Unless Your Righteousness Exceeds…
Text: Matt. 5:21-37
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
In His Sermon on the Mount, there is a pivotal verse; one that serves as the key to understanding everything that our Lord is telling us on that hillside in that long set of lessons. Jesus said, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” And we do have to admit that the scribes and Pharisees had great righteousness, humanly speaking. It was their obsession. Through the centuries, the rabbis, the elders of the scribes and Pharisees, had expanded the Ten Commandments, the heart of God’s Law, in order to make sure that anyone following closely would not even come close to breaking one of these holy Ten. So they added fences of rules around the Commandments, layer upon layer, wall after wall after wall. By some counts there were 613 laws of the Pharisees, governing everything from their clothing and jewelry to food preparation and storage. 365 of them were “thou shall nots”. 248 were “thou shalls”. But all of them, all 613, were meant to increase and preserve the righteousness of the sons of Abraham.
“Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees…” And oh, how Christians through history have tried to follow suit and out-scribe the scribes and out-Pharisee the Pharisees. Monasteries and convents dictated the everyday clothing and haircuts of monks and nuns in an effort to increase their holiness. Men marched off to fight in crusades to win righteousness at the end of a sword. People refused to play cards or dance or eat certain foods, all to raise the bar on their righteousness.
“Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees…” And do we not do this too? We have our self-chosen causes, usually dictated by whichever way the winds are blowing culturally, making sure that we wear our support for such causes on our sleeves, or in our yards, or on our bumpers, or through our social media posts. We also come up with our own “thou shalls” and “thou shall nots”. We pick our sides, we choose our fights, we select our enemies—those unworthy unrighteous ones that we can pick apart publicly, or gossip about, or passively aggressively undermine. We make sure that others know exactly how hard we’re working for the kingdom, what crusades we’ve joined, how many hours we’re putting in to that righteousness.
“Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” There is something common to us all, whether Pharisee or medieval monk or modern-day social warrior. All of our righteousness—be it 613 rules of the elders or a public announcement of our good deeds today—all our righteousness is self-chosen, self-won, and self-glorifying. And we’re all guilty of it.
And that’s where Jesus comes in. When He tells us that our righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees, He’s not setting a low bar. Nor is He saying that we can accomplish it. How do we know? Because of His very next words: “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders is 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.” Jesus cuts right past all the external stuff, the shiny outer surface that remains unstained from things like visible violence and outright murder, and He says that even anger is cause for judgment and condemnation.
And then, because Jesus knows how we stubbornly want to protect our own self-chosen, self-won righteousness, that we always want to add a “Yes, Jesus, but…” He then goes on: “You have heard it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Not only is anger forbidden, now Jesus says that lust is also worthy of judgment before God; lust, which floats to the surface involuntarily, instinctually.
“Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees…” Jesus moves ever deeper into the chambers of our hearts and minds, even the ones we don’t like to look into, for a very specific reason. He explains the depths of these commandments so that they no longer speak only to our outward actions—like keeping our hands from killing or our feet from leading into the bedrooms of others—outward actions which can be governed by adding more rules and regulations. He tightens the Commandments around us to show how these Ten Commandments from God were always meant to speak not only to our outward life, but also to our inward thoughts and feelings. Jesus closes all the loopholes of the Law so that none of us—not scribe nor Pharisee, monk nor nun, not even we—can escape its accusations.
A question I frequently get asked any time I teach the Ten Commandments in confirmation class or at the college level or even in adult Bible studies is this: “Is it a sin if I…?” And the answer is almost always yes. It’s not always because of the outward action, but because of the motivation behind it. But why do we ask questions like this? Why did the rabbis and Pharisees spend centuries asking these questions and writing down their solutions? Why do we ask these questions today: Is it a sin if I…?
Why do we ask it? So that we can justify ourselves. But in today’s strict words from Jesus, we learn that we cannot justify ourselves. Something is not OK just because we’re the ones doing it. Something is not OK just because we think someone deserves it for doing something just as bad or worse. We can’t make things good between us and God with collections of rules and regulations, with “thou shalls” and “thou shall nots”.
And that’s the whole point. Today Jesus interprets the Law for us in the hardest and strictest way to show us that we cannot look to ourselves to be saved. We cannot make our righteousness better than the scribes and Pharisees, or anyone for that matter. No matter how shiny it looks on the outside, today’s lesson teaches us that there will something—some inner struggle that you might have, some secret sin or temptation, some recurring pattern, or ancient guilt—something will tarnish that righteousness we try to build on our own.
“Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees…” So we learn where to look to find that exceeding righteousness. It’s Jesus. It’s only Jesus. He alone is able to keep unholy anger in check and not hate any created child of God. He alone is able to look at every single person and not objectify a single one of them, but to love them purely as the miracle of God that they have been created to be. He alone weds His bride, the Church, and never once has it crossed His mind to leave her. He stands before Pilate and the Sanhedrin and lets His yes be yes and His no be no.
And then He says yes to you. He receives you and gives you all the perfect righteousness that is His, taking all the unrighteousness that is yours. Even though He has done all these Commandments perfectly, right down to their strictest demands, He allows Himself to be liable to judgment, for you. He suffers the hell of fire, separation from God, in your place, so that you never will.
“Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” But thanks be to God that you will enter it. You will because your righteousness is not your own. It’s Jesus’ perfect righteousness that exceeds that of anyone else. What is His has become yours. And now in that righteousness, transformed by it, you can move forward in faith toward Him and in fervent love toward one another, loving your neighbor as yourself, without excuse and without reservation. Your Jesus has made you righteous. Rejoice in the peace of understanding that. Rejoice in the heaven that is yours. In the name of Jesus, our Righteousness. Amen.