For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
11 no one understands;
no one seeks for God.
12 All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;
no one does good,
not even one.”
21 “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ 22 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. 23 So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. 25 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. 26 Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny
Well, does your righteousness exceed the scribes and the Pharisees?
The Pharisees were, in the eyes of some, at least, exceedingly righteous:
Josephus said several times that the Pharisees were "experts in the interpretation of the Law"
The Talmud claims the Torah contains 613 laws, 365 negative commands and 248 positive laws. And the Pharisees, no doubt, sought to keep them all.
The wearing of phylacteries and tassels,
The careful observance of ritual purity – no touching dead bodies, no going into the house of a gentile like Pilate,
Distinctions in oaths,
And, of course, rigorous observation of the Sabbath Day.
And not only did they seek to follow all these laws themselves, they taught the law. They were the authorities on the law. If “you have heard it said”, there's a good chance it's because the Pharisees taught it. They were the Law of Moses cheerleaders par excellence.
Unless you can do better than that – unless you can hurdle that high bar of law-following, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Unless your righteousness exceeds even the most righteous you can think of – you're already lost.
And I suppose very few of us could go toe-to-toe with the righteousness of the Pharisees and come out looking very good. Tithing? Fasting? Ritual purity?
To an outward observer, an unbiased judge, we'd probably lose the righteousness contest every time.
But Jesus is being a bit facetious here. For he knows well that the righteousness of the Pharisees is a sham. They are hypocrites. Their righteousness is thin and flimsy, and it only hides the rot that lies within. Jesus' words of woe for the Pharisees and their so-called righteousness are recorded later in Matthew's Gospel. Here's just a taste of it:
Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, 2 “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses' seat, 3 so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do.For they preach, but do not practice. 4 They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people's shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger. 5 They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, 6 and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues 7 and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others....
13 “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people's faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in.15 Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.
You know we're so used to seeing the Pharisees as the bad guys – the opponents of Jesus – the self-important, smug, know-it-all hypocrites. We love looking on from the sidelines and watching Jesus beat them in verbal sparring matches, and we love to watch them fall flat when they try to trip him up and trap him in his words. Go Jesus! Smack those villains. Child of hell, yeah, get 'em! Woe to them, right on!
Woe to them! And woe to you, too, who aren't even as righteous as they are. If your righteousness needs to exceed theirs, and that's what he says about THEM. Then where does that leave you?
Our text shows one example of how horribly impossible it is for us to keep the law. The 5th Commandment, you shall not murder. Pretty straightforward. What percentage of people do you think suppose they've kept this? Most of us have never taken a human life. But don't imagine that makes you righteous. For Jesus shows the true law behind the law. The inward law, if you will, that covers not just the deed but also the word and thought. Harsh words. Insults. Ridicule of your brother. Even anger in your heart – all of these are grounds for judgment. All of these mean you are not righteous. All of this means you are, and ever will be, outside of the kingdom. All of this means you, too, are liable to judgment.
St. Paul, who knew a thing or two about the righteousness of Pharisees, has this to say (Romans 6):What then? Are we Jews any better off?No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, 10 as it is written:
“None is righteous, no, not one;
But there is one whose righteousness exceeds the Pharisees. There is only one, in fact, who was ever righteous on his own merits. There is one who never inherited sin from his Father. There is one kept every dot and dash of the law. And that one, of course, is Jesus, the Christ.
He was like us in every way, yet without sin. He was humble and gentle. He returned no man evil for evil. He turned the other cheek. He kept no wealth for himself, but had no place to lay his head. He always put others before himself. He had compassion on so many. He always spoke the truth, and spoke it with love. He was not hot-tempered, or rude, or impatient or unkind. He fulfilled the law. He fulfilled all righteousness. He did all things well.
He did get angry, but justly, unlike so much of our anger. Zeal for the Father's house consumed him. His righteous anger that drove the moneychangers from the temple was but a hint of the righteous anger of the eternal judge who will one day cast all the wicked far away from his eternal presence. But that's a far different kind of anger from you and I, who are indignantly offended when some other sinner wrongs us or disregards us with some minor slight, real or imagined.
But Jesus' righteousness is a perfect righteousness. He submitted to his Father in all things – actively fulfilling the law on our behalf. And passively becoming obedient, even unto death, even death on a cross.
For us. For you. So that his righteousness is yours. So that his law-fulfilling benefits you. So that when God sees you, he sees you through Christ – and says, well done, good and faithful servant. His righteous anger at you and your sin is turned aside – for it was already poured out on Christ.
He is arrested and imprisoned. He stands before the judge in your stead. He answers the accuser for you. And he pays the sentence, covers the debt. His blood pays every last penny you owe for your sin.
So, does your righteousness exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees? No. And theirs was nothing to crow about anyway. But your righteousness isn't what counts. You have Christ's righteousness, and that makes all the difference. In Christ, you are righteous. In Christ, the kingdom of heaven is yours. Believe it for Jesus' sake. Amen.