).
We very much want to find a way to compliment our unbelieving friends and family. We want to say that they’re good people, doing good works, serving their neighbor.
But “without faith it is impossible to please [God], for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him” (Hebrews 11:6).
St. Paul writes: “Whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (Romans 14:23).
It’s either/or. Yes or no.
The one who rejects Jesus in thought, word, and/or deed, rejects the righteousness that comes by faith, the righteousness required for entry into the kingdom of heaven.
Your righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees.
So, believe in Jesus.
Live your life as one who believes in Jesus.
Hear His Word and do it.
Confess your sins—your anger, your hatred, your cursing. Jesus calls all of those murder.
Confess them—flee from them—overcome those particular sins, even.
Sins cannot—sins do not—rule over a Christian.
Do we agree with Jesus? Of course we do.
But do we understand Him?
The Lord is our righteousness. We will enter into the kingdom.
So yes—we do.
In Jesus’ name, Amen!
Rev. Benjamin Tyler Holt
The Sixth Sunday after Trinity, 2018